Today marks the 60th birthday of one of the finest and most underrated actors working: the great Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aside from a brief dalliance with the mainstream in the early 90s, her 40+ year career has been spent largely in independent cinema, from her beginnings elevating schlock like Eyes of a Stranger to her most recent role in Lena Dunham’s Sundance 2022 entry, Sharp Stick.
Leigh has never shown any interest in airing any part of her life offscreen in public (this, honestly, is one of the reasons I’ve never seen Marriage Story, which is based on the breakdown of her marriage to writer/director Noah Baumbach). This is likely one of the reasons she has gone under the radar throughout her career. She has amassed huge respect in the industry, but her lack of interest in trophy chasing has meant she has just one Oscar nomination to her name and her pursuit of privacy and choice of roles that she’s never been a huge star. I get the feeling that’s exactly how she wants it.
That said, as a super-fan of her work, I am forever trying to get people to see and appreciate more of her films, so here I’m going to take a dive into her filmography and pick five (well, six, I cheated a bit) somewhat less celebrated works that I feel need a bit more recognition. This focus on less heralded performances is why, for instance, you won’t find her MTV award winning turn in Single White Female or her Oscar nominated role in The Hateful Eight (full disclosure, I wouldn’t have picked it anyway) here. I’ve also left out personal favourites like her screwball comedy role in the Coen Brothers’ underrated The Hudsucker Proxy (the last and most painful cut from the list).
I never considered TV movies and series, but The Best Little Girl in the World, The Gulf War (aka Thanks of a Grateful Nation) and Bastard Out of Carolina are all worth seeing.
With only five picks, I’ve also had to leave off some impressive later performances, including her best performance of the 21st century; the sensitive voice work in Anomalisa and her best role for Baumbach in Margot at the Wedding (a performance I like a lot more than the film). To be fair though, much of her post 2000 work has been in small parts, other highlights being in Palindromes (where, aged 42, she played a 12 year old girl), a great cameo in the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, and a mom role in the criminally underseen coming of age film The Spectacular Now. It’s also worth seeking out Hateship/Loveship and Welcome to Me, both with Kristen Wiig, though the first of those has never had a UK release.
She has also had some larger, lesser seen, roles in more recent years, but the likes of Jake Squared and The Moment, while worth seeing for fans, aren’t her best work and Amityville: Awakening may be the worst film she’s ever made. Overall, some of her smaller roles have been more rewarding in this period, which is why this list stops when it does.
Flesh + Blood (1985)
The screenplay for Paul Verhoeven’s English language debut was originally called God’s Own Bastards, which should tell you a lot about both its tone and how awesome it is. Set in 1500s Europe, it casts Rutger Hauer as the leader of a band of mercenaries. Stiffed on their payment for recapturing a town, they kidnap the bride to be (Leigh) of a young lord (Tom Burlinson) who ends up besieging the castle they have taken over.
This is a pretty unpleasant film. Verhoeven revels in the dirt and stench of the middle ages, so much so that you can almost smell the movie (especially the sequence of Burlinson and Leigh falling in love as they sit under a tree where two people have been hanged). It’s also jam packed with the titular ingredients, with Leigh providing most of the flesh. However, that nudity is always used to a purpose, it’s clear that Leigh’s Agnes immediately recognises the power her body holds, and she uses it to manipulate and hold sway over Hauer’s Martin from the very beginning. Leigh’s accent may be uncertain, but nothing else about her performance is.
On the whole this is an underrated film from Verhoeven. It has plenty to say about religious hypocrisy (a theme the director continues to favour, right up to his latest film) and about the hellish nature of both war and day to day life in medieval Europe. It’s got a strong cast, anchored by a charismatic Hauer and complemented by an eclectic ensemble including the likes of Susan Tyrell, Bruno Kirby (as New York as ever) and an especially loathsome Ronald Lacey (who basically repeated this performance in comedic form for the brilliant sitcom Blackadder II). It’s a great example in Jennifer Jason Leigh’s filmography of elevated exploitation.
Heart of Midnight (1989)
This isn’t an especially good film, but any Jennifer Jason Leigh fan needs to see it. A sometimes pretentious attempt at a Lynhcian erotic thriller, Matthew Chapman’s film casts Leigh as Carol; a traumatised woman who has recently got over a nervous breakdown, and has moved to a small town where she has inherited an old nightclub called The Midnight.
Living in the apartment above, she finds it appears to be an abandoned sex club with a lot of locked rooms, each themed. After being assaulted by men working on the club’s renovation, she begins to believe someone else is living in the apartment with her.
The story is pretty involved, but Chapman unfolds a lot of it elliptically, which means that the third act reveals fall almost completely flat, and the rest of the running time is compromised by some terrible performances, notably by Frank Stallone as a cop (we get to hear him sing too) and by an ill fitting score by Yanni.
So why recommend this one? Two reasons. First of all, while his storytelling isn’t strong, Chapman does craft a compelling visual identity for the film. Two things stand out particularly; Leigh’s hideous clothes, including a selection of Hawaiian shirts that, against all odds, she makes look good, and, more importantly, the use of colour throughout the film. The walls of the main corridor in the apartment, and much of the detailing throughout, is painted in what you could call Cries and Whispers or Suspiria Red, depending on whether you want to lean towards the film’s pretensions to art or its sleazier side. It’s often mirrored by Leigh’s lipstick, and the effect is striking throughout, giving the film a graphical interest that is lacking in many of its other qualities.
