Leigh, Jennifer Jason

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LEIGH, Jennifer Jason

Nationality: American. Born: Jennifer Jason Leigh Morrow in Los Angeles, California, 5 February 1962; daughter of the actor Vic Morrow and the writer Barbara Turner. Education: Trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Career: Began appearing as a guest actress on such TV series as Family, The Waltons, and Trapper John, M.D., 1970s; made her stage debut in a Los Angeles Valley College production of The Shadow Box, 1979; made her screen debut in Eyes of a Stranger, 1981; earned her first important notices in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982. Awards: Best Supporting Actress New York Film Critics Circle, Best Supporting Actress Boston Society of Film Critics, for Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn, 1990; Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup-Best Ensemble Cast, for Short Cuts, 1993; honored with a tribute at the Telluride Festival, 1994; Best Actress Independent Spirit Film Award, Best Actress National Society of Film Critics, Best Actress Chicago Film Critics, for Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1994; Montreal World Film Festival Best Actress, New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress, for Georgia, 1995. Agent: ICM, 8942 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90211, U.S.A.

Films as Actress:


The Young Runaways (Mayberry—for TV) (as Heather)


Angel City (Leacock—for TV) (as Kristy Teeter)


Eyes of a Stranger (Wiederhorn) (as Tracy); The Killing of Randy Webster (Wanamaker—for TV) (as Amy Wheeler); The Best Little Girl in the World (O'Steen—for TV) (as Casey Powell)


Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Heckerling) (as Stacy Hamilton); Wrong Is Right (The Man with the Deadly Lens) (Richard Brooks) (as young girl); The First Time (Nosseck—for TV) (as Bonny Dillon)


Easy Money (Signorelli) (as Allison Capoletti); Girls of the White Orchid (Death Ride to Osaka) (Kaplan—for TV) (as Carol Heath)


Grandview, U.S.A. (Kleiser) (as Candy Webster)


Flesh + Blood (The Rose and the Sword) (Verhoeven) (as Agnes)


The Hitcher (Harmon) (as Nash); The Men's Club (Medak) (as Teensy)


Under Cover (Stockwell) (as Tanille La Rue); Sister, Sister (Condon) (as Lucy Bonnard)


Heart of Midnight (Chapman) (as Carol Rivers); God Bless the Child (Elikann—for TV)


Last Exit to Brooklyn (Edel) (as Tralala); The Big Picture (Guest) (as Lydia Johnson)


Miami Blues (Armitage) (as Susie "Pepper" Waggoner); Buried Alive (Till Death Do Us Part) (Darabont—for TV) (as Joanna Goodman)


Rush (Zanuck) (as Kristen); Backdraft (Ron Howard) (as Jennifer Vaitkus); Crooked Hearts (Bortman) (as Marriet)


Single White Female (Schroeder) (as Hedra Carlson); The Prom (Shainberg) (as Lana)


Short Cuts (Altman) (as Lois Kaiser)


The Hudsucker Proxy (Coen) (as Amy Archer); Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (Rudolph) (as Dorothy Parker)


Dolores Claiborne (Hackford) (as Selena St. George); Georgia (Grosbard) (as Sadie, + co-pr)


Kansas City (Altman) (as Blondie O'Hara); Bastard Out of Carolina (Huston—for TV) (as Anney)


Washington Square (Holland) (as Catherine Sloper); Spawn II (Nelson, Radomski—for TV) (as voice of Lilly); A Thousand Acres (Moorhouse) (as Caroline Cook)


The Love Letter (Curtis—for TV) (as Elizabeth Whitcomb); Thanks to a Grateful Nation (Holcomb—mini for TV) (as Teri Small); Hercules (for TV) (as voice of Tempest the Amazon)


eXistenZ (Cronenberg) (as Allegra Geller)


Skipped Parts (Davis) (as Lydia Callahan); The King Is Alive (Levering); Beautiful View (Turner)


By LEIGH: articles—

"Actors, Agents, Atmosphere," interview, in Interview (New York), September 1985.

