Friday, January 4, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (5) Jennifer Jason Leigh in GEORGIA (WITH A GUEST CONTRIBUTION FROM J.D. LAFRANCE)

"Poor little girl,
ran away for good.
I try to explain why she won't say a thing..
Sad, sad thing,
I'm so far away now.
How can I say why she won't talk at all?
She holds a deck of cards.
She wants to be alone.
'I've been very ill, I've tried waking up.
Now I want to be alone."
-John Doe, Exene Cervenka, "Poor Girl", 1983-

It happened around 1991, around the time of Rush, when Jennifer Jason Leigh went from being one of America's most talented young actors and became some kind of supernatural force of nature...the likes of which cinema only sees every other decade or so.  For a five year period or so Leigh delivered a series of performances that rivaled any seen in American film history from Brando in the fifties to De Niro and Pacino in the seventies to Rourke in the eighties.  Not all the films were great but when Leigh was given a suitable role in this period the results were electrifying and unforgettable.

There were several performances Jennifer Jason Leigh has given in her now four decade career that I could have chosen for this series.  If I had to pick her absolute greatest role I would say that few actors in cinema have ever delivered a performance as truly touched by genius as her work in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) but I had to go for her work in the crushing Georgia (1995), not only for personal reasons but because the thing that blows me away so much about her work as the heartbreaking Sadie Flood is that it is a creation that comes entirely from the heart and soul of Jennifer Jason Leigh, whereas she had a real-life basis with Dorothy Parker.  
I've never seen anything quite like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia.  Her work is an unbelievably original and unique creation.  It's as though she was able to take all of those X albums we listened to in the eighties and transform them into this performance...all those haunted, lonely and strung-out characters in those songs (how fitting that John Doe shares the screen with her here) come to life in Leigh's performance in Georgia and it is spellbinding to watch.  It's a crushing performance to watch as well...if Bridget Fonda represents the wonderful vibrancy of my twenties, then Leigh is my dark place.  Memories that are hard but necessary.  

I knew that the great J.D. Lafrance, who runs the always unstoppable Radiator Heaven, admired Jennifer Jason Leigh as much as I do so I was thrilled when he agreed to write me up a piece for this series.  Thanks so much to J.D. for this wonderful piece and VIVA Jennifer Jason Leigh!
-Jeremy Richey, 2012-

J.D. Lafrance on Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia, written for Moon in the Gutter in 2012.

Georgia was a very personal, passion project for actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose mother, Barbara Turner, produced the film and wrote the screenplay. Georgia depicts the tempestuous relationship between two sisters, both of whom are singers with Leigh playing Sadie, the younger, less talented one, and Mare Winningham playing the older, more successful one. The film is rich with characterization as it explores the complex relationship between two siblings. Leigh delivers a truly fearless performance as she actually sings in the film, unafraid to play someone who makes up what she lacks for in talent with passion. 

At one point, she sings a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” in a raspy whisper that is mesmerizing to watch and then sings backup for a band terribly, screeching her way through a song. It really takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like Leigh does, not just in the music scenes but also off-stage in the way she relates (or doesn’t) to those around her. As always, the actress fully inhabits the role and it starts with her look, adopting raccoon-eye makeup and a perpetually disheveled appearance that represents her messy life.

Leigh’s gutsy performance culminates in an intense performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” that seems to go on forever (in a good way) as we see Sadie at her most vulnerable. This sequence encapsulates her character perfectly – all ambition and passion with no talent. She tries so hard that your heart really goes out to her despite being a painfully awful singer. It is this scene that really divided critics and fans of Leigh but I’ve always found it powerful and real with a rawness that is rare. 

While Georgia belongs to Leigh, she is a gracious performer, allowing others to take center stage while she supports them. Sadie is just one of those people that eventually rubs everyone the wrong way whether it be her sister, her manager or her husband. She is one of the many damaged characters Leigh has excelled at playing over the years and perhaps the most fascinating. She runs the emotional spectrum in a performance that is among her very best. By the end of the film you really feel like you’ve gone on a journey with Sadie and seen her through ups and downs. The film ends very much as it began with each sister living their own very different life, leaving us to wonder what might happen to Sadie as she continues to pursue her dreams.

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