We’re very pleased to partner with Alamo Drafthouse Brooklyn on Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One, a screening series showcasing the films of one of the great actresses of our time. In celebration of the actress/writer/director, we’ll be running editorials about some of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s best-loved films. See the schedule and get tickets to Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One HERE!
It’s nearly impossible to separate where Jennifer Jason Leigh begins and where Alan Cumming ends in 2001’s The Anniversary Party. The pair are completely intertwined as creators, sharing the “co-“ title as producers, writers, directors and stars. The bond between the two as artists is the safe nest in which The Anniversary Party resides, the warm bed where we first meet Cumming and Leigh as Sally and Joe Therrian, and of course their very L.A. baby, a dog named Otis.
These intimate opening shots establish The Anniversary Party is a safe space for creatives, even if the characters Leigh and Cumming play may not necessarily be the type of “creative” people anyone would want to hang around with if they didn’t have to. It’s Hollywood baby, and these two certainly inhabit the rarefied air of being “successful” in the industry – along with all the various neurosis and self-absorption that goes along with being an aging actress and an up-and-coming director. The very next scene shows the pair a half-step out of sync with each other going through their morning yoga routine while a trainer guides them through their workout, an awkwardness we see time and time again as the pair find their footing together over the next 24 hours. Phones are constantly interrupting their moment of zen while a small staff works around them getting the event ready. It’s their celebration, but it doesn’t mean they have to put anything into it other than bickering over the guest list, greeting their party guests as they arrive and putting on their best happy faces.
Sally and Joe, we discover over the course of the evening, have had a rough year together; or more accurately, they’ve had a rough year being apart as their marriage has been strained. Joe has been working out of London, Sally prefers her home in Los Angeles. As an actress, she’s aging and less desirable for casting, even when the movie she wants to star in is based on a book inspired by her life. Written by her husband, Joe. Directed by her husband, Joe. Joe, who doesn’t even like movies that much, even though her film career has enabled his expensive trans-Atlantic lifestyle and paid for their Runyon Canyon-adjacent, mid-century modern home atop of the Hollywood Hills. A coffee table picture book of a house in which only the most fabulous of parties are held and only the most fabulous of friends should be invited. (All the better to impress the little people who happen to live next door into submission over their complaints about a noisy Otis. Fabulous people don’t complain about dogs barking at 4 A.M. and who wouldn’t want to be fabulous enough to attend their party?)
And what a party it shall be, what with guests like Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates (who came out of retirement for the film at the behest of her best friend Leigh), Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, John Benjamin Hickey, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie and Gwyneth Paltrow among others. With the exception of Posey who was a last-minute replacement, Leigh and Cumming wrote each character for The Anniversary Party with their real-life friends in mind, creating characters who are not exactly their pals, but could possibly be the person just to the left or right of them on any scale.
If anything, it is seeing their worldview through the friends they cast that feels raw, even more voyeuristic than the subject matter itself; a couple celebrating their love surrounded by the people closest to them – who know it might be too soon to pop the cork on their unending happiness. There is always an element of having to feel “safe” on a set, between actors and the material, and directors trusting their performers enough deliver what film needs, a relationship that has tried and destroyed many a Hollywood relationship.
Watching The Anniversary Party it is hard not to feel the warmth Leigh and Cumming feel for each one of their actors and the respect and faith they receive in turn from their cast. (In a somewhat meta moment, John C. Reilly, playing director Mac Forsyth, is discovered by Sally watching dailies of his current movie – in which she happens to star – in a back room shaking his head in worried disbelief at how poor her performance is in the film and how his career is going to be over if the movie flops.) It’s the trust established by actors-turned-directors working with actors that helps make The Anniversary Party feel just as intimate as the setting, and when paired with the early use of digital to pull in as tight as possible when – quite literally and figuratively – someone is in the closet, the viewer almost feels dirty seeing the ugliness hiding in some quarters, much like a party guest who opens a medicine cabinet only to discover a truth about a friend they did not want to know.
