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Then and Now: Jennifer Jason Leigh

Michael Goth | 08 July 2013 | Actress, Indie News, Mainstream News, The News Room | | 0 Comments   

Then and Now: An in depth look at the career of actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

By Michael Goth

Jennifer Jason Leigh is the greatest actress of her generation. 31 years ago at the age of 20 the estranged daughter of actor Vic Morrow warmed herself into the hearts of moviegoers as the sympathetic Stacy Hamilton in the Amy Heckerling directed Fast Times At Ridgemont High.

Jennifer is known for picking roles that she finds interesting and will contribute to her growth as an actress, even if the film has little box office potential. Infact, the Ron Howard film Backdraft in 1991 is the only high grossing movie that Jennifer has ever been it. Even Fast Times was only a marginal hit that didn’t truly find its audience until it was run on cable and released on video.

Jennifer Leigh Morrow was born on February 5, 1962 in Hollywood, California to actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner. She has an older sister, Carrie Morrow, and a half-sister, Mina Badie, from her mother’s marriage to television director Reza Badiyi. Jennifer is Jewish of Russian descent on her father’s side.

Jennifer’s parents were divorced when she was only two years old. Something that she never forgave her father for. Father and daughter were still not on speaking terms in July of 1982 when Vic Morrow was killed along with two young children during the filming of the John Landis segment of Twilight Zone-The Movie, when a helicopter crashed on the set. So that people would not associate her with Morrow, as a teenager Jennifer changed her professional middle name to Jason after actor Jason Robards, a family friend.

Jennifer studied under Lee Strasburg, the father of method acting, when she was 14 as well as attending Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Center in New York City. Guest starring roles on such shows as The Waltons and Baretta soon followed as well as a role in the 1981 slasher movie Eyes of a Stranger.
First time screenwriter and former Rolling Stone contributing writer Cameron Crowe went undercover as a high school senior to see how real teenagers acted and what issues they faced. The result was the bestselling novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which was bought by Hollywood before it was even published, by producer Art Linson (The Untouchables, Heat, Fight Club), who hired Crowe to write the screenplay and newcomer Amy Heckerling to direct.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High remains one of the most realistic high school movies ever produced. In the film Jennifer’s character, Stacy Hamilton, is continuously pressured into having sex by her best friend Linda, played by Phoebe Cates, and ends up pregnant and has to have an abortion. If the hysterical banter between Sean Penn as surfer dude Jeff Spicoli and Ray Walston as history teacher Mr. Hand is the comical highlights of the movie, then the heart of the film is Jennifer’s Stacy Hamilton. One misconception of teen pregnancy is that only bad girls get pregnant but Stacy is a good girl, though one who should listen less to Linda and more to her own heart.

Another highlight of Jennifer’s early work was the cult horror film The Hitcher. In The Hitcher Jennifer plays alongside C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer. Her character is Nash, a young woman working in a roadside Texas diner who becomes involved in a deadly psychological mind game between Howell and Hauer. Nash is also victim of a terrible death compliment of the deliciously evil Hauer.

In 1990, Jennifer received great critical recognition for playing troubled prostitutes in Miami Blues and The Last Exit to Brooklyn. She received the New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for Miami Blues and the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for Last Exit. The late great Chicago Tribune critic Roger Ebert named The Last Exit Out Of Brooklyn as one of the best movies of 1990 and praised Jennifer for her performance.

In the early 90’s, Jennifer flirted with mainstream Hollywood success beginning in 1991 in the Ron Howard directed firefighter action-thriller Backdraft where teen pregnancy is that only bad girls get pregnant but Stacy is a good girl, though one who should listen less to Linda and more to her own heart.
Another highlight of Jennifer’s early work was the cult horror film The Hitcher. In The Hitcher Jennifer plays alongside C. Thomas Howell and Rutger Hauer. Her character is Nash, a young woman working in a roadside Texas diner who becomes involved in a deadly psychological mind game between Howell and Hauer. Nash is also victim of a terrible death compliment of the deliciously evil Hauer.

In 1990, Jennifer received great critical recognition for playing troubled prostitutes in Miami Blues and The Last Exit to Brooklyn. She received the New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for Miami Blues and the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for Last Exit. The late great Chicago Tribune critic Roger Ebert named The Last Exit Out Of Brooklyn as one of the best movies of 1990 and praised Jennifer for her performance.

In the early 90’s, Jennifer flirted with mainstream Hollywood success beginning in 1991 in the Ron Howard directed firefighter action-thriller Backdraft where she played William Baldwin’s girlfriend. Backdraft is a fine movie but Jennifer’s part is quite small and really doesn’t give her much to.
Jennifer was given a much meatier role later in the year in Rush. Rush features what may quite possibly be Jennifer’s finest performance as Kristen Cates, a narcotics officer who is assigned to work alongside Jason Patric. The agents falls in love but soon become victims of the very drugs they are trying to get off the street. Rush is an intense and provocative thriller that unfortunately didn’t find an audience.

In 1992, Jennifer was given the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain for her very effective performance as a mentally ill woman in Single White Female who moves in with Bridget Fonda. Jennifer’s character seems normal, almost shy at first, but soon her psychotic behavior begins to surface as she begins to become jealous of the relationship between Fonda and her boyfriend (Steven Weber). Though not a huge hit, Single White Female did respectable business at the box office and remains one of Jennifer’s best performances. Jennifer was also nominated for the Chicago Film Critic’s Association Award for Best Actress.

Jennifer teamed up with Kathy Bates in director Taylor Hackford’s 1995 film adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling novel Delores Claiborne. Jennifer plays a young woman addicted to pills with a history of childhood sexual abuse, who returns to her hometown when her mother, Delores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), is accused of murder. The film is one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel and all involved give great performances. Still the movie failed at the box office. Delores Claiborne was also Jennifer’s last attempt to break into the Hollywood mainstream.

Georgia, also released in 1995, was a small low budget film produced and starring Jennifer. The screenplay was written by Jennifer’s mother, Barbara Turner, and like Delores Claiborne touched on the theme of family estrangement. Jennifer plays a rebellious and drug addicted singer named Sadie Flood, who has spent the last couple of years unsuccessfully trying to make it in Las Angeles Sadie returns to her hometown and conservative sister, Georgia, a successful country singer played by Mare Winningham. Jennifer dropped to 90 pounds to play Sadie and also received some of the best reviews of her career.
Jennifer spent the remainder of the 1990’s appearing in small independent films stating that she was uncomfortable with the Hollywood limelight, and preferred to make small personal films with characters that audiences could care about instead of big budget Hollywood productions.

In 2001, Jennifer co-wrote and co-directed (with Alan Cumming) The Anniversary Party about a troubled couple (Jennifer and Cumming) who have recently gotten back together and are throwing a party to celebrate their 6th wedding anniversary. Jennifer plays Sally, an aging actress who is currently starring in a film. However, the director (John C. Reilly) believes that Sally’s heart is no longer in her acting. Along with Reilly, who appeared with Jennifer in Delores Claiborne and Georgia, the cast was made up of friends of both Jennifer’s and Alan Cumming’s including Jennifer Beals, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Parker Posey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jennifer’s step-sister Mina Badie . Almost the entire cast appeared with Jennifer in previous films. The Anniversary Party is a wonderful and moving film that ranks among the best Jennifer had ever made.

Jennifer Jason Leigh continues to work in small independent films and on stage as characters she cares about and hopes that the audience will as well. At age 51, Jennifer continues to deliver heartfelt performances in roles that are diverse and challenging.

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