[11 February 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
That Jennifer Jason Leigh, who took her second name from family friend Jason Robards, has missed out on even a single Oscar nomination during her courageous and lauded career simply does not make sense.
JJL started off her career strongly, with a performance in the television film The Best Little Girl in the World that showed a ferocious commitment to using her body as a tool to show not only her character’s specific physicality, but also their complete history. This Strasbergian talent for transforming has become something of a trademark for the actress, who the very next year appeared in the landmark Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which made her a household name and branded her a breakout star of her generation.
In 1990 Leigh has serious Oscar buzz around a pair of performances that saw her playing extremely disparate variations on hookers with hearts of gold, “Tralala” in Last Exit to Brooklyn and Susie Waggoner in Miami Blues. Leigh won the New York Film Critics award for Best Supporting Actress that year for her work in both films, but in a year of tough competition where even bigger stars, in much more popular movies (like Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge and Winona Ryder in Mermaids) also missed out of nominations, it’s easy to see why Leigh might have been overlooked. But in 1990, when the Academy was embracing risky work by eventual nominees Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and Annette Bening (The Grifters), Leigh had very strong buzz and would have not been a total surprise as a nominee.
Leigh, I think, should have gotten her first Oscar nomination for Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is an unsparingly tough, often-messy look at a group of of desperate characters that could only have come from the mind of Hubert Selby, whose novel the film was based on. She is dynamic, bold in her aggressive sexuality, spectacular in her singular vocal work; a drunken, guttural version of Jean Harlow sauntering around postwar Brooklyn struggling to stay alive in a veritable snake pit of sick souls that are reminiscent of those hardscrabble wharf rats in Josef Von Sternberg’s Docks of New York.
“Tralala” ultimately becomes this black film’s tragic heart and Leigh’s performance soars with every passing scene. It’s a truly fearless performance in every sense. And when stacked up against an almost-unbelievably different character “Susie” in Miami Blues, you can see the tremendous skill and intellect this woman possesses as a performer; that fearlessness in tackling two such electric characters and pulling them both off flawlessly is so rare on screen. Since Oscar rules dictate only one performance per actor can be nominated per category, Last Exit to Brooklyn would have to be my grudging choice, but both performances are wholly deserving.
#1: Last Exit to Brooklyn
There was major Oscar buzz surrounding JJL’s next venture, a lead performance as a cop-turned-junkie in an adaptation of the popular book Rush. The film would end up being congenially-received and not the box office or Oscar hit that many expected. Still, Leigh’s performance in the film, opposite Jason Patric, is extremely strong, and of course intense and committed, which was becoming a distinct signature. If Bette Midler could actually go on to get an Oscar nomination for For the Boys, there is no logical reason JJL should not have at least been in heavy contention that year. I would award her nomination number two for Rush.
Single White Female was a popular box office hit that succeeded largely due to Leigh’s creepy portrayal of a disturbed young woman who tries to assume her new roommate’s life and identity; murdering anyone who gets in the way. In an extremely weak year for Best Actress, why not just go ahead and give JJL nomination number three for showing such range and versatility? It makes perfect sense to me!
#3: Single White Female
In 1994 Leigh won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Actress, as well as her first Golden Globe nomination and was also runner up for the New York Film Critics Best Actress prize for playing the legendary wit (and legendary drunk) Dorothy Parker for Alan Rudolph in the highly-touted biopic Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Nailing all of the mannerisms of the film’s infamous central figure, Leigh for the first time in her career showed an uncanny knack for impersonation. In a career that was so branded by playing daringly original characters, her studious, immaculate take on playing someone who really existed shows yet another impressive register in her versatile range as a performer. Nomination number four should have happened here without a doubt, given that most people would say 1994 was relatively weak year for Best Actress.
#4: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle
In 1995, there were two films that again called attention to the fact that Leigh could play a train wreck like nobody’s business. In lesser hands, her characters in Dolores Claiborne and Georgia might have come off as whimpering caricatures of unlikable, highly-strung women both dealing with serious, life-threatening issues. Instead, Leigh turns these films into opportunities to explore, with exacting grace and ruthless introspection, two extremely damaged woman, and in the end, when these breathless performances are finished, we wind up being both frightened and moved by the complex emotional makeup she is able to show through these characters. We care about these characters that it might be easy to dismiss as being abrasive or undeserving of sympathy. To do that once a year, I imagine, is very difficult, but twice to me seems impossible.
Yet, if 1990 showed us anything, it was that Leigh was truly the one actress of her generation that could pull a miracle like that off. Leigh won the Best Actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1995 for her searing, painstaking work as an untalented addict desperate for fame in the shadow of a celebrated sister in Georgia, and this film should have been nomination number five for the actress in my world, but definitely should have brought her the first in real life. Many pundits predicted her in this hotly-competitive year for the category, most citing a brutally-long take in which her character, the shrill Sadie Flood, has an embarrassing public meltdown singing a Van Morrison song at an AIDS benefit and needs to be rescued by her famous singer sister’s lilting voice and charisma.
I would go one further and award Leigh nomination number six, in the Best Supporting Actress category for an equally-interesting portrayal of an abuse victim who confronts her past and her tough-as-nails mother—the title character played brilliantly by Oscar-winner Kathy Bates—and faces a complete nervous breakdown in the process. Her bright chemistry with Bates is alone worth a nomination.
#6: Dolores Claiborne
Margot at the Wedding in my book should have netted Leigh her first win for Best Supporting Actress playing the neurotic, bohemian sister of Nicole Kidman’s title character in Noah Baumbach’s underrated 2007 look into the lives of two complicated sisters with a frayed relationship who reluctantly reunite on the eve of JJL’s character Pauline’s wedding. So, in Mazur world, the expertly-shaded, wryly warm work from Leigh would have been nomination number 7, win number one. Work this richly-textured and natural is never easy but Leigh once again makes it look effortless, constantly evolving and improving as she ages; her instrument more finely-tuned than ever.
#7: Margot at the Wedding
Though her work as an actress-playing-an-actress is exceptional in the 2002 film she co-directed with Alan Cumming, The Anniversary Party, it was her work as a writer that appealed to me in that film, and it is her attention to detail on the page that merits perhaps more serious consideration of her work as a storyteller, which would be continued with Greenberg in 2010. Cases for acting nominations could also be made, I suppose, for Leigh’s additionally-excellent work in the following films: Short Cuts (1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Washington Square (1995), Kansas City (1996), The King is Alive (2000) and In the Cut (2003) but I would place JJL’s overall deserved nominations total at of 7, with one win for Margot at the Wedding as Best Supporting Actress. Completely disturbing and senseless that she has never once been Oscar-nominated.