Also Credited As:Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jennifer Leigh Morrow
|Actor, Director, Producer, Writer, Music, Other|
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She first garnered critical attention as Casey Powell, the anorexic teenager in the TV-movie "The Best Little Girl in the World" (ABC, 1981), and made her feature film mark as a young teen who gets an abortion in Amy Heckerling's finely observed teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). Despite critical acclaim for "Fast Times," it was eight years before Leigh's next notable role, as the prostitute Tralala in Ulrich Edel's grim adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel, "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1990). Her uncompromising performance was followed by two more gritty films in which Leigh portrayed ostensibly fragile women with unsuspected reserves of strength: "Miami Blues" (1990), as another woman of ill repute; and "Rush" (1991), as a narcotics cop-turned-addict.
Leigh portrayed yet another unhinged character in Barbet Schroeder's "Single White Female" (1992). As Heddie, Leigh transformed herself from a frowsy seemingly supportive woman into the sleek "roommate from hell" who attempts to overtake Bridget Fonda's identity. She followed with the small role of a woman who works as a phone sex operator from her home in Robert Altman's episodic "Short Cuts" (1993). In the Coen brothers' "The Hudsucker Proxy" (1994), Leigh essayed an award-winning journalist who goes undercover and romances the new president of an industrial company. Some critics faulted Leigh's use of Katharine Hepburn-inspired accent while others compared her work with that of such 1940s stars as Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck. Her eccentric yet powerful portrayal of writer Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" (1994) won her citations as the year's best actress from the National Society of Film Critics and the Chicago Film Critics Association but not the expected attention from the Academy. Her performance was not without controversy; some found her accent indecipherable, yet Leigh claimed to have studied recordings of Parker and patterned her speech on them.
In 1995, Leigh again displayed her versatility, first in "Dolores Claiborne" as the title character's haunted careerist daughter and then as a drug-addicted singer wannabe in "Georgia". In the latter, her character was scripted by her mother, Barbara Turner, and was reportedly based in part on Leigh's older sister Carrie. Again, critics were divided over her emotionally vivid depiction of a character constantly living on the edge. Leigh ventured into lighter territory in 1997 playing a plain-Jane heroine who falls in love with a handsome gold digger in the film version of Henry James' "Washington Square." Leigh's take on the role differed greatly from Olivia de Havilland's interpretation in the 1949 film "The Heiress," which was also based on James' book, in that her performance is much quieter and her bashful, innocent character takes a spiritual journey to independence that is a far cry from the one de Havilland takes to revenge and bitterness. Leigh followed that film up with another bittersweet romance, this time re-teaming with her "Mrs. Parker" co-star Campbell Scott for the TV-movie "The Love Letter" (CBS, 1998). Here, she played a lonely, young Civil War-era woman who develops a passionate correspondence with a man who lives in the 20th Century via a magical roll-top desk. Unlike most of Leigh's movies, this one had a happy ending.
The actress returned to playing tortured souls in 1999, replacing Natasha Richardson as miserable nightclub performer Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" opposite Alan Cumming. The part not only proved she was a compelling presence on stage, but also showed she was an adequate singer and dancer as well. The following year saw the actress star as an isolated computer game designer who is more comfortable playing a character in a game than she is dealing with people in real life in "eXistenZ," David Cronenberg's bizarre sci-fi flick. It was a role she acknowledged was one to which she could relate as in her mind acting offered a similar escape.
Leigh continued to add to her gallery of misfits throughout 2000, acting in the fourth Dogme 95 film, "The King Is Alive" (screened at Cannes), which focused on a group of passengers on a broken down bus who pass the time by staging "King Lear." She went on to essay an unhappily married woman whose affair with a Native American raises eyebrows in "Skipped Parts." Leigh then took on a very ambitious project with Alan Cumming, her "Cabaret" co-star and real-life friend. The pair agreed to write, direct, produce and star in the comedy-drama "The Anniversary Party" which examines what happens when a newly reconciled couple throws an anniversary bash that quickly deteriorates into a drug-fuelled rehashing of the couple's problems. The film was shot entirely on digital video and was lauded not only for its rich appearance but its clever writing direction and often improvised acting. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award in 2001. Leigh next went back to her acting full time, appearing briefly in "Road to Perdition" (2002) as Tom Hanks' wife, and director Jane Campion's "In the Cut" (2003), in which she played Meg Ryan's sister (at Campion's behest, the two actresses spent much time prior to filming interacting as if they were real siblings).
Leigh next appeared in the psychological thriller "The Machinist" (2004), playing a hooker and sometime girlfriend of a machinist (Christian Bale) whose severe insomnia causes the serious injury of a co-worker. He falls into a fit of madness, fearing everyone around him and imagining unseen enemies--including Leigh. In "Palindromes" (2005), director Todd Solondz's screed against abortion activists, fundamentalist Christians and pedophiles, Leigh was one of eight actors to portray a 13 year-old girl who longs for a baby, gets pregnant, has an abortion forced upon her, runs away from home, finds a Christian commune full of disabled children and joins a plot to murder an abortion doctor. Critics generally panned the film as being cruel, mocking and misanthropic--typical refrains for the director's work.
In 2005, Leigh married her longtime boyfriend, screenwriter and director Noah Baumbach, and appeared in the sci-fi thriller "The Jacket," starring Adrien Brody. Two years later, Leigh was central to Baumbach's drama "Margot at the Wedding," portraying the sister of Nicole Kidman's self-absorbed title character. Subsequent years found Leigh much less active, with a small role in Charlie Kaufman's bizarre 2008 indie, "Synecdoche, New York," and an occasional recurring role on "Weeds" (Showtime, 2005-2012), as the estranged sibling of Mary-Louise Parker's lead character. In 2010, she contributed to Baumbach's lauded dramedy "Greenberg" as a co-writer, co-producer and actor (in a cameo). Following her split that year from Baumbach, she made little in the way of screen appearances-she was featured on a few episodes of "Weeds" and later signed on for a recurring stint on the ABC melodrama "Revenge" (2011- ). After notable time away from feature films, she returned to movies in 2013, appearing in the lauded teen drama "The Spectacular Now."