Cinema: Singular white female

With 'Short Cuts' and 'Single White Female', Jennifer Jason Leigh corne red the market in dangerous women. In her new film, she takes on Dorothy Parker . And this time she might just win an Oscar. David Thomson reports

If Dorothy Parker were alive still, and not too drunk, she might have had a great line ready this year as (and if) Jennifer Jason Leigh gets nominated for the best actress Oscar - playing the lead in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. The line? "There's always one nomination for someone playing a handicapped person - but this year the handicap is the acting." Now, I cannot recall ever having heard Princess Margaret do Mae West, but that's as close as I can get to conveying the astounding and quite demented voice Leigh has cultivated for Mrs Parker. Put it another way, she is like someone studying ventriloquism who has just had Novocaine for dental work. The story goes that Leigh spent hours and months listening to recordings of Dorothy Parker. In theory, that's reasonable and conscientious. And I don't doubt the tour de force by which the actress has imitated the writer's real voice. So what? If it's a voice most filmgoers will have difficulty hearing, and if it drives them out of their tree with its mannerism, then the theory breaks down. Perhaps Dorothy Parker did sound like that. Perhaps she'd have been a little less miserable if she'd taken elocution lessons. Maybe there was a link between her very private, isolating way of speaking and how she was consumed in liquor and self-pity, waiting to die, tossing off her lines. But nothing ever happened to her that is remotely like a story, let alone a movie. So the voice remains a matter for speech therapists, not film-makers. The fault is far more director Alan Rudolph's than it is the actress's. Early on (like before they began shooting), he might have realised that this wasn't working, that there was nothing there to work, and that Jason Leigh's unbounded acting was flooding through the empty rooms like water on the Titanic. She is . . . amazing: her pale lemon of a face is more bitter than ever beneath the cloche of black hair; she moves, reacts and is generally alienated from life like a text-book psychotic; for as well as being Mrs Parker, she is doing herself - getting into the dead-eyed, pinch-mouthed picture of pretty poison, but doing it so you can't take your eyes off her - if only out of self-defence. It was three years ago that Jennifer Jason Leigh established just how dangerous and beguiling she could be. Single White Female was her breakthrough. That movie begins with the glassily lovely but superficial Bridget Fonda as a young Manhattanite who hadnearly everything. Then she learned that her fiance was still sleeping with his ex-wife. So that was over, and she was left all of a mess with a large apartment and a big rent to pay. She advertises for a SWF, and is depressed by the variety of unsuitable applicants. Things are not going well, and at the end of a hard day she sinks down in a corner for a pretty weep, taking care not to spoil her very cool designer clothes (done by Milena Canonero). Then the high-angle shot sees a shadow entering the top of the frame, to be followed by a long granny dress and heavy black boots. Straightaway, we know this would-be flat-mate is not for Fonda: there's a major fashion antagonism. Then we see that it's Jennifer Jason Leigh, gazing with all her coiled avidity at Fonda's model mask. Every audience member begs Fonda to show her the door (she has sneaked in unannounced). We can tell the risk is greater than a clothes clash - Leigh means to be Fonda, and shemeans it meanly. This is the Bad Fairy about to eat the Good Fairy. It is also hardcore Strasberg Method acting ready to demolish "I feel pretty" in straight sets. Leigh was a Lee Strasberg student, and she's also the daughter of one of Hollywood's most forlorn rebel actors - Vic Morrow. To begin to understand the look on Leigh's face it may help to realise how unlucky Morrow was. Born on Valentine's Day, 1932, Morrow was a year younger than James Dean and five years older than, say, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. He was blond and good-looking, but he had the resentful look of a pretty boy anxious not to be thought soft. He had a big debut as the class leader in Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, the same year as East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, the year Dean was killed. Morrow was very striking in Blackboard Jungle, which was a big hit and the object of great controversy. Everyone said how promising he was, and you could tell bow seriously Morrow took his acting. He was doing Brando in a determined way so that it was not easy to separate the rebelliousness of the teenage hoodlum he was playing from the actor's resolve to find his own motivation and sense memory. You got the feeling that no one else in scenes with Vic Morrow was ever too sure what he was going to do next. His reputation for being difficult mounted; his mouth grew more swollen in sulk and his suspicious eyes narrowed. By 1958 it was clear he wasn't going to make the big time as an actor. By then, Morrow had married an actress named