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In explaining her love of acting, Jennifer Jason Leigh said, “I like to investigate all different kinds of people, and find out what makes them who they are, and try to be honest in the portrayal, and truthful, and how to communicate that person's experience.”

Leigh's own experience growing up in Hollywood made acting seem like a practical and even predictable career choice. “It just made it seem possible,” she said. “It wasn't like some idea of going to Hollywood. It was in my backyard...It's an industry town. So it wasn't some far-off fantasy. It was like 'Oh yeah, when you grow up, you do this because that's what people do here...I grew up like kids that I went to school with. Their parents were either shrinks or actors.”

Leigh's almost legendary penchant habit of thoroughly researching her roles and even writing diaries in the voice of the character she's playing, suggests she could very well have been a psychologist, but she followed the lead of her parents instead, both of whom had succeeded in the arts.

Born February 5, 1962 in Hollywood, California, Leigh's father was actor Vic Morrow who earned a certain screen immortality as the switchblade flinging punk who terrorized Glenn Ford's teacher in 1955's The Blackboard Jungle before earning small screen stardom in the popular Combat series in the 1960's. Her mother, Barbara Turner, is a screenwriter whose credits include Ed Harris' film, Pollock.

Her career choice was also influenced by films, including 1975's Dog Day Afternoon which she recalled seeing 17 times at age 14 when she was still too young to be admitted to the R-rated film without an adult agreeing to stand in line with her when she bought her ticket. The film “changed my life in a way. It had so much energy, and the characters were so interesting and so tortured and yet full of hope. At 14, I think that was the movie that inspired me the most.”

After studying acting in summer workshops taught by the legendary Lee Strasberg, Leigh earned her Screen Actors Guild card after a role in a 1977 episode of Robert Blake's Baretta series. This was followed a year later by a Disney production, The Young Runaways that she remembers because “I was so atrocious in it. You can literally see my eyes going from the person I'm looking at to the camera.”

Other TV assignments followed, including roles in The Waltons, CBS Afternoon Playhouse, Trapper John, M.D, and the ABC Afternoon Specials.There were also TV movies such as The First Time, Angel City, The Killing of Randy Webster, and Girls of the White Orchid.

Of her television work, 1981's The Best Little Girl in the World was the most memorable and gave audiences a glimpse of the dedicated actress she was in the process of becoming. To play an anorexic teenager, Leigh prepared for the role by dieting down to an alarmingly thin 86 pounds, but did so only with medical supervision.

“I've never done anything that I felt was crossing the line for me,” she said. “I've never shot heroin to play a heroin addict. I've never turned a trick to play a prostitute. You draw the line where you feel it could be harmful.”

She made her big screen debut playing a blind deaf mute victimized by a rapist in the 1981 horror flick Eyes of a Stranger, but it was as Stacey, the sex-obsessed teenager in the Amy Heckerling directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High a year later, that her career began to blossom. Her co-stars included Sean Penn, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, and Judge Reinhold, and, like them, Leigh's presence in the successful high school comedy would increased her workload. But she never considered capitalizing on her success in the film by accepting similar roles in equally commercial fodder:

“I could never play the ingenue, the girl next door or the very successful young doctor. That would be a bore.” Nor does she wish to be a conventional leading lady. “In mainstream movies, the woman's role is mostly just to prove that the leading man is heterosexual. I'm not good at that, and I'm not interested in that.”

By the time Fast Times at Ridgemont High had reached theaters, her father had been killed in a sensational and highly publicized accident on the set of Twilight Zone - The Movie. In what seemed to be a potentially ill-advised move for an actress whose career was taking off but not fully established, Leigh joined her sister Carrie in filing suit against three Hollywood heavyweights - Warner Bros., director John Landis, and producer, Steven Spielberg -  and won an out of court settlement that has never been publicly disclosed.

