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To Disappear, But Also Not Disappear

February 4th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Jennifer Jason Leigh

Jennifer Lee Morrow was born February 5, 1962 in Hollywood, CA. Her father was film and TV actor Vic Morrow. Her mother Barbara Turner was an actress turned screenwriter. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in October 1997 to promote her roles in Washington Square and A Thousand Acres, their daughter would recall, “I had a very happy childhood. I mean, in many, many ways. My sister had a rough go, my older sister and so I saw that and I think that I … sort of formed in opposition to that, because I saw how much pain she was in. But I think that also meant probably suppressing a lot of my own, um, anger, or my own fears about things and so acting was maybe a way to experience them in a safe way.” She received her SAG card at the age of 16 for appearing in an episode of Baretta, but discovered someone was already using her intended stage name of “Jennifer Leigh”. She added “Jason” in honor of actor Jason Robards, a friend of her mother’s.

Jennifer Jason Leigh made her TV debut in the Disney movie The Young Runaways in 1978. To continue working, she legally declared herself an emancipated minor and dropped out of Pacific Palisades High School six weeks short of graduation. At the age of 19, Leigh made her film debut in Eyes of a Stranger, playing a deaf, blind and mute teenager stalked by a psycho. Also in 1981, she slimmed to 86 pounds to play an anorexic teen in the TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World. Vic Morrow and Barbara Turner had divorced when Leigh was 2 and she had not spoken to her father in nearly two years when in 1982, Morrow was killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. The tragedy overwhelmed attention Leigh might have received that summer playing a sexually active high school freshman in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When one of her scenes was trimmed to spare the picture an X rating, Leigh objected, stating at the time, “It was a classic scene and should have been left in the picture uncut. It had humor, pathos, sweetness and sadness. It showed the loneliness and hollowness of sex at that age.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh Fast Times at Ridgemont High 1982

Leigh spent the next eight years in made for TV movies with titles like The First Time or Girls of the White Orchid, as well as B-movies, playing a medieval princess joyously debauched by Rutger Hauer in Flesh + Blood and a character ripped apart by two trucks in The Hitcher. 1990 was Leigh’s breakout year. She made her New York stage debut off-Broadway at the Circle Repertory Theatre as the title character in William Mastrosimone’s Sunshine. New York Times theater critic Laurie Winer observed, “If her character is desperate to be loved, Ms. Leigh is not; she makes Sunshine’s neediness annoying.” Two movies Leigh had completed also opened that year. In the gritty Last Exit to Brooklyn, Leigh was cast as an emotionally dissonant hooker, while she played a sweeter and steelier prostitute opposite Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues. These earned Leigh Best Supporting Actress nods by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics.

The ’90s were spent winning over critics but seemingly alienating audiences. Leigh played a narc who succumbs to drug addiction in Rush (1991), a rapid tongued reporter in the Coen Brothers screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and celebrated writer and wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). While some complained about the “ragged dagger of a voice” Leigh conjured for her uncanny portrayal of Parker, the actress maintained, “I had a tape loop of her that I played constantly. I mapped every chuckle, stutter, and pause, almost like you’d learn a foreign language song.” Leigh managed to top that performance in 1995 with Georgia. From a script her mother wrote, Leigh played Sadie Flood, a bitter, heroin addicted barroom singer burdened by the success of her sister (Mare Winnigham). Leigh dropped to 90 pounds for the role and recorded her songs live, most memorably an 8 1/2 minute rendition of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back”.

Jennifer Jason Leigh Georgia 1995

In 1997, Leigh filmed a role in Eyes Wide Shut, but when Stanley Kubrick’s extensive reshoots conflicted with her commitment to eXistenZ for David Cronenberg, her part was given to Marie Richardson. Leigh is rumored to have turned down roles taken by Laura San Giacomo in sex, lies, and videotape, Lori Petty in A League of Their Own, Kyra Sedgwick in Singles, Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights and the role in L.A. Confidential that Kim Basinger would parlay into an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Leigh’s most notable career accolade to date has been an MTV Movie Award for Best Villain in Single White Female (1992). Speaking to New York Magazine in 2005, she admitted, “I’ve overworked things or over-researched things. I think I’ve been too removed at times. If I had done some of the roles that I turned down stupidly, which ended up being awfully good movies – I just couldn’t see it at the time – I’d be in a position today where I had more opportunities. But, you know, the truth is there aren’t a lot of movies I want to go see.”

