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Jennifer Jason Leigh: Quick Change Artist

The September 1992 issue of Movieline magazine featured a cover story on Jennifer Jason Leigh and a headlined that boldly proclaimed the actress a “future Oscar winner”.  That seemed like a relatively safe bet at the time given the critical adoration heaped on Leigh up to that point.  But to date, Leigh has only been nominated for one Academy Award for The Hateful Eight in 2015.  Writer Stephen Rebello also predicted that Leigh’s next movie, the thriller Single White Female, would lead to more parts in mainstream movies.  Turns out, that didn’t happen either.

I’ve known only one woman before Jennifer Jason Leigh who could come near to her for radiating a suggestion of how unforgettable, how ineffably mysterious, how monumentally creepy an erotic encounter can be. That girl–brown haired, features askew, mousy, even–didn’t have to wear torpedo bras and tight sweaters, and never rat-combed her hair or troweled on the eye jazz, but she royally pissed off the trophy girls, the Junior Misses and pom-pom girls, of my high school. She read, but never made a thing about, Miller, Faulkner and Nabokov, while the rest of us settled for Harold Robbins, and, though she always had a snappy line or kind word for kids from every clique, she kept herself to herself. Her sensuality, I came to learn, was a life force that could unleash gales of laughter when we swilled her daddy’s best booze and tore off our clothes in an attic smelling of camphor and orchids. When it came to a slow dance, an “Angel Baby” or “Moon River,” say, no guy with half a hormone could ignore the musk she sent sailing across the gym. No one ever learned anything about her, really, because she didn’t give up anything easily. Just when you thought you knew what she was, she changed. And finally, she took up with a college guy from out of town.

I’ve talked to other guys for whom Jennifer Jason Leigh, her brilliance as an actress aside, conjures up similar associations. If she stunned you as a high-schooler aching to be deflowered in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as the tenement Marilyn Monroe gang-raped by a pack of slobs in Last Exit to Brooklyn, as the runaway waitress who dreams of her own Burger King franchise in Miami Blues, or as the narc-cop-turned-junkie in Rush, then you know. Even when she’s in crud– Eyes of a Stranger (her first film), Easy MoneyThe Men’s ClubHeart of Midnight or Grandview, U.S.A. –something’s there. It’s in that mouth, chiefly, those baby-like, slightly spaced teeth and the wry, mocking curve of her lips.

That she transforms herself from movie to movie–the walk, the talk, the affect–arouses admiration, certainly, but also heat. It’s almost as if she plunges herself into acting not to find herself, but to gain release. The abandon, the masochistic languor with which she seems to give herself up to starvation (the TV movie The Best Little Girl in the World), being drawn and quartered by a truck (The Hitcher) and raped by vermin (Flesh + Blood) somehow says I will never bore you. The fact that she is the daughter of actor Vic Morrow, who lost his life while shooting Twilight Zone: The Movie–Hollywood’s most bizarre, controversial on-the-set mishap and cover-up–only deepens her weird vibe.

Into that bargain she throws jolts of willfulness and passion that make for a highly watchable, if idiosyncratic career. Leigh’s been getting acting raves from the beginning, and two years ago she copped a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn. But what might spin her into pop immortality is director Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, an exhilaratingly nasty new thriller in which she plays Bridget Fonda’s roommate from hell. It’s a movie that could finally see her nose past those other three-name actresses (Jamie Lee Curtis, Mary Stuart Masterson, et al.) and into the Jodie Foster league, where she belongs.

Knowing that Leigh is as notoriously press-wary as she is critically acclaimed, I’m not quite sure what to expect from her on first meeting. She arrives garbed in a dark blazer over denim, and up close she radiates pouty, edgy sensuality and intelligence. I decide to start our conversation fast, so I bring up the scene from Single White Female that is sure to be the most talked about. In it, Leigh dresses up in Fonda’s clothes in the dead of night and slips into a dark hotel room where she awakens Fonda’s boyfriend (Steven Weber) with a stupendous blow job.

“Blow jobs aren’t new to me on-screen,” Leigh says softly, grinning when I raise the subject. She is referring to her character in Last Exit to Brooklyn, who had permanently chafed knees. “We didn’t use any, umm, props, for those scenes in that movie, so what made this one so twisted is that Barbet Schroeder had the prop people go to a sex shop and get this enormous rubber dildo, because he wanted my mouth around something. Very authentic. I put mint-flavored oil on it, and it was so embarrassing and funny, I said, ‘Look, if anybody laughs, I will fucking kill them.’ Working with the dildo turned out to be awkward though, because I was crawling back up the side of [Steven’s] body and it was crawling up with me. For a long time in the film, there was this point where I’m talking to [Steven] down around his abdomen, and suddenly there’s like this two-shot of me and the dildo. Barbet, who loves actors so much, thought, ‘Well, no one would notice it.’ Of course, the studio removed it.”

