When I decided to resurrect this series of blogs which I began (and lazily failed to maintain) for http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/ I didn’t want to set up too many rules. I didn’t want to just feature obscure performers (partly because there are other more knowledgeable film bloggers and writers out there to shine a light into those darker corners). I didn’t just want to talk about character actors as I wanted to give respect to film stars as well where I felt there skills and qualities were taken for granted. I also didn’t want to do the thing that most list articles end up doing, which is to narrow the field down to a collection of the same old fan favourites. It is too early to tell if I will succeed in this, after all this in only the second entry (technically third, but I’ll run a revised version of my Keanu-nu-nu-love at a later date).
For a variety of reasons, I personally find it harder to appreciate the careers of female actors the way I do male actors. I acknowledge this is a failing, and that my own innate sexism is a factor. So much of the pleasure of watching a favourite actor is wrapped up in idealised self-image. As a boy I wanted to ‘be’ Han Solo, Max Rockatansky, or the Man With No Name, so by extension those were the actors I liked and who I would seek out. I’m fully aware that this is a personal response, there are girls who wanted to be James Bond, there are boys who wanted to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. There are probably people who wanted to be Goofy! It’s a movable feast but this is how my brain worked, I wanted to be a lone scavenger in the last of the V8s, living on the corpse of the old world.
However there is also a wider, institutionalised sexism in the culture industry curtailing the careers of female actors (and indeed non-white actors in English language film). This manifests in a variety of insidious ways. Ageism affects all actors regardless of gender, but it is much harder on actresses. A male actor can maintain their status as a leading man well into their fifties (and beyond) but a female actor can go from ‘hottie’ to ‘nottie’ in the blink of an eye. Even Meryl Streep had a fallow period from the mid nineties to the mid noughties where she was just the wrong age, that strange dead zone between mature lead and grand dame authoritarian.
Genre is also not often helpful to female actors in terms of career longevity; many staple Hollywood genres (the action film, the war film, the comic book adaptation) are hostile to female leads. Cast a woman as the lead in a western, it is instantly ‘revisionist’. The eternally boring idea that women do not make good action heroes has taken a Scarlett Johanssen shaped knock of late, but it still persists. Every time a Tomb Raider, Aeon Flux, or (dear lord) a Barb Wire underperforms at the box office it is taken as more evidence that audiences don’t want to see female action stars, as opposed to… say… that audiences don’t want to see crappy films. It also ignores the fact that female action stars are not nearly as uncommon in East Asian cinema (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, even Maggie Cheung are great examples of actresses with significant work in martial arts cinema).
Even in a genre where female leads (and villains) are more prevalent like the horror film (whatever the conventional ‘wisdom’ holds about the genre) female actors must be more aware of the dangers of typecasting than their male counterparts. A male actor can make their name in the genre, play comic or dramatic roles, then return to horror and still have a long and viable career (see Bruce Campbell for example) but for a woman appearing in more than two (sometimes just one) horror films is an instant trip to a ‘top 10 Scream Queens’ list. Only very occasionally will someone like Jamie Lee Curtis break out of this box, and when they do make the break, they rarely return.
All of which is a rather long-winded introduction to the career of Jennifer Jason Leigh, and I thank you for your patience if you have gotten this far. I promise I will limit such diatribes in future Under Appreciated Actors instalments). I’m aware that following this intro you are perfectly justified in seeing this as a gender-based box ticking exercise. All I can say is that Jennifer Jason Leigh is an actor I have long found fascinating for a number of reasons, and I hope I can outline some of them here.
An extremely unpredictable screen presence, Leigh seems to gravitate towards roles that defy narrative pigeon holes. In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times (promoting Last Exit to Brooklyn) Leigh said “I could never play the ingénue, the girl next door or the very successful young doctor. That would be a bore.”
Leigh is not the kind of actor who undergoes radical image changes for each part, she more or less looks like Jennifer Jason Leigh in all the roles that I am about to highlight. Despite this, she is almost always surprising. Daring in her choices, and particularly gifted in her ability to find a unique ‘voice’ for each character, sometimes this is an accent, but more often that not it is in the diction and cadence of the character’s voice. She can play very, very smart, or she can play very, very dumb. She can be bright and witty and engaging, or she can be subdued and morose. Sometimes she can do all of this in a single performance.