Barbara Turner. Their daughter, Jennifer, was born in Los Angeles in 1958. In the same year, Morrow and Turner became friendly with a television director named Robert Altman. In fact, Morrow would have one of his glory periods as co-lead in the TV series, Combat, which ran from 1962 to 1967 and which, in its early years, was largely directed by Altman. According to Patrick McGilligan's Altman biography, the director became Turner's admirer and patron: a love affair is hinted at. In addition, Altman encouraged Turner to write the first screenplay of Petulia, for him - but that picture was eventually made by Richard Lester in 1968 (when Turner got no credit). The friendship faded: Turner and Morrow divorced; Turner married Reza Badiyi, a television director and another Altman protege. That also ended in divorce. In the one picture I've seen, Turner's is a very intelligent face, but angry and suspicious. If you put the faces of Turner and Morrow together you have Jennifer Jason Leigh, and you recognise her as the child of two talents who felt used and cheated by the system. Turner wrote for TV, but never had another big film credit. Morrow stayed in work, without ever reaching stardom. On July 23 1982, he was filming the movie version of The Twilight Zone, doing a battle scene. There was an explosion beyond anything intended. A helicopter crashed, killing Morrow and two children in the scene with him. Jennifer Jason Leigh was 24, and just beginning to get roles after she had dropped out of high school to take acting classes. She had years in small parts and trashy pictures - as a deaf, dumb and blind victim in Eyes of a Stranger (1981); on TV, suffering from anorexia, in The Best Little Girl in the World (1981); in Wrong is Right (1982); getting good notices as the pregnant kid in Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982); in the Rodney Dangerfield movie, Easy Money (1983); in Grandview, U.S.A. (1984); as the girl in Paul Verhoeven's strange period piece, Flesh & Blood (1985); the waitress in the diner in The Hitcher (1986). She never looked prettier than in a 20-minute spot as a call girl in The Men's Club (1986). But in general, pushing 30, she didn't have the looks for stardom; nor did she seem inclined to take extra cosmetic care of herself. It was her attitude, as much as her looks, that stood in her way. She was off-beat, not ingratiating or easily accessible. Even when she gave the camera her best smiles you felt her wariness and some insidious taste for the dark side. She was a cop in the awful Under Cover (1987); wasted in Sister, Sister (1987); pretty good having a breakdown in Heart of Midnight (1988); and very funny as a capital-E eccentric in The Big Picture(1989).

Then she won the role of Tralala in the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), in the most notorious sequence of which she is raped by so many men she is like a turnstile at a major rail terminus. Plenty of actresses would have turned the role down - thescene almost required that the actress mine her own feelings of degradation and self-abuse. (For a Strasbergian, it may have been a trip to hell.) But it was noticed, and Leigh came into her own. In George Armitage's Miami Blues (1990), she played a simple-verging-on-stupid young woman who falls for the psychopathic Alec Baldwin. In cropped hair and unbecoming clothes, Leigh seemed not just willing but eager to be the opposite of glamorous or appealing. But her work was artless and without condescension: you felt you were seeing the kind of lower-class life that American movies seldom bother to notice. Then, in 1992, she had two unquestioned starring parts. In Rush, she played the police woman who goes under cover on narcotics work with Jason Patric and herself becomes an addict. Rush came from a best-selling autobiographical book by Kim Wozencraft andit was the directorial debut of Lili Fini Zanuck, the wife to former studio head, Richard Zanuck. It was a picture that seemed to promise a great deal, but in the event it failed at the box office because it was such a downer. The two leads seemed to have plunged into the depressing and non-communicative aspects of drug-taking. The one thing the picture lacked was the "rush" of excitement. Yet again, Leigh allowed herself to look like a drowned rat - except that "allowed" isn't quite the word. DustinHoffman "allowed" himself to be idiotic in Rain Man - which never stopped him being adorable and hugely praised. Leigh in Rush insisted on being like a form of life exposed to the light when a rock is turned over. And no one loved her or the film. In Single White Female, of course, she was hired to be hateful - she is the flat-mate from hell, if only Bridget Fonda were smart enough to see it in time. But Fonda is so passively lovely and so forgettable that Leigh took over the film, as well as Fonda's clothes, hair-style and private life. The scene in which she slips into Fonda's lover's bed, while he is sleeping, and fellates him is hideously funny because the good guys in the film are so much duller than Leigh's greedy gourmet. This is a more knowing head than he's ever had before. He knows it isn't Fonda down there in the dark, but Leigh looks up and gives him a quick grin before he