Leigh-watchers won’t be surprised either by how good she is in the movie or how incredibly sexually fucked-up she comes off, a twisted moonchild who crawls under your skin. “I just saw an interview I gave for the electronic press kit to publicize the movie and I’m answering these questions with my face and eyes like. . .” she breaks off and suddenly takes on the aspect of someone you pray won’t sit next to you on the subway.

Then, shaking her head as if to shake away the memory, she continues, “See, we had just finished shooting the movie and I seem so weird that . . . well, let’s say that character was still infecting my system like a virus. I’ve never thought that I was the easiest person to be around when I’m shooting a movie. It always affects me. But I’d never before actually seen how that process changes me in my daily life.”

While Leigh waits to see whether she will become America’s favorite new screen crackpot, she listens, curious, as I read aloud phrases from encyclopedias of movie stars that describe her as: “one of the most affecting actresses of her generation”. . . “chubby-faced” . . . “admiration from critics, but not a fan following”. . . “her star seems on the rise”. . . “chameleon-like.”

I ask Leigh if it isn’t this chameleon thing–she’s a hotcha blonde in one movie, battered brunette in another, auburn-haired minx in the next–that explains why audiences can’t quite seem to get a line on who in hell she is. “The chameleon thing is mine,” she asserts. “I like not having a profile, that feeling of not knowing what you’re going to see from one movie to the next because you’re watching that character, not me. Reading or hearing people write about you is terribly alienating. I don’t want attention for myself. I don’t get followed, and I’m not one of those people who’s whispered about in restaurants. I don’t really think that I’m that recognizable. Or maybe that’s just some wish I have. My ideal life would be to play all these great characters and disappear, in terms of the world.” After a beat, she adds, laughing, “And I could have done without the ‘chubby-faced.'” Indeed, nothing about Leigh is chubby.

Like such fellow Serious Actors as Eric Stoltz (with whom she made Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sister, Sister and had a serious relationship), Sean Penn (another Ridgemont High grad) and Jason Patric (her Rush-mate), Leigh has been known to go to lengths to stake out off-center roles. For example, when she met with Uli Edel, director of Last Exit to Brooklyn: “One thing I wasn’t willing to do was pretend I had enormous breasts like the character in the book. But I met him wearing a very tight dress so that he could see what my body looked like, and I smoked like a fiend, trying to convey the feeling of the character. The producer kept giving me these unfiltered German cigarettes, and my heart started pounding and I thought I was going to die. I wore very little makeup. And oh, I gave myself some bruises.” Excuse me, but, self-inflicted bruises? “Oh, I just banged my leg, arm and neck into a door a couple of times,” she says with quiet matter-of-factness. Then she laughs and says, “Gotcha! No, with makeup. Bruises are really easy.”

What Leigh goes through to get roles is nothing compared with what happens once she wins them. She describes in clinical detail how she developed “an anorexic mentality” and starved herself to 86 pounds to play a teenager with an eating disorder in The Best Little Girl in the World. She worked at a Sherman Oaks pizzeria to check out high-school students before doing Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She lay on the ground virtually naked for five nights in below-freezing weather to shoot a rape scene in Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood. On every movie she keeps extensive diaries written in the “voice” of each character. Cripes, I’m thinking, head for the hills if Martin Scorsese asks her to play Saint Joan.

To enact a sole surviving twin in Single White Female, Leigh immersed herself in six weeks of classic psychiatric case studies, watched “Oprah” reruns about twins, and interviewed institutionalized twins and their shrinks. While shooting the movie she covered her dressing-room walls with photographs of Fonda, the object of her character’s obsession.

“Something I learned from my research is how, unless Bridget’s character’s in the room, my character feels like a Siamese twin cut from her ‘other’ without being stitched up. As if her guts were spilling out. So, with the photographs I did a lot of face-splitting, where you take two photos and make one with my eyes and her mouth. I try not to suffocate people with my preparations, but Bridget’s so honest, alive, funny that I loved working with her and it wasn’t a problem. But I know, for instance, it frightened Lili Zanuck on Rush at first. The prep I do isn’t for anyone else but me. It gives me a place of truth to draw upon. I often discover something that could inspire a scene. If the director is open to it, as Barbet was, it’s great for me.”

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Posted on September 5, 2017, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. The ladies are actresses! Awesome. Among others, Jennifer too was deserving of much more than she received. Patricia Arquette won for Boyhood, great. But it would be about time Hollywood forgets about their politics views about which type of role an actor plays and recognize the girls talent no matter who/what is the character and what it takes to play it. It’s been a long time those 90s femme fatale(s) have been on the screen and for one, Arquette was awesome in True Romance and many others.

    Liked by 1 person

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