This is not a top 10, or a ‘best of’, this is a personal selection of my favourite Jennifer Jason Leigh performances…
Dir: Paul Verhoeven
I read a book in the convent library, about love and black magic.
Dutch maniac Verhoeven’s first English language feature was a sociopathic version of a swashbuckling medieval romance. In 16th century Italy, a group of mercenaries led by Martin (Rutger Hauer) find themselves out of work and out-of-pocket after being dismissed once they have served his purpose in sacking a city by a cruel nobleman. Not taking this slight lightly, the merry band of clinical psychopaths become convinced they are divinely anointed and decide to plunder their former paymaster, attacking a caravan and kidnapping Agnes (Leigh) who is betrothed to the nobleman’s son.
Trapped in a dangerous situation and threatened with gang-rape Agnes uses Martin’s desires against him engaging in an abusive (it begins with rape) and sadomasochistic relationship whilst subtly manipulating the group and leaving clues for her beloved.
The sexual politics and violence of the film are often stomach churning, but Leigh plays her role with punk attitude (the film is wilfully anachronistic with casting and especially accents) and gives a performance that switches between victim, femme fatale, and ruthless avenger. It’s not a part one would wish to describe as ‘empowering’ but this is one of the first of a series of roles that allow Leigh to explore some troubling and uncomfortable areas of female sexuality seemingly unencumbered by worries of political correctness.
One scene in the film pretty much defines Verhoeven’s calculatedly tasteless and profane aesthetic. It is a tender scene of lovemaking between Agnes and her pretty boy fiancé. Shot in romantic soft focus, verging on classy euro-porn, the camera pulls back to reveal a rotting disembowelled and half-naked male corpse swinging from a tree above the lovers.
I love Paul Verhoeven!
The Hitcher (1986)
Dir: Robert Harmon
You got the wrong man, Lyle.
Leigh’s role in Robert Harmon’s cult eighties thriller/horror/action hybrid is to be raspberry in a subversive, sadomasochistic and closeted gay romance. She plays Nash, a young waitress pulled into a deadly game of cat and mouse between a young man called Jim Halsey (a frazzled C. Thomas Howell) and John Ryder (Hauer again) a razor blade wielding chickenhawk come human terminator. As Hauer’s serial killer pursues Howell across the desert setting him up in a series of bloody murders for reasons the film refuses to explain, Leigh’s character is one of the few who believes his protestations of innocence.
While it is refreshing that the film doesn’t really waste time on a romantic angle between Howell and Leigh (he only has eyes for Hauer, and Hauer has a pocketful of eyes he is collecting for Howell) Nash is little more than a plot device. Any number of casting agent suggested soap actresses could have played Nash, but Leigh brings real personality to the part, giving her sass and strength that may not have been in the script.
Critically The Hitcher was very badly received, Roger Ebert called it ‘reprehensible’ but it was a sizable hit spawning a very belated sequel in 2003 (only Howell returned), and an ill-advised remake in 2007.
Miami Blues (1990)
Dir: George Armitage
Is she really Princess Not-so-bright or is she pretending?
George Armitage’s pulp thriller (based on a Charles Willeford novel) sank without a trace on its original release, and is pretty much languishing in obscurity now, but it’s great!
Alec Baldwin delivers a barnstorming performance as ‘Junior’ a petty criminal and psychopath who relocates to Miami after his release from prison. After casually murdering a Hare Krishna in an airport (purely for the LOLs) Junior steals a badge and gun from investigating detective Hoke Mosley (a sad sack Fred Ward) and proceeds to cause all kinds of mayhem impersonating a cop.
Leigh plays Susie Waggoner, a jolly prostitute so sweetly naïve it’s almost her superpower. Utterly oblivious to his nefarious activities, Junior and Susie hook up in a wretched parody of domestic bliss. On paper, this sounds like thin and pathetic character, but Leigh successfully engages the audience’s sympathies, Susie is an eternally optimist and the inevitability of the story’s end is poignant as much as it is bitterly humorous.