"Ice Cold Spain," interview by K. Ferguson, in Photoplay Movies & Video (London), January 1986.

"Midnight Heart," interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment (New York), March-April 1990.

Interview with Lance Loud, in Interview (New York), May 1990.

Interview with Jeff Yarbrough, in Interview (New York), April 1991.

Interview with D. Rensen, in Playboy (Chicago), February 1992.

"Quick-Change Artist," interview with David Handleman, in Vogue (New York), February 1994.

"Jennifer Jason Leigh Feels Your Pain," interview with Lynn Darling, in Esquire (New York), December 1994.

Interview with Jancee Dunn, in Rolling Stone (New York), 30 November 1995.

Interview with John Turturro, in Interview (New York), January 1996.

"Cumming Attraction," interview with Alan Cumming, in Interview (New York), October 1998.

"Fearless Leigh," interview with Michael Fleming, in Movieline (Los Angeles), April 1999.

On LEIGH: articles—

Seidenberg, R., "Jennifer Jason Leigh," in Premiere (New York), March 1989.

Blue, Carol, "Leighway," in Interview (New York), October 1989.

Collins, G., "A Galaxy of Fallen Women Conjured Up by a Rising Star," in New York Times, 9 May 1990.

Weiss, Philip, "Jennifer Jason Leigh Flirts with Stardom," in Rolling Stone (New York), 17 May 1990.

Wolcott, James, "Gold Rush," in Vanity Fair (New York), February 1991.

Current Biography 1992, New York, 1992.

Hooper, J., "The Devil and Miss Leigh," in Esquire (New York), January 1992.

Rebello, S., "Quick Change Artist," in Movieline (Los Angeles), September 1992.

Sessums, Kevin, "Single White Phenomenon," in Vanity Fair (New York), July 1993.

Gaitskill, Mary, "Actress Seen in Strip Joint," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), September 1993.

Johnson, Brian D., "Acting on the Edge: Jennifer Jason Leigh Likes to Play the Extremes," in Maclean's (Toronto), 15 January 1996.

Remy, Vincent and Rouchy, Marie-Élisabeth, "Georgia," in Télérama (Paris), 24 May 1997.

* * *

Jennifer Jason Leigh's most typical roles have been young women who are deeply vulnerable, and whose lives have taken disastrous, potentially tragic turns. Her characters often are quite sexually active, using their bodies and their sexuality to temporarily—but never permanently—ward off their demons.

Her performances are consistently memorable. Her first substantial screen role came in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, released in 1982, when Leigh was 20 years old. Her character is a forerunner of many of her later roles: Stacy Hamilton, a virginal high school student who is so curious about sex that she soon is "doing it" with everyone in sight, much to her eventual disillusionment and degradation. Fast Times at Ridgemont High featured a large cast of up-and-comers, including Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Forest Whitaker (and, in smaller roles, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, and Nicolas Cage). Yet Leigh was singled out as a star-to-be. "Don't they know they have a star on their hands?" raved critic Roger Ebert. "I didn't even know who Leigh was when I walked into [the film], and yet I was completely won over by her. She contained so much life and light that she was a joy to behold."

Through the 1980s, Leigh found herself in a series of mostly unmemorable movies. Her next eye-catching performances came in Miami Blues, playing an ingenuous young woman whose boyfriend is a killer, and Last Exit to Brooklyn, cast as a troubled prostitute struggling to survive in a chaotic world. Two impressive follow-ups were Rush (as a narcotics cop who becomes addicted to both drugs and her troubled partner) and Single White Female (playing a psycho roommate—and an all-out villainess). Leigh's most representative performances were in Miami Blues and Rush; both are related to Fast Times at Ridgemont High in that her characters start out as well-scrubbed or well-meaning innocents but end up exploited and mistreated.