Her career continued to thrive, and the young actress was frequently drawn to characters who were considered either lurid or innocent but corrupted by their surroundings. After dying a grisly death in the bizarre 1986 thriller The Hitcher, she played a virginal princess raped by mercenaries in Paul Verhoeven's Flesh and Blood

Set in the pre-rock and roll days of 1950's America, the 1989 production of Last Exit to Brooklyn proved to be her biggest break yet. As Tralala, the tough prostitute of Hubert Selby, Jr's classic and controversial 1964 novel, she gave her finest screen performance to date, and one of her sexiest.  In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, she offers her sexual services to an entire diner full of men. To understand Tralala, she “met with a bunch of streetwalkers and spent time with them, and I read a lot about that period in America.”

Critics were divided on the merits of the film, but less so on Leigh's performance.

In The Washington Post, Desson Howe notes that Leigh “gives the best performance…but her efforts are nullified in a film he found “one dimensional.” TV Guide thought her “outstanding in a terrific ensemble cast,” while Vincent Canby of The New York Times found her “nearly perfect.”

Leigh would be honored by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics for her roles in both Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues. In the latter film, she was also cast as a prostitute. “I like whores,” she said. “I think they are really interesting.”

So successfully did Leigh inhabit these and other dark roles that the public was prone to confusing her with the characters she played on-screen.

“People can have so many ill-conceived ideas about me based on the parts that I play. I”ve had guys, when I've been single, come out of the woodwork to date me and I've found out very quickly that they were expecting some kind of whirlwind, some dramatic crazy person, and that's just not me.”

The role of another prostitute, one that would bring superstardom to Julia Roberts, wasn't her either. Leigh discussed the script of Pretty Woman with director Gary Marshall who “had no interest in me whatsoever.” The originally dark script was rewritten as a fairy tale - “a recruitment film,” Leigh observed, “Top Gun for prostitutes” - by the time it emerged as one of 1990's biggest box-office hits.

Leigh did land a role in another high-profile film that year, but Backdraft doesn't rank with her best work. “The only role I want to play in this film is the fire,” she allegedly told director Ron Howard. Instead, she was cast as William Baldwin's former girlfriend in this tribute to firefighters that also starred Kurt Russell and Robert DeNiro. Leigh did not object to being in such high-powered company, but felt out of place in such blatantly commercial entertainment.

“It's just that I'm terrible in them,” she explained. “I can't connect to them at all. And I tried everything. All the research in the world could not save me in that.”

Leigh enjoyed another commercial hit with 1992's Single White Female. As Hedy, the psychotic roommate who covets Bridget Fonda's identity, she created a portrait of evil that remains her most popular screen role. Of her performance, Marjorie Baumgarten of The Austin Chronicle said Leigh proves “she's simply one of the best actresses working in film.” Audiences seemed to agree, and Leigh won the MTV Movie Award as Best Villain for Single White Female.

“I just want it very real and very raunchy,” director Robert Altman said when casting Leigh as a telephone sex operator in Short Cuts, the revered auteur's ambitious, sometimes unwieldy 1993 adaptation of several Raymond Carver short stories.

“It was quite an education,” she remembered. “And all the phone calls in the movie are verbatim phone calls that I listened to, some of which I tape-recorded, which they didn't care about at all.”

Like most actors who worked with Altman, Leigh has high praise for the director.

“Altman could see things in me that I didn't know I possessed, which is really exciting. He also instilled a tremendous amount of confidence because he would say things like, 'These are the bare bones, but I want you to go fill it out. You find the character. You bring it to me. You write whatever you want.'”

And Altman had equally high praise for Leigh, calling her the actress against whom other actresses will one day be measured, and lauding her ability to transform her personality on camera. Leigh attributes that quality to her shyness.

“When I'm in someone else's skin, and I'm saying someone else's words and living their life somewhat, it's a lot easier for me, and I'm much freer and more extroverted, and I can communicate something about myself that I wouldn't dare communicate otherwise.”