The other reason to recommend it, of course, is Jennifer Jason Leigh. Few people play the after effects of trauma, fragility, and a sense of a character fraying at the edges as effectively. By bringing her customary realism to Carol, she grounds Chapman’s sub-Lynchian surrealism with an emotional truth that utterly evades him at screenplay level. Heart of Midnight isn’t a great film, but it may be THE overlooked case study in Jennifer Jason Leigh elevating a movie through sheer force of will and talent.
The film that made me a Jennifer Jason Leigh fan. I stumbled on this film, based on Kim Wozencraft’s semi-autobiographical novel about two cops, in the beginnings of America’s war on drugs, who get hooked on the narcotics they are buying during an undercover operation.
Leigh’s newly recruited Kristen Cates gets drafted in as partner to Jason Patric’s Jim Raynor, who has already been under for a while as the film begins. We watch her go from wide-eyed innocent, struggling to roll her first joint, to a conflicted cop who runs on pills and wants to protect herself and her partner, and even a few friends in the business, while still making cases. It’s an evolution that Leigh draws very well, often showing us Kristen’s determined side and her vulnerability at the same time, notably in a scene with William Sadler as an especially sleazy dealer who has a new drug and keeps his environment, and beer, at body temperature.
Lili Fini Zanuck makes a strong directorial debut on the whole, certainly it shouldn’t still be her only film, but the film definitely pushes the boat out too far at times, especially with a melodramatic end of second/beginning of third act series of scenes of Patric, who overacts in these sequences, kicking his habit. As ever, Leigh is a contrast to this, she’s always subtle and small. Particularly notable here is the way she relates to Max Perlich’s character; a young guy on the fringes of the drug scene who eventually becomes an informant. By the time they are turning him there’s almost a sisterly feeling, trying to help him out, but tinged with some regret that she has to threaten him with serious jail time. Once again, Rush isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s often in those where Leigh’s gifts come through most strongly.
It took me so long to see this film. Georgia was apparently released in the UK on video, but I never saw a copy. To date, it still has no UK disc release of any kind and the barebones US DVD is deleted. This is a great injustice to not just a very good film, but maybe the best performance of Leigh’s career. This was a family affair and a labour of love for Leigh; she co-produced the film, while her mother, Barbara Turner, wrote the screenplay. She and Mare Winningham (who was Oscar nominated, though Leigh herself missed out) play two sisters who are both musicians. Winningham is Georgia, a mainstream country star, while Leigh’s self-destructive Sadie careens from gig to chaotic gig, her demons undermining her talent.
Leigh, of course, gravitated to the more caustic of the roles. She plays Sadie rail thin and constantly on edge. You can never predict the character’s mood, she’s like a raw nerve in human form. This is seen most powerfully in the film’s centrepiece. Sadie is opening for her sister at an AIDS benefit concert (the sequence was shot at a real gig, with thousands of fans and, like all the film’s music, was performed live). Drunk, she covers Van Morrison’s Take Me Back in an abrasive Janis Joplin howl, extending the song to nine excruciating minutes. Leigh is astounding in this sequence, as Sadie pours her problems, her resentment at her sister’s success into the song, letting them out in a guttural screed. It’s a perfect example of her fearlessness as an actress, and her lack of any need to ask to be liked in character.
The film as a whole is slightly more conventional than that sequence, but Winningham and Ted Levine, cast against type as Georgia’s resolutely loving and kind husband, are both excellent, as are the character actors who fill out minor parts, including John Doe (cast because Leigh is a fan of his band, X), Max Perlich and a young John C. Reilly. This might be more difficult to dig up, but it is absolutely worth the search.
eXistenZ (1999) / Possessor (2020)
I get the sense that eXistenZ is still considered a rather minor entry in David Cronenberg’s canon— a lesser thematic follow up to 1983’s Videodrome. For me, it might be his best film, and is also obviously a key transitional work between the horror of the body and that of the mind. Leigh ostensibly plays Allegra Gellar; a designer of totally immersive games in which the player enters what is essentially an alternate reality. eXistenZ is her latest, and as the film begins a test run of the game is disrupted by assassins who want to kill it and her. She and a game company employee, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) have to escape, first in the real world and then into the game.
Her performance as Allegra is one of the richest of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career. It’s full of details, many of which take on deeper meaning on a second or third viewing of the film. It’s especially interesting to watch how Leigh moves in space and interacts with things. Allegra is forever observing and touching things; soaking in the detail of the world(s?) she’s inhabiting. Her tactile approach to everything is key to the way both the character and the film work, and it’s beautifully instinctive work. This instinctiveness also comes through in a famously improvised moment in which, when Pikul objects to getting a ‘bioport’—a hole in his back that the game system plugs into—saying “it’s a permanent hole in my body, won’t it get infected?”, Allegra simply opens her mouth and sticks out her tongue. It plays perfectly into the character’s physicality (and sexuality), but also speaks volumes of exposition in a single gesture. It’s truly, quietly, brilliant.
There are many ways to read eXistenZ, but if you choose to believe that Allegra gets out of the game, it would be easy to see Girder, Leigh’s character in Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor as the same character. You could imagine that Allegra has taken another name, advanced her tech, and applied it to espionage rather than gaming. This is probably not the intended reading, and Leigh’s role is much smaller here, but that concept of the part, as well as the sense of this film being to eXistenZ as that one was to Videodrome, is definitely there in Cronenberg Jr’s much gorier take on the theme of technology dislocating us from our identity.