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
Sunday 12 February 1995
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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