Jennifer Jason Leigh has perfected the role of the melancholy, unfulfilled woman. She excels at playing characters fueled by longing and soul-crushing envy. Her characters lay themselves bare, unable to hide their hunger for love and validation. Leigh is at her best (and worst) when she’s throwing her entire body into a performance. It’s fascinating for an actress to dedicate so much of her career to playing sad waifs—wispy women who are always looking for something or someone to lean on. We see this in In the Cut, Margot at the Wedding, Single White Female, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Georgia. Her trademark techniques make their way into every one of her performances, across genre. In her roles, Leigh is often fighting to prop herself up, but she never seems to find steady footing. Her characters are brimming with self-determination, in constant pursuit of a stability they never quite find.
In the Cut begins with Leigh’s thighs. As Pauline, Leigh is sexual and vulnerable. Her body radiates with the need to be touched. She ogles a groundskeeper as she sips her morning coffee. Eyeing him with wanting, lusting for a connection. When he notices her, she quickly turns her head–too shy for the real thing. Unprepared for contact. Instead, she carries on an affair with a married doctor. She takes eleven “appointments” in a week to see him, which leads him to tire of her. Pauline’s behavior escalates to stalking, stealing a tan suit that his wife left at the dry cleaners. She describes her actions to her sister as if she’s a lovelorn schoolgirl. Even with a restraining order being drawn up against her, she radiates an innocence that begs for sympathy. Her impulses are compulsions. Her sister Frannie (Meg Ryan) sees this as bravery. To Frannie, Pauline is a beautiful martyr for love, and it’s her job to nurture her back to health so she can return to the battle.
Despite feeling obvious jealousy towards Frannie, Pauline can’t help but bend to her sister’s loving nature. Frannie is simply too kind to hate. The sisters embrace each other with the tenderness and intimacy they both want from the men in their lives. Despite their closeness, sisterly love just isn’t enough. Pauline is impatient. She wants marriage and a sweeping cinematic happy ending. Frannie is more practical but refuses to squash her sister’s dreams.
Eventually, Pauline meets a tragic end foreshadowed by her bravery and nudity of the soul. In the Cut is largely about the mortal threat that men pose to women. Pauline, a woman without armor, dies instead of her sister–a woman who doesn’t trust easily and hides her feelings behind cryptic language and quips. Once Frannie does open her heart like her sister, she finds herself in peril. Still, Pauline’s death isn’t framed as a punishment. The film understands how tragic it is for women to have to take so many physical and emotional precautions simply to stay alive. Pauline didn’t want to shield herself. She wanted to be free.
Leigh plays another flailing sister named Pauline four years later in Margot at the Wedding. This time she’s opposite Nicole Kidman as Margot–a character that shares certain aesthetic and emotional similarities with Ryan’s Frannie. Again, Pauline is in awe of her cagey, composed sister. She thirsts desperately for her affection and approval, even as a settled mother on the cusp of becoming a wife. The moment Margot arrives Pauline effectively casts her fiance Malcolm (Jack Black) aside to be near her. It’s as if she acquired a man and settled down only as a means to impress her sister. During intimate scenes with Malcolm, she can’t help but obsess over Margot. These scenes made me wonder if the In the Cut version of Pauline mentioned Frannie often–even in the company of lovers.
The main difference between the Pauline from In the Cut and the Pauline in Margot at the Wedding is that one is blessed by the presence of her sister and that association kills her, while the other ultimately liberates herself by severing that tie. I do not see the liberation in Margot at the Wedding as a positive one, however. This Pauline has resolved to settle with Malcolm as a meager rebellion towards her sister. The early Pauline would never settle–and that is in fact what kills her. Perhaps, had she lived, early Pauline would have become the Pauline we see at the end of Noah Baumbach’s film. After years of chasing love with a full heart, she settles–perhaps out of exhaustion. I can see the bridge between the two characters, the life experiences that could bring her to her eventual resignation to a weeping man too spoiled by her love to be able to function without it. A love for her sister poisoned by a sense of competition, a bond eroded her constant unrequited nature.