In 1994, she appeared in two films of striking contrast. She joined Tim Robbins and Paul Newman in Joel and Ethan Coen's The Hudsucker Proxy, a wild comedy that had less to do with real life than the movies of the '30s that influenced it. “There's no realism in the movie at all,” Leigh observed. “It's a screwball comedy.” Like many of the Coen brothers' films, The Hudsucker Proxy was too quirky for mainstream audiences and vanished from theaters almost as soon as it arrived.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle didn't fare much better commercially, but it had a greater impact. Directed by cult favorite Alan Rudolph, the film cast Leigh as Dorothy Parker, one of the 20th century's wittiest and most tragic literary figures. Parker, Leigh said, “told it as she saw it, and she saw things pretty damned clearly.” This was in sharp contrast to the actress who acknowledges that “when I have opinions, I usually don't share them.”

As usual, Leigh delved deeply into her character.

“I read a bunch of things, and I met a lot of people who I think are similar to the character or could be, and picked things from different people. And with Dorothy Parker, there was just tons on her, and that was all I had to focus on, so it was a little bit easier in certain ways.”

Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, was impressed, calling Leigh's Parker “a charismatic, unforgettable heroine, stunningly well played...Ms. Leigh has greatly evolved from a promising young performer to an accomplished actress capable of dazzling surprises.”

In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert said the film “allows us to empathize with Dorothy Parker on her long descent. That is largely because of the performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh.”

Some critics found fault with the slurred mumble that Leigh spoke in throughout the film, but it accurately caught the flavor of the real Parker's speech. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle brought Leigh the greatest acclaim she had received to date. In addition to winning best actress notices from the National Society of Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics Association, and the Fort Lauderdale Film Critics, she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Surprisingly, Leigh has yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but then it may not be a surprise at all since the Academy has often overlooked the work of actors who defy easy categorization.

The Academy wasn't paying close enough attention the next year either when Leigh gave what may be her greatest performance in a film she co-produced and for which her mother penned the screenplay. Georgia cast Leigh as Sadie Flood, a barroom rock singer with little talent who feels competitive with her more successful sister, played by Mare Winningham.

“I'd always wanted to do a movie about sisters,” she said, “because I'm very close with both of my sisters, and I always wanted to play a singer, but I don't really have much of a voice.”

Leigh performed all of her songs live in the film, and won the most sterling notices of her career.

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers called her “fierce, funny, exasperating and deeply affecting,” while Kenneth Turan showered her with even greater praise in The Los Angeles Times. “Leigh's exceptional performance tears you apart,” he wrote, adding “we've never seen anything like it before.” Roger Ebert praised the film as a “complex, deeply knowledgeable story about a truly lost soul and her downward spiral.”

Leigh admits that, like many actors, shaking off the characters she plays isn't always easy.

“Even when you think you can, you don't. Because you're spending so much time trying to realize this person and make them real that they do infect you in a way. And you do take them home and live with them, even if you think you're turning the character off…It usually takes about two and a half weeks after you're done filming where you kind of return to yourself again. It's subtle.”

She reunited with Robert Altman for 1996's disappointing Kansas City and was memorable Catharine Sloper in the 1997 adaptation of Washington Square. In 2001, she returned to mainstream films as the doomed wife of Tom Hanks in The Road to Perdition. Her greatest challenge may have been the same year's The Anniversary Party which she co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in with Alan Cumming which won special recognition for excellence in filmmaking from the National Board of Review and was a nominee for best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. In 2007, she was cast by her husband, Noah Baumbach opposite Nicole Kidman and Jack Black in Margot at the Wedding.

Even though she has yet to be nominated for the Oscar she earned many times over, Jennifer Jason Leigh has definitely made her mark in cinema. Paul Verhoeven, who directed her in Flesh and Blood, said “There is no greater actress working in America,” and Vogue hailed the “extraordinary range and power” in her performances. Even though, at age 44, she is only at midpoint in her career, she was honored by the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles with a retrospective of her films. And there will undoubtedly be more great Jennifer Jason Leigh performances in the near future.

“I'm always looking for something unusual or new to do,” she says. “I like a movie that the audience actively has to participate in, and not just casually observe.”


--by
Brian W. Fairbanks



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