I think that, in this day and age, you must have more than just a simple pair of good performances in order to make a movie. Georgia, however, represents, for me one of the best examples of how two unique, totally left-field performances manage to carry an innately weak film and create a completely character-driven drama that succeeds wholly because of the work of the actors involved. Clearly a labor of love for those who made it, the narrative harkens back to the days when movies were made as an exploration of people’s lives rather than as an exhibition of their super-powers or their privileged internships for big, bad magazine editors (or any other big-budget, high concept extravaganza is gracing your local cinema each summer).
Jennifer Jason Leigh (the most under-appreciated actress of her generation) plays Sadie Flood, a dirty loser who has a single dream: to be a famous singer. She has the ambition. She has the desire. She even gets some gigs. The most important thing that she is missing, though, is huge: she cannot sing to save her life. Sadie is so deluded into believing that she’s talented that her drive and blind ambition lead her into a host of really weird places. She’s managed by a junkie-creep and sings backup for with a volatile blues singer while also sleeping with him. Add Sadie’s problem with drinking and heroin into the tragic reality of her lack of vocal skills and what you have is the slow-burning saga of a young woman sliding into a devastating downward spiral. Sadie never learns from her mistakes and this makes her a danger to herself and everyone else who knows her.
Another large problem that figures into the story is the title character Georgia. She’s a famous folk singer, who just so happens to be Sadie’s sister (much to her talentless sibling’s chagrin). Played with subtlety and grace by Mare Winningham in a soft, motherly tour-de-force, Georgia is a marvelous creation. Where Sadie is fire mixed with bare, grating nerves, Georgia is ice and calmness personified. She is a working mother who never really had the aspirations of her desperate sister, a star who handles her fame coolly. Winningham’s gentle, canny performance compliments Leigh’s less subtle turn perfectly and she uses her natural musical skills to great effect.
The film explores the dynamics of the sisters’ relationship believably and totally. The burden of having such a train wreck for a relative, of having to watch out for her and bail her out constantly, wears on Georgia. Naturally, jealousy is Sadie’s main problem with her sister. What the actresses end up creating is a dynamic portrait of familial devotion that is heartbreaking, frustrating and true. One of the film’s best scenes involves a benefit concert, in which Georgia has arranged a spot for Sadie to sing: Sadie, who uses her time pre-show to get sloshed, stumbles onstage and pummels her way through a Van Morrison song for eight very hard minutes. This scene shows why Leigh is among the best actors of her generation. She conveys Sadie’s desperation, her hunger for love and fame, her raw ambition, her devotion to her sister, and her own personal confusion all in one fell swoop. Another thing that’s painfully evident is that Sadie is truly untalented. Her singing is astoundingly bad and very hard to watch. It’s a dynamic sequence that by the end has the horrified Georgia coming out onstage to bail her sister out yet again.
The film is based on Leigh’s real life experiences with her own sister’s substance abuse problems, and I believe putting herself into her shoes is a brave and special form of flattery. There is also no doubt that the great deal of her own private grief is expressed expertly in Winningham’s touching performance. Georgia was written by Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, which makes it even more obvious that the film was made with care and love.
Leigh (who in real life is married to The Squid and the Whale director Noah Baumbach, and will star opposite Nicole Kidman in his next film), had a miraculous run of interesting character parts in the early to mid nineties: some of her most stellar work during this period includes playing legendary wit Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle; two vastly different hookers with hearts of gold in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn; two outings with Robert Altman (Short Cuts and Kansas City) and shows up as “the roommate from hell” opposite Bridget Fonda in Single White Female. The actresses’ work in Georgia only cements her as inventive, courageous and fiercely committed. Hopefully, her upcoming collaboration with her husband will put her back on the mainstream map.