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Jennifer Jason Leigh: One of the Best, and Easily the Most Overlooked

by Scott Weinberg

Ever since the early 80s I've had an affection for one certain actress; a performer who's as versatile and talented as she is unconventionally adorable; an actress my friends and I once knew as "the gal who ain't afraid to get naked," and over the years has grown into one of the most brave and overlooked and consistently excellent actors under the sun.

I am of course referring to the brilliant and sadly underappreciated Jennifer Jason Leigh. Daughter of actor Vic Morrow and actor/screenwriter Barbara Turner, JJL (borrowing the "Jason" of her stage name from family friend Jason Robards) was born in 1962 and was appearing in TV bit parts by the time she was 16.

A TV movie entitled The Best Little Girl in the World (for which JJL shrunk down to 86 pounds) was Leigh's "coming out party" and it would lead to her first noteworthy role in feature films; her sexy and vulnerable turn as Stacy Hamilton in 1982's Fast Times at Ridgemont High is the stuff of adolescent daydreams. And just like that, Leigh was off and running. She chose a varied and eclectic collection of roles throughout most of the 1980s: Rodney Dangerfield's spoiled and horny daughter in 1983's Easy Money, Rutger Hauer's comely spoils of war in Paul Verhoeven's brilliant Flesh & Blood (1986), a sweet-natured and ill-fated waitress in Robert Harmon's ferocious The Hitcher (1986), and a bizarrely flaky filmmaker in Christopher Guest's overlooked The Big Picture (1989). Over this early period of her career, Leigh also worked with Jamie Lee Curtis, C. Thomas Howell and Patrick Swayze in Grandview U.S.A (1984) Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider and Stockard Channing in The Men's Club (1986), and kept herself busy by appearing in a few entirely forgettable entries like Under Cover (1987) and Heart of Midnight (1989).

In 1989, JJL went from being that "hardworking, no-bullshit young actress" into something considerably more. Her blistering work in Uli Edel's Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) caused film critics and indie-watchers to sit up and take notice, and Leigh's follow-up, George Armitage's mini-classic Miami Blues (1990), was enough to give serious moviewatchers a new favorite actress...even if the multiplex masses knew her as not much more than 'that girl who gets naked a lot'.

The 1990s were good to JJL, and she in turn delivered an impressive array of work in films both obscure (1991's Crooked Hearts, for example) and high-profile. (Hollywood legend has it that she would have preferred to play the fire in Ron Howard's Backdraft (1991), as she claimed it was the best-written role in the screenplay.) Jennifer's command performance alongside Jason Patric in Lili Zanuck's Rush (1991) was immediately followed by a supremely creepy turn in Barbet Schroeder's hit Single White Female (1992) - in which Leigh played sad-sack second banana to Bridget Fonda and positively blew her doe-eyed co-star off the screen at every turn.

From there Leigh hopped aboard the award-winning ensemble of Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993), before offering one of her most endearingly wonderful performances to date in the Coens' fantastic The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). Equal parts Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, Leigh's work in "Proxy" ranks among the best comedic performances of the 1990s and clearly indicates the painstaking effort that JJL brings to her work. Next up was a command performance as author/poet Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph's excellent Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), a heart-wrenching turn in Taylor Hackford's adaptation of Stephen King's Dolores Claiborne (1995) and a scene-stealing presence in Ulu Grosbard's Georgia (1995), before returning to Altman in Kansas City (1996).

Leigh's reputation for intense professionalism made her a favorite of independent filmmakers throughout the late 90s: Anjelica Huston's Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square (1997) and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999) are good films made immeasurably better by way of Leigh's involvement.

Recent years have seen Jennifer Jason Leigh still staunchly committed to the world of independent film Her work in Kristian Levring's The King is Alive (2000) and Tamra Davis' Skipped Parts (2000) led to Leigh's first directorial effort: she and friend Alan Cumming co-wrote, co-directed and starred in The Anniversary Party (2001), which is a great little comedy/drama, should you be in the market for something to rent this weekend.

Even Steven Spielberg clearly sees the presence that Leigh brings to a role; he cast her in a small (yet extremely pivotal) part in 2002's Road to Perdition, before Leigh returned to the arthouses with Jane Campion's In the Cut - in which she managed to blow Meg Ryan off the screen at every turn.

Just recently I was fortunate enough to see Leigh's work in Brad Anderson's upcoming The Machinist. Fans of JJL will not be surprised to learn that she once again A) plays a prostitute, and B) delivers a brilliant performance alongside Christian Bale. Aside from The Machinist, you'll soon be able to see Jennifer in Todd Solondz' Palindromes, Don McKellar's Childstar and John Maybury's The Jacket.

Clearly I'm a fan. And I'm tired of Jennifer Jason Leigh being remanded to the "Oh yeah, THAT girl..." pile of performers that never get the credit they deserve. If we thumb our noses at the high-end actors who refuse to do a movie unless they earn $13 million for four months worth of work, then we should take actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh and hold them in the highest regard possible.

Anyone who shares my approximate age (let's say late 20s - early 30s, ok?) can see what I'm getting at: Leigh is one of those actors we've grown "old" with; a face we've seen over and over, yet one we never really stop to appreciate. Be it Big-Budget Hollywood Blockbuster or Teeny-Tiny Festival Flick, Jennifer Jason Leigh has been one of the most honorable and consistently excellent actors of the past twenty years.

And she's never even been nominated for an Oscar. Not once.

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originally posted: 02/20/04 01:59:06
last updated: 04/01/04 15:37:08
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