surrenders. Still, there were warning signs that Leigh's skill at pathology was becoming studied and polished. There's a scene where the two flat-mates look in a mirror together, and Leigh growls that she's out of Fonda's league as a looker. The evidence of our eyessupports her, but it also makes clear that Leigh is an actress beyond Fonda's grasp. If there was any question about Jennifer Jason Leigh having cornered a rare kind of female outlawry it was dispelled by Short Cuts. The old family friend, Robert Altman, invited her into the circle of players set on making a portrait of Americana in the stories of Raymond Carver. In a gallery of beautiful actresses, in and out of their clothes - Andie McDowell, Anne Archer, Madeleine Stowe, Julianne Moore, Lori Singer, Frances McDormand - Leigh played the grungiest and most sexually explicit woman in the picture. She was a wife and mother of two young children who dispensed sexual talk and fantasy over the phone. Her hair was lank blonde this time. She prowled around the house, feeding the baby, playing with her little boy, all the while murmuring intimate filth into the phone tucked under her chin. The husband - an increasingly bewildered and deranged Chris Penn- regarded this job, and the way the children were accustomed to it, with inarticulate horror. But, she snarled at him: "You should be happy I have a job where I'm home all the time" Then she was coaxing cereal into baby's mouth while telling some phone stranger how hot and wet she felt. Leigh was as stunning as she was plain: the trick of playing out the character's mundane domestic routine while soaring into the realm of erotic fantasy was managed with insolent aplomb. And the situation was funny, at first - as grisly as the malice she had displayed in Single White Female. Leigh had apparently asked Altman for this role, and had drawn it from someone she had known. One cannot say that some Los Angeleno mothers don't have jobs like that. But with the deadpan relish shown in Short Cuts? The character seemed increasingly implausible, and more and more an audition exercise for an actress. It has often been a weakness in Altman pictures that characters do things to suit the whim and inventiveness of a player. Sometimes that is deemed a kindness to actors. I'm not so sure: self-indulgence eventually becomes isolating. And when the Chris Penn character explodes at the end of Short Cuts - in part because he cannot digest his wife's behaviour - so there is a disastrous failure to tie together all the loose strands of the film. The action is forced, but its peril began in letting an actress seem so flagrant and audacious as to be beyond belief. The woman's refusal to be discreet with her job, mouthing obscenities in front of the children, is not just an involuntary indignity of capitalism, it is aggressive and flamboyant. But without explanation or basis. Much the same complaint can be levelled at Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, directed by Alan Rudolph but produced by Altman. We see Dorothy Parker as a bravura depressive, suicidally eloquent. Her sad song never wavers. But why? She and Robert Benchley are depicted as having a true feelingfor each other, but one they cannot act on. Why? That failure of belief needs to be explored, but that would require a coherent script and a richer drama. Instead Mrs Parker has just the sepia look of nostalgia, a very pretentious framework and the feeling that Dorothy Parker existed for no other reason than to quote herself. Jennifer Jason Leigh is extraordinary in the film. Yes, it's great acting, but done in a vacuum, and so exaggerated that it seems hostile or disdainful. There will not be many roles for such an actress, no matter that she wins awards and admiration. Leigh is a chameleon. She seems to take perverse pleasure in altering her looks, as if to defy the lack of unequivocal beauty. In Single White Female, a bankclerk tells her a different person every time she comes to the bank." I thought you must be an actress," says the clerk. Leigh is that kind of actress, always finding a fresh face and even a different body for a role. Sometimes it is only that wicked nymphet mouth, humorous, sensual but worried - like crossed fingers - that gives her away. She is also notoriously shy of public appearance and much given to the philosophy that she only exists when acting: "Acting is my lifeline, my only way of communicating outside myself. I completely embody a character if she feels alive and free in a way that I can't in my own life, for whatever reason. To get up in front of people as me is terrifying." There's a danger in that precarious brilliance, even a wilful attitudinising that may lose touch with life. Jennifer Jason Leigh can outact just about any of her contemporaries - but can she act with them, in something like dramatic harmony? Can she convince us that she lives our life? In one of her best known poems, "Resume", Dorothy Parker assessed the drawbacks to several means of suicide and concluded with bleak resignation - "you might as well live." In fact, the misanthropic Parker made it to 74. Jennifer Jason Leigh might heed that line, and be a little more commonplace.

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