Portraits of Jennifer

Criterion series explores the "malleable brilliance” of veteran actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The monthly series are among the Criterion Channel’s great pleasures. Watch the features cover to cover each month and you will receive an education in cinema studies, or at least be afforded entertainment that you can’t get elsewhere.

A case in point is “Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh,” which dropped at the beginning of the month. There are regrettable omissions, possibly due to licensing agreements, but the series offers an unusual and varied selection of films that underscore Leigh’s singular talents. I’ve always liked her but have too often taken her for granted. Audiences tend to do that to actors who value their roles over themselves.

Leigh has appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows, working steadily for 40 years. She is often at the center of cult movies and on the sidelines of bigger projects, in the tradition of character actors. A bracing exception is her Oscar-nominated turn as the villain of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” in 2015. It is a colorful, astonishingly nasty studio movie, with a number of show-off turns by QT regulars who play the material as X-rated Agatha Christie. Leigh lingers in the background for 2/3rds of the film, deliberately eclipsed by the man’s club until she ascends and takes over as a vengeful wraith. Think Lady MacBeth crossed with Carrie.

That movie isn’t showcased in “Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh,” though it can be watched on Netflix, and Leigh’s performance in it embodies a powerful contradiction that runs through many of the films in this set. Leigh has an ability to be recessive and overbearing alternately, with quicksilver timing, or simultaneously. This ability serves her greatly in Barbet Schroeder’s “Single White Female,” which was released in 1992 in the midst of the erotic stalker boom, and is included here. The movie is mediocre, suggesting an impersonal knockoff of Polanski and Cronenberg, but Leigh gives a phenomenally specific performance as someone unhinged. She plays passivity as ironic aggression, as in: “It’s all about me and my weakness whether you know it or not.”

Leigh projects an unadorned sense of exposure that should shame many of the performances of more famous actresses. Perhaps one of every 10 puff pieces written about Meryl Streep’s latest caricature could be reserved for an actress as raw and controlled as Leigh. Take George Armitage’s “Miami Blues,” a flip crime film from 1990 starring Alec Baldwin and Fred Ward that has attained a cult following over the years and is also in this set. The only human being in the frame is Leigh as a young prostitute, as she plays a person while everyone else plays to their particular type. Her “Pepper” is not a masturbatory fantasy, but a fragile young woman enslaved by a daydream.

Or take Jane Campion’s “In the Cut” from 2003. The movie has a notorious reputation as a dud, which was intended to give Meg Ryan a bit of street cred as the disturbed lead of a sexy thriller. Ryan doesn’t scan; she’s recessive without the oxymoronic force that Leigh might’ve brought to the role, and which Leigh does bring to a small supporting role as Ryan’s sister. That anyone manages to register at all in this turkey is a miracle, given that Campion’s pretensions characteristically short-circuit the movie. My guess is that Campion thinks she’s transcending the erotic thriller genre with some sort of gender studies thematic, but little matters when you can’t navigate from plot point A to B without tripping over a litany of inconsistencies and absurdities. If you’re going to be this absurd, you better be fun. Ask “Basic Instinct.”

There are a few big swings in this set, and let’s go with the bad news first: Leigh’s directorial debut with actor Alan Cumming from 2001, “The Anniversary Party.” The film features Leigh and Cumming as a troubled married couple in Hollywood who throw the titular party with friends that include who’s-who compatriots like Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, the latter of whom co-starred with Leigh in the breakout “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” as well as Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Adams, and others. Many of the characters are meant to suggest the actors playing them, and the film has a smug, “we’re telling the real truth” vibe that often dogs L.A. showbiz movies. Leigh is all-in as always—she doesn’t shortchange the narcissism of the role in order to be likeable—but the character isn’t very interesting either. Imagine that horror film “The Invitation” if it had pretensions of Raymond Carver and Dogme 95 and you’re closer than you should be to “The Anniversary Party.”

A bit more bad news: “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” also included in this set, reveals that Leigh is as capable of succumbing to affectations as more hyped colleagues. As Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph’s 1994 film, Leigh plays the accent and alcoholism in a kind of Masterpiece Theatre style without ever accessing Parker’s soul. Much of this issue rests on Rudolph, who is attempting to bring off mentor Robert Altman’s casual, panoramic style and instead locks the audience out of the movie. “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” is a collection of the worst Jazz Age cliches, with privileged drunks who believe they’re changing the world by spouting pretentious bon mots. If you’re not a huge Jazz Age person to begin with, and I am not, the film will be mannered torture, and even Leigh cannot break free of it.

Leigh’s role as Sadie, an alcoholic and drug-addicted punk singer in Ulu Grosbard’s “Georgia” is even showier—and she’s extraordinary. If you watch nothing else in “Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh,” for the love of God watch “Georgia.” Leigh plays the ticks that any competent actor can find in a drunk—the shakes, the outbursts, the hostility—but she roots them in something more particular and original. Leigh understands the energy of drunks, the constant hunger that needs to be satiated, which can give them a jittery sort of physical electricity that can be tedious and, depending on the person, weirdly compelling.

The script, written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, is free and intuitive, unburdened by much plot machinery, giving her daughter room to establish Sadie’s desperation to connect. Like many drunks killing themselves in slow motion before your eyes, she’s suffocating, and her sister, Georgia, a much more successful musician than Sadie, is sick to death of it. As Georgia, Mare Winningham is as anguished and allergic to platitude as Leigh, and together they keep finding new angles on the familiar good-and-bad-sibling contrast.

Winningham is unafraid of a truth about successful siblings: They can still resent the loser of the family. The loser, after all, tends to occupy more bandwidth, and the family tends to wonder when the loser will make it, while the winner’s actualization and happiness are taken for granted and maybe even resented as well. Woody Allen mined this sort of thing, very broadly, in “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Grosbard, Turner, and these fantastic actors rarely allow these textures to become verbal text. You can see it, especially if you’ve lived it, in Leigh and Winningham’s eyes.

An apotheosis arrives when Sadie is performing Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” at a concert, at which Georgia’s folk band is also playing. We’ve seen Sadie perform before at bars and she seems as if she may be talented if she could push beyond her demons. Her spikey, wildly undisciplined vocals have a force that Georgia doesn’t usually conjure in her own performances, while George has a grace—a sense of mastery over her art that springs from her mastery over herself—that is beyond Sadie’s dreams. Sadie knows this too; she is Georgia’s biggest fan, and this admiration feeds her self-hatred.

But by singing “Take Me Back” Sadie achieves mastery by finding a way, for a moment, to observe the wreckage of her life from a distance—despite the fact that she’s as hammered as ever. Sadie and Leigh breathe so much space into Van Morrison’s already open song, and Grosbard doesn’t get in the way with editing tricks, allowing the scene to run for many minutes in real time, establishing a revelatory flow. “Take me back, take me back, take me back, take me back, take me back…”–now it’s about Sadie and Georgia.

As remarkable as all this is, the film doesn’t leave it here, it gets more difficult. From the backstage, Georgia witnesses the highest manifestation of Sadie’s art, which is probably more personal and more daring and more wrenching than anything she’s done—and she can’t let Sadie have that. Georgia denies Sadie an acknowledgement of the achievement, which she knows that Sadie craves every bit as much as the drugs. Georgia can’t rise to the occasion this time, scolding Sadie instead for being bombed, which is correct but petty. We are seeing but one of the many micro tragedies that can glut family life.

This cover of “Take Me Back” will be remembered by a few and then forgotten. Sadly, so has this movie. Criterion is on my Christmas list this year for bringing it back, and for reminding us of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s malleable brilliance.

“Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh” is now up on The Criterion Channel.


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