Instead, Leigh co-wrote, co-starred and co-directed (with actor Alan Cumming) The Anniversary Party (2001), a wry drama/comedy shot in 19 days on digital video and featuring many of Leigh’s friends, including Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals and John C. Reilly. In 2007, she was back on critics’ year-end best lists, playing a blissfully naïve bride opposite Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding. Speaking to The Onion A.V. Club, Leigh offered, “There was a kind of purity with Margot that I had in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, just kind of being young, in a way. And I was nothing like that girl in Fast Times either, though I did get a job at Perry’s Pizza, and I did do this ‘research’ or whatever I was doing, but I was using a lot of myself, because I didn’t have a lot else to draw on. I wasn’t out interviewing lots of people, and I wasn’t doing that kind of stuff. And there’s a kind of purity to that that I’m kind of interested in again. To disappear, but also not disappear, in a way.”

© Joe Valdez


Jennifer Jason Leigh” Wikipedia

Lone Star“. By Boris Kachka. New York Magazine, December 4, 2005

Jennifer Jason Leigh“. By Scott Tobias. The Onion A.V. Club, November 21, 2007

Tags: United Federation of Character Actors

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Feb 4, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I’ve often said that JJL is my favorite actress.

    I saw her on Broadway in PROOF and she was amazing.

    Unfortunately, she hasn’t been getting the roles she deserves lately. As much as I love her, and was a fan of her husband Noah Baumbach’s earlier work, I didn’t care for MARGOT.

  • 2 Patrick // Feb 4, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    I always thought of her as a leading actress, not character actress, but now that I think of it, she’s been pretty scarce lately. I’m one of the few people who was a big fan of The Hudsucker Proxy (I think it made about $150 the year it was released, so me and about 20 others saw it) and thought she was great in it, obviously playing her role with a bit of a Katherine Hepburn flavor.

    BTW, enjoyed your series from last month on notable flops.

  • 3 Daniel // Feb 8, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Great pick – I loved her in The Anniversary Party. Where’s the love for that movie, anyway?

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Feb 8, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Jim: I looked forward to movies like Rush, The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle for the chance to see Jennifer Jason Leigh work. The films had serious flaws and did not go over well with audiences, so the cynic in me understands why Leigh has never even been nominated for an Oscar (she did get a Golden Globe nod for Mrs. Parker). But the characters Leigh played in those movies were so disparate and she seemed so completely immersed in what she was doing, it’s a damn shame she hasn’t shown what she can do in a more accessible movie lately. Thanks for mentioning her work on Broadway in Proof. I understand Leigh took over for Mary-Louise Parker and was fantastic.

    Patrick: Here’s a quote by director Mike Leigh that I couldn’t fit into the article. Jennifer Jason Leigh starred in a revival of Leigh’s play Abigail’s Party in 2005. “She is an extraordinary character actor, and it doesn’t mean what it means in Hollywood, which is just people put out to grass playing small parts. She is bullshit-proof. She’s got a real strong sense of the real world and of real people and the pain of existing and all that stuff.” I share your assessment of The Hudsucker Proxy too. Thanks for visiting and for commenting.

    Daniel: The Anniversary Party was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at the arthouse. For what it was – an indie shot in 19 days on DV – I thought it said something about the tenuousness of show biz relationships. Nothing really beats seeing Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals, Parker Posey, Mary Lynn Rajskub, John C. Reilly and Jennifer Jason Leigh all in the same movie. Terrific stuff. I hope Leigh continues to write and direct. Thanks for commenting!

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