One of the most interesting things about Leigh is her artistic devotion to tragic narratives. From the underlying melancholy of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the depressive, existential journey of this year’s superb Annihilation. Leigh plays perhaps her most tragic character in psychosexual thriller Single White Female. In the film, she has her usual longings: love, validation, sisterhood. But this time her solution is to become another person altogether. She plays a woman so unhappy with who she is, that the only way she finds confidence and purpose is by mimicking the woman she admires.
As Hedra, Leigh exemplifies a character trait I’ll call “enticing neediness”. This is a trademark of many of her most interesting roles. She appears to be a woman so unsure of herself, so desperate for encouragement, that she draws people in who want to “take care” of her. Often the people who enter her life are ill-equipped to look after her permanently, leading to devastating conflict. Allison (Bridget Fonda) is pulled in by Hedra’s supposed innocence, kindness, and vulnerability. “I never know what looks good,” Hedra says with a nervous smile. So Allison takes her shopping. When they’re home, she offers to share clothes. The friendship becomes intimate quickly–soon Hedra begins to show her obsessive behaviors. She sees herself in competition with Allison’s ex (Steven Weber) for her affection with the simultaneous, conflicting emotion of wanting to have him for herself.
In a lot of ways, Single White Female is one of the worst films Leigh has ever starred in, but her performance rises above the material so dramatically. One of Leigh’s most fascinating techniques is leading with her head. As Hedra, Leigh has a tendency to lean, physically and figuratively. She’s always propping herself up or fixing her body at an angle as if she can’t handle the weight of herself. And when she’s with Allison, she shoves that weight onto her. Allison tries to keep things light, but Hedra enters every interaction with so much baggage that it’s impossible to ignore. Because this is an erotic thriller, Leigh isn’t given the weight of character to match the weight of her performance. Her full backstory isn’t revealed until the end, in Psycho fashion. Though the film does begin with a rich flashback of two sisters staring into a mirror, the remainder of the film doesn’t match that depth. Leigh’s “leaning” is the main element that makes the film worthwhile. She provides all the depth.
She is able to perfect her trademark “enticing neediness” two years later in perhaps her best performance, Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. In the film, Leigh plays Dorothy Parker as a brilliant woman constantly undone by her inability to be alone. She thirsts for love and physical contact, regardless of how fleeting it may be. In one scene, after a sly smile, she allows herself to be picked up by her then-husband Edwin (Andrew McCarthy). She goes limp in his arms, surrendering to him and the moment. This is how Dorothy approaches her love life. In conversation, she is spirited and quick-witted. In her career, she is assertive and intellectually dominant. But with men, she takes what comes to her. She is always leaning–onto their shoulders, onto tables, doorways, in the air in front of her as if she hopes to be carried to them by no effort of her own. Leigh has a natural chemistry with every actor on screen. It’s as if she resolved to play Parker as a woman bursting with such sexual energy that is undeniable even in pleasant conversation. But she is never too forward. In one scene she asks, “would you like a drink before kissing me?” instead of going in for the kiss herself. Yet she is still full of intensity. Her eyes say “please take me”. The only thing Dorothy longs for more than love is her own death. And so, as a cruel joke, she outlives many of her friends.
Though Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is the performance she’s most known and acclaimed for, there is another film that possibly holds deeper meaning for Leigh. Released a year after, right on the heels of Mrs. Parker, there was Georgia, produced by Leigh and her mother Barbara Turner (who also wrote the screenplay). The titular Georgia was played by Leigh’s childhood friend Mare Winningham, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Leigh gained no accolades for her role as Georgia’s deeply troubled sister Sadie Flood, but she did succeed at creating one of her most tragic characters. Sadie Flood is, in a way, the most comprehensive example of a Jennifer Jason Leigh performance. She is equal parts the unhappy, jealous sister, the “leaning” woman, and the desperate lover. Sadie is an attractive, disruptive, draining presence. She takes with nothing to give, and can barely stand on her own two feet. She sings as if she’s holding on to the microphone for dear life. You begin to believe that without it, she would simply tip over. Her body vibrates with thirst. In an interesting twist, Georgia knows these things about her sister. Sadie’s true nature is too naked for her to ignore. Georgia knows that Sadie is a parasite and she tries to warn everyone around her of that fact, but her words always fall on deaf ears. Sadie is just too charming, too plucky–she has an underdog spirit that those around her can’t help but root for, even as they watch her self-destruct time and time again. Georgia’s warnings are too subtle and she loves her sister too much to be utterly vicious.
