She can be sour and sweet, sometimes simultaneously. A while back, I did a feature on the fabulous Jennifer Jason Leigh where I mentioned the film Crooked Hearts and how delighted I was to see Leigh co-starring alongside the inimitable Juliette Lewis, two of my favorite actresses. Well, after first covering Leigh, it’s now time that I give Lewis her due respect. Upon further reflection since first deciding to do this piece, I’ve come to the conclusion that there definitely hasn’t been and probably will never be an actress more deserving of coverage in this “unsung stars” feature than Lewis. Why did I come to this minor epiphany? When mentioning that I would be paying tribute to the impressive yet largely unrecognized career of Lewis in the office, a few of my esteemed colleagues took it upon themselves to voice their disdain for the lithe thespian. One of these opinionated gentlemen—who will remain nameless—stated that she’s “a completely annoying screen presence,” specifically citing her role in the remake of Cape Fear as an example. The other, rather caustic, co-worker even went so far as to call her a “skank.” While that is perhaps not the kindest term to use when discussing a young lady, his argument wasn’t lost on me. It seems that Miss Lewis is a completely polarizing figure. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. Fortunately, I have my own voice on this quaint little website, and hearing these base criticisms only solidified my resolve to come to the lovely lady’s defense.
I first remember coming across the daughter of actor Geoffrey Lewis (you know, the guy from the fun Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood) movies who would much later co-star with Juliette in The Way Of The Gun) when she was cast as the third Audrey, alongside Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Even though she played the Griswold daughter, Lewis’ role was a mostly thankless and unnoticeable one, but it still offered a glimpse into her ability to play a sweet-natured innocent. Next was the aforementioned Crooked Hearts with Leigh, where Lewis had the meatier role as the sole daughter of a dysfunctional family. This may be the film where Lewis really started to showcase her chops, playing the naïve youngest sibling to three older brothers who’s an innocent bystander to all the family drama. She plays the part perfectly, and one can hardly blame her for her reaction to big brother Vincent D’Onofrio’s actions in the film.
It was perhaps performances such as this that got the attention of director Martin Scorsese who decided to cast her again as the daughter in his version of the also aforementioned Cape Fear, which drew the ire of one of my illustrious co-workers. Now, it’s my humble opinion that the immensely talented Scorsese is far and away the best in the business, and while no human being is beyond reproach, I find that more often than not, his choices probably shouldn’t be questioned. It also seems lost on many that Lewis’ performance, as the young girl who’s targeted as part of the revenge plot Robert De Niro wages against former lawyer Nick Nolte and his family, garnered her an Oscar nomination. Yes, I know, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences doesn’t have a clue, and while I’m very inclined to agree, I think Juliette’s recognition by such an institution is at least proof that there were plenty of people who sat up and took notice of the role. After all, she’s completely effective in the part. Furthermore, I realize that many feel the original Cape Fear is far superior to Scorsese’s version, and while that’s probably a topic for another time, it’s doubtful anyone can deny that witnessing Lewis suck on De Niro’s fingers in the theater isn’t one of the creepiest sites they’ve ever seen.
Next, Lewis teamed with another renowned director, Woody Allen. I have previously written about my love for Husbands And Wives, but to expound a touch further, this is a film where Lewis demonstrated that she was capable of playing a bit of bad girl. She plays a young college student who has a penchant for older men, and desires to carry on an affair with her married English professor (Allen). This, of course, is a transgression on two counts and it’s this hint of a mischievous and morally questionable nature in the character that’s an indicator of things to come for Lewis, only on a much grander scale.
Kalifornia marked a return to innocence for Lewis, yet the film was still a departure for her since she was playing a naïve and oblivious young girl in the middle of a world full of chaos and murder. Starring alongside one-time boyfriend Brad Pitt, Lewis is almost simultaneously adorable and tragic as the abused and unintelligent girlfriend to Pitt’s white-trash, serial-killing character in an engaging movie that’s aptly been called a Badlands for a new generation. Romeo Is Bleeding and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape brought more bitterness and sweetness, respectively, for Lewis. RIS features her as a waitress carrying on an illicit affair with corrupt cop Gary Oldman so he can provide her with a better life, and WEGG has Lewis playing the romantic savior to Gilbert (Johnny Depp) who’s struggling to deal with his obese mother and mentally handicapped brother (Leonardo DiCaprio). However, all of these roles were merely warm ups for Juliette’s tour-de-force performance as Mallory Knox in director Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. There are plenty of people out there who love to bag on Stone, and it’s something that has always bewildered me. He’s one of my favorite directors, and it’s a credit to his talent and intelligence that he allowed Lewis to play the female lead in his media satire about a murderous outlaw Bonnie and Clyde type couple who go on to become folk heroes. Lewis is totally vicious, playing opposite Woody Harrelson as the ill-fated lovers, and it was this performance that made me marvel over how at ease Lewis was with alternating between a psychotic maniac and a sweetheart with such equally amazing skill.
Juliette later teamed with female director Kathryn Bigelow (Wow, for so many folks who supposedly dislike Lewis, she sure has worked with a lot of amazing filmmakers… Shouldn’t that say something?) for Strange Days. She essays the lead singer of a rock band who’s also the estranged ex-girlfriend of Ralph Fiennes who’s trying to unravel a virtual reality murder mystery. Who knew that a woman could look so good taking a poor man’s bath in a sink? Furthermore, she’s also quite alluring while fronting the band in the film while actually singing two songs herself that were written by PJ Harvey. This was possibly the first observation by a large audience that Lewis had some talent as a singer. (Well, this film, and her version of Born Bad in NBK). Incidentally, Juliette would go on to launch a music career with her band The Licks and release several albums over the years until the band’s split in 2009.
It was after Strange Days that Lewis would finally combine her ability to play a nice girl and a cold-hearted killer into one role for director Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn. It’s a natural progression for the actress that comes to fruition when she unwittingly finds herself in the middle of a vampire bar in the desert at the behest of outlaws George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino who have kidnapped her and her family. Lewis must then team with the boys to callously dispatch the bloodsuckers in a movie that’s so much fun that it’s almost impossible to get one’s head around, and being that the film boasts a stellar cast that also includes Harvey Keitel, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, and others, it’s a tribute to Lewis and her artistic growth that she isn’t overshadowed.
Over the next decade or so, Lewis would go on to star in plenty of other great releases such as Hysterical Blindness, playing a lonely New Jersey girl in the ‘80s next to Uma Thurman. There are also the supporting comic turns in Old School and Starsky & Hutch, and most recently a go as a tough roller derby player who tries to play the foil to Ellen Page in director Drew Barrymore’s Whip It. All of this and Lewis hasn’t even cracked her 40th birthday yet. Hopefully, moviegoers will finally start to give her the respect she deserves, and she’ll continue to bring her sweet and sour sass to many more daring and challenging parts for a long time.