Short Cuts (1993)
Dir: Robert Altman
Altman’s epic late career masterpiece, Short Cuts weaves a narrative from the short stories of Raymond Carver. Leigh shines among a large ensemble cast that includes a roll call of strong, interesting actresses including Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Lily Tomlin, Lili Taylor, Madeline Stowe, Frances McDormand, and… um… Angie MacDowell (who has been good precisely twice, in Sex, Lies and Videotape and this).
Leigh plays suburban LA housewife Lois Kaiser, who juggles being a stay-at-home-mom, with a job as a phone sex operator. Her exaggerated sexuality with anonymous men is not mirrored at home with her husband (the late Chris Penn) where she is too mired in the day-to-day details of housekeeping and child rearing to notice her partner’s growing sexual frustration and emotional instability. It’s an interesting character study and one that requires Leigh to turn the air blue on several occasions.
Frustratingly unavailable on Blu-ray, Short Cuts is one of the great L.A. films and as a major work by a major director its current obscurity is simply astounding.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Dirs: The Coen Brothers
I used to think you were a swell guy. Well, to be honest, I thought you were an imbecile. But then I figured out you WERE a swell guy… A little slow, maybe, but a swell guy. Well, maybe you’re not so slow, But you’re not so swell either. And it looks like you’re an imbecile after all!
A commercial disaster on its release this was the Coen Brothers first attempt to move into the mainstream attempting to translate their cult adoration into mass appeal. It suffered from a lack of studio confidence, and failed to find fertile ground either with audiences who simply refused to buy a ticket, or critics. Which is bizarre because it’s a very entertaining film indeed. A tribute/pastiche/homage to the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s.
Perhaps one thing that counted against the movie was an incredibly complicated plot revolving around top-level board room machinations at a beleaguered company in the wake of a power vacuum caused by the sudden (comic) suicide of its CEO. Mailroom boy Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) is drawn into conflict with ruthless corporate raider Sidney J. Mussberger (Paul Newman) and crusading investigative journalist Amy Archer (Leigh). Everything comes to a head over Barnes’ idea for a new invention that he comically cannot explain to anyone except to say ‘y’know, for kids!’ It’s a hula hoop.
Leigh is brilliant in this, absolutely blowing her male stars off the screen playing the sort of tough, smart, super verbose character that Katherine Hepburn once excelled at. She would go on to refine the character type in the title role of Alan Rudolph’s Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). A great example of her range and ability to be the source, rather than the object of comedy in a film.
Dir: Lili Fini Zanuck
This factually based thriller again shows Leigh’s attraction to unattractive roles. Rookie cop Kristen Cates (Leigh) is chosen by veteran detective Jim Raynor (Jason Patric) as a partner in an undercover drugs operation. With strong and unflinching procedural focus on the mechanics of heroin addiction the film shows the pair losing their professional and personal identities as the dangers of the job force them to take drugs and become addicts themselves.
Rush is an interesting entry in a lineage of films about the psychological effects of working undercover that has continued with the likes of A Scanner Darkly and Miami Vice. However without the ironic distancing of the former or the high gloss of the latter Rush is an extremely unpleasant film to watch. A bit too gruelling for its own good and has never really developed a following, but for fans of great acting it is compelling with both Patric and Leigh on top form and fairly matched.
Don’t confuse it with the Formula 1 film though, or the Canadian prog rockers.
Dir: David Cronenberg
Don’t panic, it’s just a game.
Did David Cronenberg predict #GamerGate? It is an intriguing question to consider in the light of a rewatch of his 1999 sci-fi video game freak out eXistenZ a film which is looking more and more ahead of the curve.
Leigh plays Allegra Geller, the world’s greatest game designer (in modern parlance a GameDev). In a strangely bland and shabby near-future games are played using fleshy biotech pods that connect directly to the nervous system by umbilical cords that plug into puckered bioports installed in the base of the user’s spine. During a focus group play test of her new game eXistenZ, an attempt is made on her life. The assassin evades metal detectors by using a gun made of fish guts and herring bones, that fires teeth for bullets. The killer appears to be a member of an extremist group protesting the distortion of reality caused by VR gaming.
