For an actress who's been working regularly for more than 35 years (since the age of 9), and who comes from a Hollywood family (her father was actor Vic Morrow and her mother is screenwriter Barbara Turner), the great Jennifer Jason Leigh seems severely taken for granted. It's possibly fitting that outside her Best Villain win at the 1992 MTV Movie Awards, her most prestigious non-critic or non-festival-based awards have come through being part of ensembles. Unlike some great performers regularly likened to chameleons, she's more comparable to a camouflaging lizard for her ability not to stand out too much while doing her job perfectly -- I don't consider it bad that I forgot she's in Synecdoche, New York, for instance.
Try to name her best performance, or her best movie. It's not easy, whether because she's consistently brilliant or because she's not exactly in many truly brilliant films. And honestly, I may not have seen her "greatest" performance, whether it was in Miami Blues, The Hitcher, Rush, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Georgia, Dolores Claiborne, Single White Female, Last Exit to Brooklyn or maybe her first prominent and memorable film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I'm particularly fond of her as the quirky avant garde filmmaker Lydia in The Big Picture, and one of the few films of hers I really enjoyed is Cronenberg's eXistenZ -- that and The Hudsucker Proxy, though she's probably my least favorite part of the Capra-like Coen brothers film.
However, it's the first film she co-wrote, The Anniversary Party, which features the role I believe to be her best. Not because it resulted in her best performance -- which is difficult to measure -- but because it seems the best suited for her. I know, that's a given since she wrote it for herself. But what does that matter? Many people, from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen to Matt Damon to Sylvester Stallone have written their own best roles. And don't try to argue that it was too easy for her, playing a part somewhat based upon herself, surrounded by real friends and co-directed by herself. I'm not saying this is the best display of her acting talents. I don't think it is in the least.
In the film, Leigh plays Sally Nash, an "iconic" 40-ish actress celebrating her six-year anniversary with her author-turned-director husband, Joe (played by Alan Cumming, who also co-wrote and co-directed the film with Leigh). To celebrate, they throw a get-together with the couple's close friends (including Leigh's real-life best friend, Phoebe Cates) and enemies. Among other dramas, Sally is dealing with the fact that she's reached that age for women in Hollywood where she's too old for the most sought-after leading roles. Even Joe, who is adapting his first feature from his own hit novel, has cast a young starlet (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) rather than Sally, despite the fact that the part may even be based on her.
Certainly Sally's status in Hollywood is a reflection of Leigh's own struggles, just as the subplot involving the main characters' marital problems was inspired by a recent real-life breakup she'd been through. But it's not the primary theme of the film; there are a number of other little stories going on among the ensemble of characters, some involving Sally, some not. And I like that about Leigh's part in the writing and directing of The Anniversary Party, that she's still okay being a part of a whole. Even when the scene is about Sally (and Leigh), she's not too indulgent or self-serving, as she allows both her character and herself to come across as anything but perfect.
Take for example the climactic scene in which Sally and Joe finally get into an argument about the part she feels she deserves. It's actually one of the lesser moments in the film, as it plays like an exercise from an improv class (albeit an advanced class). But it's also the moment you realize Leigh isn't just playing herself, because while Sally is "out of touch with reality" and also pretty full of herself, Leigh is clearly quite aware and humble. Not much later, after another traumatic event, Leigh does exhibit some of her finest acting while shooting a superficially evil yet completely justified look at Jennifer Beals' character, and then immediately following it with a remarkable display of integrity and emancipation. In the first scene, I feel I know what Leigh herself is thinking, while in the latter scene I get what's going on in her character's head. What a terrific balance from an artist.
I've always been surprised Leigh doesn't get more and better work, even nearly ten years after The Anniversary Party. If she even wants that. If she were male, she could easily be doing the kind of out-there protagonists Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp and her Machinist co-star Christian Bale get to do. She should at least be considered for more villain roles, but alas even most of those are given to men. And like Meryl Streep -- if not as well as Meryl Streep -- she could easily go back and forth between serious drama and silly for-the-money types of roles.
Interestingly enough, just after the release of The Anniversary Party, Leigh started dating filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who she married in 2005, and he has actually cast her in fairly prominent (if not starring) roles in both Margot at the Wedding and his new film, Greenberg, which she co-wrote. Hopefully, her cred and popularity will rise again soon, whether via her husband's films or through some other way -- maybe another directorial effort with Cumming? I'm not that concerned that one of our generation's best method actresses will likely never be nominated -- let along win -- an Academy Award. But I am nervous about her talent being wasted away on another decade of films like The Jacket and In the Cut, and thankless roles as tiny as the one she had in Road to Perdition and Synecdoche.