Though not a major "household name", Jennifer Jason Leigh's work
has drawn high critical acclaim and a cult following. Salon
magazine praised Jennifer as “one of America’s best actors”,
Paul Verhoeven, who directed her in Flesh & Blood, similarly
claimed “There is no greater actress working in America”, and in
1994 Vogue magazine claimed “Leigh sets a standard that all
future film actresses must attempt to match… (She has) an
extraordinary range and power. The proof is in her diverse,
courageous and mesmerizing body of work”. Unusually for an
actress of her age, she has already received three separate
career tributes – at the Telluride Film Festival in 1993, a
special award for her contribution to independent cinema from
the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2002, and a week-long
retrospective showing of her film work held by the American
Cinematheque at Los Angeles’ Egyptian Theatre in June 2001. In
addition to these achievements, Jennifer Jason Leigh was
selected as one of "America's 10 Most Beautiful Women" by
Harper's Bazaar magazine in 1989.
Born Jennifer Lee Morrow, she is the daughter of Blackboard Jungle actor Vic Morrow and Pollock screenwriter Barbara Turner, although Leigh was raised mostly without religion. Jennifer changed her middle and last name, taking the middle name "Jason" in honor of family friend, the late actor, Jason Robards, Jr.
At the age of 14 Jennifer Jason Leigh attended summer acting workshops given by Lee Strasberg and received her Screen Actors Guild membership in an episode of the TV show Baretta when she was 16. An episode of The Waltons and several TV movies followed, including an unusually powerful portrayal of an anorexic teenager in The Best Little Girl in the World, for which Leigh wasted away to a skeletal 86lbs under medical supervision. Jennifer Jason Leigh made her screen debut as a blind, deaf and mute rape victim in the 1980 slasher flick Eyes of a Stranger, which she later remembered as “a horrible, horrible film”. In 1982 she played a virgin who gets pregnant in Amy Heckerling’s popular high-school comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which served as a launching pad for several then-unknown future stars besides Leigh, including Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Phoebe Cates.
As an adult, Jennifer Jason Leigh gravitated towards portraying fragile, damaged or neurotic characters. Jennifer Jason Leigh's waify baby-doll looks soon got her cast in victim roles – she was a virginal princess kidnapped and raped by mercenaries in Verhoeven’s medieval adventure Flesh & Blood (1985), an innocent waitress dismembered by a lorry in The Hitcher (1986), and a young woman sinking into mental breakdown in a seedy nightclub inherited from her uncle in Heart of Midnight (1989). It wasn’t until 1990 that Jennifer made a significant career breakthrough when she was voted the year’s Best Supporting Actress by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Boston Society of Film Critics for her portrayals of two very different prostitutes: first as the tough, emotionally numb, self-destructive streetwalker Tralala – who instigates a gang-rape by drunkenly giving herself to all the men in a bar – in Last Exit to Brooklyn, and then as the sweet, braindead waif whose dreams of suburban bliss are shattered by psychotic ex-con Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues. She followed up with another harrowing performance as an undercover narcotics cop who becomes a junkie in the line of duty in Rush (1991), and the role most filmgoers associate her with: Hedy, the psychotic “Roommate from Hell” in the smash-hit thriller Single White Female (1992). Leigh was perfectly cast as the needy, frumpy emotional vampire intent on stealing Bridget Fonda’s identity, in the process creating one of the screen’s creepiest female psychopaths. She had a rare opportunity to showcase her dazzling comic timing as a fast-talking, hard-as-nails bitch reporter who has her heart melted by Tim Robbins in the Coen Brothers’ surreal comic fantasy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), and won a slew of awards for her eccentrically mannered portrayal of the depressed, alcoholic writer and poet Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). Some criticized Jennifer’s decision to deliver dialogue in a slurring, lockjawed mumble, but her speech was an uncannily accurate impersonation of the real Dorothy Parker; she received a Golden Globe nomination and Best Actress awards from the National Society of Film Critics, Chicago Film Critics Association and Fort Lauderdale Film Critics.
Next up was the role that many critics, fans and even Leigh herself considers the greatest performance of her career: Sadie Flood, a passionate but talentless, angry, substance-addicted barroom rock singer living in the shadow of her successful older sister (played by Mare Winningham) in Georgia (1995). For this role Leigh dieted down to 90 pounds and performed all the songs live, including a painful 8½-minute version of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back”. Critic Peter Travers of Rolling Stone felt that “(Leigh’s) fierce, funny, exasperating and deeply affecting portrayal commands attention”, James Berardinelli claimed “There are times when it's uncomfortable to watch this performance because it's so powerful”, while Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said “Leigh’s exceptional performance tears you apart… we’ve never seen anything like it before”. This time around she won Best Actress awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and Montreal World Film Festival, though not the expected Oscar nomination which mysteriously still eludes her.
Other memorable Jennifer Jason Leigh roles of this era included a jaded phone s-- operator who diapers her newborn baby while plying her trade in Robert Altman’s Academy Award-nominated masterpiece Short Cuts (1993), Kathy Bates’ tormented, pill-popping journalist daughter in the Stephen King chiller Dolores Claiborne (1995), a streetwise kidnapper in Altman’s jazz tribute Kansas City (1996), a mousy 19th century spinster heiress courted by a gold-digger in Washington Square (1997), and a s--y/nerdy virtual-reality game designer hunted by anti-games terrorists in David Cronenberg’s surreal eXistenZ (1999). In 2001 she joined forces with Scottish actor Alan Cumming to write, direct and produce a film together, shot in 19 days on digital video and starring real-life Hollywood friends like Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly and Parker Posey. The result was The Anniversary Party, a well-received ensemble comedy in the style of The Big Chill or Peter's Friends. Jennifer Jason and Cumming jointly received a citation for Excellence in Filmmaking from the National Board of Review, and were nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay.
More recently Leigh has been cast in smaller character roles: as gangster Tom Hanks’ doomed wife in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), as Meg Ryan’s brutally murdered sister in Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), and as Christian Bale’s sympathetic hooker girlfriend in the dark thriller The Machinist (2004) (causing Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle to comment that, “As the downtrodden, s--y, trusting and quietly funny prostitute, Leigh is, of course, in her element”). Her performance as a manipulative stage mother in Childstar won her a Genie Award in 2005.
Also a stage actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh took on the singing, dancing lead role of Sally Bowles in the popular musical Cabaret on Broadway from August 4, 1998 to February 28, 1999, and took over from Mary Louise Parker in Proof from September 13, 2001 to June 30, 2002. Other theatrical appearances include The Glass Menagerie, Man of Destiny, The Shadow Box, Picnic, Sunshine and Abigail's Party.
Jennifer and her boyfriend of four years, Academy Award-nominated independent film writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), announced on September 26, 2005 that they had married the previous weekend. The couple are planning to collaborate on a film project starring Nicole Kidman in the future.
Jennifer Jason Leigh has been best friends with her Fast Times at Ridgemont High/The Anniversary Party co-star Phoebe Cates for nearly 25 years. Other close friends include Mare Winningham, Alan Cumming and John C. Reilly.
Film List for Jennifer Jason Leigh
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