Geller goes on the run with security guard called Ted Pikel (Jude Law) a non-gamer with a morbid fear of becoming personally infected by a computer virus. In order to investigate further Gellar needs someone to buddy up with her in the game world leading to an alarming scene in which a car mechanic (played by a greased up Willem Dafoe) must insert a bioport into Pikel’s back with a massive tool that looks like a piledriver (feel free to consider this a metaphor for something).
So we have a female gamedev on the run from a succession of psychotic men, all of whom are afraid she will feminise them or infect their game world with a bio-mechanical disease. Various assassins scream “death to the demoness Allegra Gellar” (variations of which are currently being flung at female game devs on twitter right now). At the same time everyone is hiding behind carefully crafted personas that hide their real selves, and the Game publishers are raking in the cash.
No, Cronenberg did not predict GamerGate, his plot makes more sense and is less depressing.
Clearly this is quite an extreme film even by the Canadian director’s usual standards, and his last really icky body horror film to date. Leigh has a lot of fun in the part, being studiously cool and delivering dialogue like “I suppose a smaller-calibre pistol would have to fire baby teeth” with a conviction that would evade many of her peers.
Single White Female (1992)
Dir: Barbet Schroeder
You know, identical twins are never really identical. There’s always one whose prettier… and the one whose not, does all the work… She used me, then she left me – just like you.
An entry in the popular nineties ‘bunny boiler’ thriller stakes, Single White Female is essential a high gloss exploitation film. Slickly directed by Barbet Schroeder it gives Leigh an opportunity to unleash her inner psycho as one of the worst flatmates ever.
Following a bad breakup, glamourous software developer Allison Jones (Brigitte Fonda) takes on Hedra Carlson (Leigh) as a flatmate thinking the small mousy girl will be an innocuous flatmate. She is very wrong. Gradually the increasingly clingy Carlson begins to take on Jones’ style and personality, even moving in on her not-quite-ex boyfriend.
It’s trash frankly, but fun trash, Sex and the City meets The Tenant. Leigh manages the shift from slight and ineffectual wallflower to terrifying stiletto heel wielding nut-job quite brilliantly.
Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989)
Dir: Uli Edel
Uli Edel’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s controversial novel is not as celebrated an adaptation of the author’s work as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. It’s a bit too fractured, and a bit too stately to really capture the poetry and savagery of Selby’s prose. However it may contain Leigh’s signature performance as (yes again) prostitute Tralala.
The novel is actually a collection of discrete short stories all taking place over the same time frame of a hot 50s summer in Brooklyn as a labour dispute erupts into street violence. Udel knits this together into a loose narrative in which Tralala’s story is probably the most upsetting. Peroxide blonde Tralala is a local fixture, living of cheap tricks and occasionally colluding with a local hood to roll her wealthier and drunker clients in a back alley. There is a distinctive scene in which Tralala leads a march of police officers entering the neighbourhood to crack the heads of striking workers. At the head of the procession, she struts like a homecoming queen, soaking up the attention, the Duchess of Brooklyn.
The film is epic in its depiction of squalor and moral turpitude, creating a vivid maelstrom in which characters scurry like rats ruthlessly feeding on the weak. Leigh presents her character as tough as nails and exuding confidence, but allows the audience to see behind her diamond hard carapace to the person underneath. Ultimately her story ends in extreme abjection and violence, with a mass sexual assault that is extremely hard to watch but not in any way sensualised.
These are personal highlights; there are many more performances to discover in Leigh’s filmography. Sadly like most actresses there is a gradual slide into smaller roles, but Leigh still finds interesting films to appear in, and is currently appears on the brink of a career renaissance.
She will soon be seen in Franck Khalfoun’s attempt to relaunch the Amityville franchise with Amityville: The Awakening, has a part in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomolisa (about which I know absolutely nothing) and most excitingly has been cast as the female lead in Quentin Tarantino’s next film, The Hateful Eight, a part described as one of the most coveted female roles in Hollywood.
Viva Jennifer Jason Leigh!