It is because of this, just as it is hard to unravel the bits that are Leigh and the bits that are Cumming, it is also impossible to separate the film from being one of the first digital success stories without acknowledging how poorly digital filmmaking was regarded at the time. (And it is a film; the great John Bailey who was behind the lens for The Accidental Tourist, Ordinary People did not shoot a wedding tape, nor did his wife, esteemed editor Carol Littleton, put together a movie that was any less cinematic despite the Avid use.) It is a shame when you go back and revisit reviews and interviews from 2001, the nearly apologetic tone in which JJL and Cumming talk about using DV and the reviews that focused on where they felt DV had supposedly faltered or was distracting without fully embracing the story and the acting, because as a viewer in 2017 those issues are so incredibly minor you barely notice them, your modern eye is willing to smooth over the difference and allow the movie to exist on its own merits.
Combined together – working with their friends, deftly shooting on video – you can see the direct linage back to Leigh’s original inspiration, the early Dogme films of the 1990s. Leigh herself sung the praises of the first Dogme film, The Celebration, and would later star in the fourth Dogme film, 2000’s The King Is Alive. Attracted to the idea that making a movie didn’t have to be an overblown affair, one could work digitally and save yourself hours of setup (not to mention millions of dollars off the budget), Leigh, coming off a bad breakup and a Broadway revival of Cabaret, suggested to her stage co-star Cumming they make a movie together, keeping the intimacy of the digital part of Dogme and working with friends on reasonably paced days as not to make everyone crazy. In 2001 making a small budget indie for a mere few million bucks in less than three weeks felt revolutionary. Even the short shooting time was lambasted by Craig Kilborn for only being 19 days because such brevity in production was looked down upon as unworthy and worse, untrustworthy. And they went for it, selling the pitch to Fine Line, and spending the next year writing and storyboarding knowing they needed to go into production as prepared as they possibly could be with such a limited amount of time and coverage, discovering what would work for not only their movie but allow their friends to shine. Leigh herself was involved for the entirety of the editing process, making sure the movie she and Cumming birthed together got as much room to breathe as possible, purposely lingering over moments too long as to make viewers feel as if they’re as uncomfortable as everyone in scenes.
The effort more than paid off. Jane Adams as Clair Forsyth, Mac’s actress wife who is starving herself back to pre-pregnancy weight and completely out of her mind with worry over both her child and her career, is a frenetic delight and you find yourself watching even the most subtle things she is doing in the background as she brings such a joy and lightness to every shot she is in. You genuinely miss seeing Cates on the screen, especially as the night wears on and her character Sophia Gold lets her guard down enough to have nothing but the most brutally honest conversation about not only what she thinks her best friend Sally should do but admitting to the failures in her own perfect life. John C. Reilly’s Mac is identifiable with anyone who has had to deal with professional jealousy, as well as his character’s inability to show any sort of weakness, even in front of his friends. While much of the story isn’t exactly new or groundbreaking, nor is the mechanism for truth (everyone gets high) original, the trials and tribulations feel timeless enough that The Anniversary Party could be happening in Los Angeles at this very moment, but instead of Gwyneth Paltrow being the young ingenue honored to be playing the role of her “favorite living actress,” she would be the one looking across the room reminding everyone she’s still the ‘it girl’ of the moment who could easily play 28 – no wait, 25. Make no mistake, Leigh’s Sally is a fighter throughout the movie, and is every woman over age 35 still proving her worth, even when she’s unconsciously trying to please everyone. This is especially true as the night grows long and she is forced to remind everyone this is her house, her rules and her marriage; no one else can lay claim to intimacy that only she and Joe share, the type of confidence that only comes with age, the confidence an ingenue shrinks away from.
Ultimately The Anniversary Party should be considered just as vital to Leigh’s career as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Single White Female, Georgia, Miami Blues or The Hateful Eight as it offers a complete expression of her as an artist. While we can’t completely untangle the film from being a joint production, there are enough beats you can see as being uniquely Leigh throughout the movie and moments one can tell Cumming is bringing out the best in her, and vice versa. This skill is incredibly undervalued, even among the talky “what does it all mean?” arthouse world, and revisiting The Anniversary Party one can’t help but hope she decides to get behind the camera and keyboard again. Leigh’s natural instincts and impressive training under directors like the Coen brothers are fully on display here, lifting The Anniversary Party up higher than a simple Hollywood melodrama made out of pure vanity. It’s a film-lovers film, even if it’s on video.