Georgia is a more nurturing presence than any of Leigh’s other cinematic siblings. Winningham plays the role as a tired mother, desperate to be relieved of her duties so that she can move on with her life. Georgia understands that she and Sadie will never truly be siblings until Sadie learns to take responsibility for her own life. Until that happens, Georgia will always be Sadie’s mother and thus always to blame when she fails. Sadie thirsts for approval while Georgia thirsts for the day when Sadie doesn’t care what she thinks.
Georgia is, perversely, a story about Sadie driving all her loved ones to abandon her. It’s a “tough love” story. Sadie is the physical problem of the narrative, so it only ends when everyone who was once close to her has deserted her. She’s a singer who can’t sing well but refuses to give it up even when she’s financially struggling. She also can’t stop drinking. Leigh commits entirely to the performance. She’s almost animated–rasping and writhing through her performances, rambling incessantly, eyes wide with sadness and tenacity. Every moment you can tell she’s barely making it through. In one scene she passes out on stage during a wedding gig. Later, the lead singer of the band (John Doe) is forced to bathe her because she’s too drunk to do it herself. Despite her helplessness, she’s still propelled by the desire to surpass her sister. She’s like a broken wind-up toy that won’t stop spinning. Georgia knows Sadie will never surpass her and has no sense of competition towards her sister.
“You don’t sing, Sadie. You can’t sing.” Georgia says bluntly near the end of the film. It’s a gut punch.
I have pondered why Leigh has made a career of playing characters like Sadie Flood. Many actors, when they gain more control over the roles they can play, opt to portray themselves as heroes. They play flawed geniuses, noble martyrs, and triumphant underdogs. Leigh has rarely done that. Even if we consider the film she co-wrote and co-directed (with Alan Cumming) The Anniversary Party, we see her opt away from playing a prototypical “strong female lead”. She instead plays a neurotic woman faltering in her career and marriage and questioning whether or not she’s any good at both. The film is populated by her real-life friends who all rally around her when they’re not dealing with their respective personal conflicts.
Lately, I find myself bucking at the term “strong female character”. I think the parameters for it are too limiting. There’s too much of a focus on “kicking ass” and being “independent”. I think it communicates a message that the only way that a female character will be considered “good” is if she mimics the male idea of what a worthwhile female character looks like. The other kind of female character that seems to interest men is the “suffering woman”, who crumbles under relentless abuse. When I asked about Leigh’s best performances, suggestions like The Hateful Eight and Last Exit to Brooklyn gave me pause. Though I think Leigh is a tremendous performer and good in those roles, she mainly exists in those stories to be mistreated by men. As a female critic, I get tired of writing about roles like that, where I have to constantly deconstruct the way men see women. I wanted to instead focus on roles that focused on women and their interior lives. I found those onscreen relationships to be much richer.
What I find fascinating about Leigh is that she often plays the unwanted–wayward sisters and lovers longing for permanence but never knowing how to get it. I admire the bravery of her performances. She’s fearless, unafraid to embarrass herself and look unattractive. It’s astonishing that an actress would dedicate her career to playing characters that are often pitiful–characters that are always asking for help. And even when they don’t get it, you love them for trying. She finds poetry in the broken and truth in unhappy endings. Jennifer Jason Leigh has perfected a method of making anguish compelling, fascinating and endlessly watchable. Her work is a legacy of bravery through vulnerability.