Jennifer Jason Leigh: Cinema’s Most Daring Dame

Jennifer Jason Leigh 1Remember the movie, PCU? No, Jennifer Jason Leigh isn’t in the film. It’s a college comedy starring Jeremy Piven and Jon Favreau as campus clowns battling the politically correct tone that has taken over their university… but I digress. Anyway, in the film there’s a character named Pigman (played by Jody Racicot) who’s doing his thesis on the film careers of Gene Hackman and Michael Caine, due to their abundance of great work. During PCU’s climax, Pigman comes across A Bridge Too Far, a movie featuring both Hackman and Caine to which Pigman triumphantly exclaims that this pairing is the crux of his thesis. The reason I bring up this little film tidbit is that I recently had my own personal “Pigman moment” when I happened upon the title Crooked Hearts co-starring two of my favorite actresses, Juliette Lewis and the aforementioned Leigh. Now, in a future installment I will happily detail the career of the powerhouse that is Lewis, but this time I’m going to delve into the incredible talent of the illustrious Leigh.

I always forget that Leigh is actually the daughter of the late Vic Morrow, which is living proof that Morrow did something much more admirable than slapping Brandon Cruz in The Bad News Bears. Anyway, while Leigh garnered a smattering of roles in the late ‘70s, she first came to my attention in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which is one of the greatest films ever made (sorry, Citizen Kane). The high school comedy from writer Cameron Crowe featured Leigh as Stacy Hamilton, a girl who’s new to the world of sex and who must deal with the various teenage foibles associated with acclimating oneself to such relationships, including getting pregnant during an awkward romp with Robert Romanus. Movie Fanfare readers may recall that I’ve mentioned this scene in a previous article on the darker side of sex in cinema, because it’s certainly an effective one and it’s also an early indication that Leigh wasn’t afraid to take chances and possessed plenty of guts. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that Leigh bared her soul (in more ways than one) for a part, and it was only the beginning of a growing resume that would include extremely vulnerable or disturbed and seedy characters, as the case may be. What ever the role calls for, Leigh always throws herself into it, and the results are usually never less than awe-inspiring.

Later, Leigh would take on a pair of daring roles in the mid-eighties. Flesh + Blood finds Leigh in dire straits as a damsel in director Paul Verhoeven’s medieval adventure epic who’s eventually torn between a noble’s son (Tom Burlinson) and the renegade (Rutger Hauer) who kidnaps her. The film, violent and bloody, features Leigh in the thick of all the chaos, and she seems right at home. Speaking of being torn, Leigh again stars opposite Hauer in The Hitcher and soon finds herself tied between two trucks via Hauer’s character, a brutal killer bent on a cat-and-mouse game with C. Thomas Howell. Leigh’s character is a sympathetic turn, and the grisly nature of the film cements her reputation as a determined actress.

Next, there’s Miami Blues, where Leigh plays the hooker with a heart of gold, though not a very bright one. She has the misfortune of getting involved with Alec Baldwin’s character who has committed himself to an inimitable crime spree. Miami Blues is another hardcore and bloodthirsty film, yet it’s sprinkled with an offbeat sense of humor that makes it somewhat unique for its time. This movie is sadly another example of critics panning a film not because it’s bad, but because they’re a bunch of uptight sissies. Leigh is totally entertaining as the tragic prostitute naively desiring a better life.

Jennifer Jason Leigh 4That brings me to the previously mentioned Crooked Hearts. Again, Leigh plays a capricious young girl who’s a touch offbeat. She meets Peter Berg who’s returning home from school amid a ton of family crisis and the two enter into a tenuous relationship. Leigh’s part is small but effective, and she’s completely believable as a troubled woman seeking a fresh start. It’s evidence that an actor doesn’t need a lot of screen time to make an impact. My only complaint would be that she doesn’t really have any scenes with Juliette Lewis, and the only one they do share is merely to say hello. Oh well, one can’t have everything in life. That same year, Leigh would go on to star in Rush, which was a role that really began to glean some widespread popularity for Leigh and had the general public taking her seriously as an actress since unfortunately, many of her previous films were wrongfully dismissed. Now, Rush is far from a great film, but Leigh and Jason Patric are fantastic as undercover narcotics officers who get too deep into the drug scene in 1970s Texas and develop habits of their own. It was a strong departure for Leigh, who for once, played at least somewhat of an authority figure.

If Rush didn’t make Leigh a household name, Single White Female certainly did. Successful at the box office, the film featured Leigh as the murderous roommate of Bridget Fonda. It may not have been the first movie ever made where a seemingly sweet woman goes absolutely berserk, but it was certainly a convincing one and helped to popularize the “crazy female capable of killing” genre. Additionally, Leigh’s transformation, not only from a friend to a mentally deranged psycho, but her physical metamorphosis in her effort to resemble Fonda, is downright spooky.