Leigh has not always played the bleary-eyed, substance-abusing victim. In The Big Picture, she displays a flair for comedy as a zany performance artist. In Short Cuts, she is a matter-of-fact working-class housewife employed as a phone-sex worker, who diapers her baby as she purrs erotic nothings into the ears of faceless strangers at the other end of the line. And in The Hudsucker Proxy, Leigh is Amy Archer, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who sets out to destroy paper-tiger corporate president Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins). The actress plays the role with more than a touch of Katharine Hepburn in her voice and mannerisms. Archer might be a variation of the character Hepburn played opposite Spencer Tracy decades earlier in Woman of the Year: a tough and respected journalist who is feminized in the course of the story.

A truly outstanding—and controversial—starring role came in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Alan Rudolph's take on the famed Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s. At the film's core is the character of the writer-humorist Dorothy Parker (played by Leigh). She renders Parker as a brittle, sensitive lost soul, a woman who attained a certain level of professional success but who was not destined to find personal contentment. Some felt Leigh's acting to be Oscar-worthy; others were convinced she was grossly miscast, and garbled her way through her performance. In any case, she did not have the central role in her follow-up to Mrs. Parker. In Dolores Claiborne, Leigh is Selena St. George, a psychologically scarred journalist who is long estranged from the title character, her mother (Kathy Bates). Bates's performance is the commanding one here; Leigh's role is the less sensational. But the two actresses play off one another quite effectively.

In her next film, Georgia, scripted by her mother, Barbara Turner—her father is the late actor Vic Morrow—Leigh finally secured what may prove to be the role of a lifetime. Georgia, to be sure, is not a great film, but it does offer what was to be one of the most outstanding performances of 1995. Leigh commands the screen as Sadie, a young woman whose older sister, Georgia, is a famous and beloved folk-rock singer who is as well-adjusted as she is beautiful. Sadie is something else altogether. She is a self-destructive wannabe singer who toils as a motel housekeeper and plays with bands in dreary bars and bowling alleys, while her sister fills concert halls. Sadie drinks "whatever's cheap or free," and often does so first thing in the morning. She at once admires and loves her sister, and is jealous of her success. This only partially explains the underlying tension between the two, which plays itself out as the story unfolds. The film's major flaw is that Sadie is depicted as having little talent, which simply is not true. Sadie might be a clone of Janis Joplin; in the person of Leigh, she offers moving renditions of various songs, especially Van Morrison's "Take Me Back." The result is a case of an actress transcending her character's limitations.

During the latter half of the 1990s, Leigh kept on playing desperate characters. In Kansas City, Robert Altman's flavorful Depressionera saga, she is Blondie O'Hara, a despairing young telegraph operator who is obsessively in love with her husband, a pea-brained young hood, and concocts a scheme that involves the kidnapping of a prominent socialite. In David Cronenberg's less-than-enthralling eXistenZ, she plays a virtual reality game designer who finds herself trapped in one of her own concoctions. In Anjelica Huston's controversial Bastard Out of Carolina, she is an emotionally fragile, tragically dependent woman who ignores her second husband's sexual abuse of her pre-teen daughter. In Jocelyn Moorhouse's A Thousand Acres, a middling King Lear variation, she is one of three daughters of a stubborn farm patriarch (and is overshadowed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange, cast as her siblings). By far her best role of the period was in Agnieszka Holland's version of Henry James's Washington Square. Here, Leigh is cast as Catherine Sloper, the awkward, plain-Jane daughter of wealthy, domineering Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), who finds herself suddenly courted by poor-but-dashing fortune hunter Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin). As in Dolores Claiborne, Georgia, Kansas City, Bastard Out of Carolina, and A Thousand Acres, Leigh plays a character with a complex familial bond.

Almost 50 years earlier, Washington Square was filmed as The Heiress, with Olivia de Havilland winning a Best Actress Oscar for playing Catherine. While this was not the case with Leigh (she did not even receive a nomination), her acting is nonetheless sparkling.

—Rob Edelman