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 editorial about some of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s best-loved films. See the schedule and get tickets to Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One HERE!
“How could they do this to Jennifer Jason Leigh?”
Thus began Roger Ebert’s fiery denunciation of Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982. The film served as the Chicago Sun-Times’ critic’s introduction to the actress, and he fell hard for her as he railed against the movie’s “offensive vulgarity”, much of which is centered on Leigh’s rough coming of age; she loses her virginity in a baseball-field dugout to an older man, gets tutored by Phoebe Cates in the fine art of oral sex via carrot (in the school lunchroom, which explodes into applause when she masters the technique) and is impregnated by her nice-guy admirer’s best friend (who ghosts when she seeks an abortion). Ebert spent most of his review fulminating over what he perceived as the non-stop humiliation of a sweet, beautiful young woman; he’d just discovered a wonderful new talent, and they were ruining her for him!
Thank god, Ebert never saw Flesh+Blood.
Directed and co-written by Paul Verhoeven, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Agnes is a convent-raised brat who, in one of her first scenes, forces her maid to have sex with a soldier (essentially to satisfy her own libidinous curiosity). Later in the first act she is captured by a group of mercenaries and raped by their leader, Martin (Rutger Hauer). In terms of depraved behavior, Verhoeven’s film is just getting warmed up.
Though Ebert’s heart was clearly in the right place, his scolding of Heckerling denies Leigh any degree of agency in taking on the role of Stacy Hamilton. Whereas most female roles in teen sex comedies are of the objectified, trophy-fuck variety, Stacy was an intelligent young woman navigating the treacherous, hormone-chummed waters of high school. We sympathize with and root for her throughout. The same is true, in a much more complex sense, with Agnes in Flesh+Blood; she is established as a victim who must be saved by her brainy, nobleman suitor Steven (Tom Burlinson) from further degradation. But as the story wears on, and Martin’s band of marauders captures a random castle, Agnes quickly learns that her survival depends on her ability to win Martin’s devotion. If she can convince Martin and his lowlife compatriots that she’s every bit as amoral as they are, she can gradually manipulate them into hastening their own demise.
Driving the lustful Martin mad with desire proves easy enough (the scene in which she seduces him into using cutlery is magnificent), but the long game Agnes is playing demands a more skillful level of deception – to the point that the audience can’t be entirely sure that this isn’t simply her true character on display. When Steven is captured after a failed siege of the mercenaries’ castle, Agnes joins in on the abuse of the man to whom she is betrothed; at this dark juncture, she seems to have crossed over completely to Martin’s side. Leigh was only twenty-two when Flesh+Blood was filmed, but she is in fearless command of the role. It is at once frightening and depressing to see Agnes so easily convince Martin’s crew that she is one of them; once she seemingly turns on Steven, it’s hard not to feel she deserves the same cruel fate as the monsters with whom she is now, for self-preservation’s sake, in league.
This is a terribly difficult role to take on, one that requires a great degree of trust between the performer and the director. The sex is unrelenting and graphic, and the nudity utterly casual; Verhoeven means to capture the depravity of the era and the savagery of these loot-happy louts, and it’s only believable as long as the cast is game. And so the weight of the film falls pretty squarely on the dainty shoulders of Leigh, who buys in completely for one of the best performances of her early career (and it’s especially difficult to stand out when one’s sharing the screen with a gloriously grandstanding Susan Tyrrell). She effortlessly slips from sheltered naïf to self-assured seductress, leaving the audience wondering whether she ever intends to turn on Martin. It isn’t until she neglects to inform the scoundrels about the plague-tainted well that it seems clear her loyalties are still with Steven. And it is ultimately Agnes who must physically incapacitate Martin to enable their escape from the castle (though, in the closing moments of the film, she does not tell Steven that Martin has escaped the blazing fortress).
For the next five years, Leigh solidified her reputation as a versatile actress unafraid of tackling difficult roles. They weren’t always rewarding (she does her best in The Hitcher, even though the most memorable scene finds her being torn apart by two trucks), but she invested each character with a dignity that sometimes wasn’t on the page. Her critical breakout came in 1989 when she played the prostitute Tralala in Uli Edel’s adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. The following year she played a different kind of hooker in George Armitage’s brilliant Miami Blues.
Based on the crime novel by Charles Willeford (an installment in his Hoke Mosley detective series), Armitage’s rendition focuses on the psychopathic Frederick Frenger, Jr, aka “Junior”, who’s brought to ferocious, finger-breaking life right out of the airport gate by Alec Baldwin. Junior is an impulsive, quick-to-violence ex-con who’s celebrating his release from prison by gleefully doing exactly what landed him there in the first place. He hits pause on his crime spree long enough to order up a working girl to his Miami hotel room. Her name is Susie Waggoner, and she is as sweet and trusting as he is vicious and conniving. They make a tragically perfect couple.
The hooker with a heart of gold archetype is one of the hoariest in storytelling, but it’s given a beautifully sympathetic spin by Leigh and Armitage. Many critics (including Ebert, who didn’t much care for Miami Blues either) have called Susie dumb, which is, frankly, a dumb misread of the character. Susie isn’t savvy. She’s doing the old “paying my way through college” bit, and her willingness to trust Junior is a testament to her kindness and his aggressive charisma. Junior, in general, isn’t a very good liar. Hoke makes him for his murder suspect in their first meeting (cleverly noting the way he protects his dinner plate like a prisoner), but Junior is jittery and unconvincing from the very beginning. He hates cops, and wants nothing more than to get this snoop out of his house. Contrast this with how Junior and Hoke talk to Susie in this scene; they’re both snowing her, and she’s buying it because she’s a nice person who doesn’t immediately think the worst of people (also, they both genuinely like her). Her life is changing for the better, and Leigh, again, invests this routine trope with a warmness that wins us over. She could’ve gone thicker on the Southern accent and hammed it up as pure pulp, but she’s as enamored of Susie as Armitage is.
Unfortunately, Susie has to catch on at some point, and she does so with the vinegar pie that Hoke loves so much. She serves Junior an inedible concoction overloaded with vinegar, and he lies to her about how wonderful it is. Once Junior’s been shot dead, she levels Hoke with this confession about why she stayed with him: “I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. He always ate everything I gave him, and he never hit me.” Susie’s not fucking stupid. She chose to stay with Junior because he – unlike, presumably, every other shithead she’s ever hooked up with – treated her reasonably well. It’s difficult to fault her for this.
As a young actress in the 1980s, Jennifer Jason Leigh had to compete for a paucity of good roles. Rather than chase down Oscar bait, she took difficult parts and respected the characters as women thrust into shitty situations. She was far more protective of Stacy Hamilton, Agnes and Susie Waggoner than certain critics realized. If you’re that enamored of someone’s talent, maybe give them the benefit of the doubt that they know exactly what they’re doing.