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A little after SWF, Leigh engaged in two performances that complemented each other perfectly, and while both parts were most likely challenging for the actress, she didn’t fail to yield solid turns. The Hudsucker Proxy saw her in one of the more underrated Coen Brothers movies as a fast-talking, wisecracking reporter whose heart was warmed by the buffoonish Tim Robbins as she investigated 1930s big business. The film is plenty of fun, as is Leigh, but her performance there was only a warm-up for Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle. Leigh’s portrayal as Dorothy Parker, the incredibly witty, yet tragic writer who was one of the founding members of the Algonquin Round Table in New York during the 1920s, is measured and brilliant, and while it’s the type of film that I often would pass on (not because of disinterest, but simply because there are so many other worthwhile films out there), I decided to give this one a shot a handful of years back solely because of Leigh, and of course, I wasn’t disappointed.

During the late ‘90s, Leigh managed to lay relatively low. However, she did manage to make time for a music video from one of my favorite bands, Faith No More. The group’s 1997 video for Last Cup of Sorrow was a take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and featured Leigh in the Kim Novak role. Those interested can see it below:

Jennifer emerged in 1999, playing Allegra Geller in one of director David Cronenberg’s finest efforts, eXistenZ, as a virtual reality game designer who invents a game design that hooks directly into players’ bodies. She soon must go on the run from assassins inside her own game to unravel a mystery. The release is truly bizarre (as most Cronenberg titles are) and definitely not for everyone, but those who dare to check it out may be pleasantly surprised, especially since the film is aided by Leigh’s capable turn.

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During the next decade, Leigh would offer supporting performances in a variety of tales such as Road To Perdition, The Jacket, and my favorite of the bunch, The Machinist. Once again, she plays a hooker (shocking). However, what’s great about Leigh is that she has made every hooker she has ever played a different and nuanced person, depending on what’s going on inside each individual character. She isn’t just a body in The Machinist, but a flesh-and-blood woman who tries to console the gaunt Christian Bale who’s suffering from insomnia. In fact, her acting chops shine in even the most horrid of films, such as Jane Campion’s In The Cut. In a movie populated by completely overindulged stereotypes, Leigh still manages to breathe some life into her character. It’s a thankless job, for sure. Most recently, she has appeared opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg as a former lover of the impossible title character. This film, directed by Leigh’s husband Noah Baumbach, is actually based off a story penned by the actress, proving that she certainly isn’t one dimensional, and hopefully her multitude of talents will continue to entertain film fans desiring something more than safe, cookie-cutter fare for years to come.

  • Irv Slifkin

    I loved JJL in The Big Picture, Chris Guest’s first film as well as Todd solondz’s Palindromes and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.

  • Derek

    You didn’t mention her greatest performance ever, as a self-destructive singer in Georgia. If you’
    re a Leigh fan you should really check it out!

  • James

    Another film worth mentioning is Altman’s Kansas City where her tragic character attempts to become Jean Harlow.

  • James

    Another memorable performance is where she plays the “damaged goods” daughter of Kathy Bates in Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne.

  • Marjorie

    Jennifer Jason Leigh’s forte (similarly to Juliette Lewis’ own) is playing women at their worst, when bad decisions, and bad company have led them to bad places. The word that pops, first and foremost, to mind in cataloging her characters is “trashy”, followed quickly by “desperate.” And while damaged characters are more difficult to play and I admire the talent it takes to play them, I suspect a good portion of her appeal, and that of Juliette Lewis, is that in playing these roles she appeals to that part of men that finds women without boundaries mesmerizing.

  • Joe Gideon

    Don’t forget “Last Exit to Brooklyn”. It’s hard to find but worth the effort.

  • verona

    I happened to see this in my email and was happily surprised with it. I am a great fan of Miss Leigh and have often wondered why she never mentions her famous dad who I was a fan of from his tv series. Thank you for writing about her but you left out a very good one Delores Clairborne,

  • roger zotti

    I didn’t know JJL was Vic Morrow’s daughter … What a convincing villain he always was … JJL strikes me as immensely talented and intense, almost fearless in the kind of roles she takes … But I’d like to see her in a flick directed by Woody Allen: He’d bring out another dimension of her talent.

  • cyn

    Bastard out of Carolina was one of JJL’s films. It’s not mentioned here.

  • Andy Kirkland

    Missed a great one, The Hudsucker Proxy.

  • Lee Evans

    I agree. Bastard out of Casrolina, or Washington Square are some of my favorites of mine. I have always watched her with fascination, for she puts so much into her performances. She intrigues me.

  • Daniel Stein

    Hey, I’m with Joe. I think JJL’s role in Last Exit to Brooklyn was her best, and I remember years ago in an interview that it was (at that time) her favorite role. Basically about a Union strike in 1952 Brooklyn, it is very hard hitting, the way it really was then. I know, I’m from there…..

  • Kelly Taylor

    Hello???? “The Anniversary Party”??? How could any list be completed without that one?
    Talk about brave…