Jennifer Jason Leigh And The Value Of Stillness

The special way the acclaimed actress moves and the way she watches in quiet moments.

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!

Fair Warning: This piece will contain spoilers for Miami Blues and The Hateful Eight.

In George Armitage’s fantastic crime story Miami Blues (adapted from a pretty darn good novel by Charles Willeford), Alec Baldwin wolfs down a pie that’s full to bursting with vinegar and lies that he loves it. And as he suffers through bite after bite, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s heart breaks. There is no grand exclamation of despair, no enraged accusation. She just watches him eat and puts her head in her hands. It’s just a moment in a suburban kitchen: two lovers and a little lie. But when Jennifer Jason Leigh takes a moment, the audience pays attention.

Baldwin is Junior, a remorseless murderer and larcenist who dreams of a life of suburban affluence. Leigh is Susie, a good-hearted but not particularly smart woman who had been paying her way through community college with sex work before Junior swept her off her feet, swearing to leave his criminal life behind. Their love is genuine, deep and thoroughly unhealthy.

Junior has lied about his reform, and Susie prepares the vinegared pie, a simple test of spousal honesty. Leigh invests Susie’s little actions with weight -- stirring the batter, taking a moment to sample it -- her disgust and hope evident in both.

When Junior is finally killed by Fred Ward’s weary, exasperated detective Hoke Mosely, Susie is shocked but not necessarily surprised. She may have known it was inevitable from the moment he lied about the pie, but she does grieve for him. She loved him. And she loved the dream of a suburban idyll they shared.

Leigh plays Susie’s grief not as an explosion or an unravelling, but as the completion of an awakening, and her stillness makes her character’s grief hit all the harder. Susie stands quietly as she takes in Junior’s corpse. She runs her hand lightly on his chest. A single tear runs down her cheek as she eulogizes him. In her quiet resignation and sorrow, the enormity of her loss becomes clear.

“I was hoping he wouldn’t [attempt the robbery that ultimately led to his death]. He swore to me. I had to give him the benefit of the doubt because he had some good qualities. He always ate everything I ever cooked for him. And he never hit me. There were lots of good things about Junior.”

It is not an easy thing to play complicated grief, nor is it a walk in the park to act quietly. Anyone can be a giant ham. Not anyone can trust their acting abilities enough to do most of their work with expression, posture and tone. Jennifer Jason Leigh can. And she does so brilliantly. In Miami Blues, Susie moves from unexpectedly struck by Junior’s desire to share in her suburban dream to unsettled by his violent outbursts and cruel streak to ultimately resigning herself to his death. It is a dramatic progression, and one that Leigh sells through the quiet beats where she watches and responds to Baldwin’s strong but more overtly dramatic performance.

Twenty-five years after Miami Blues, Leigh played the gleefully sadistic murderer Daisy Domergue in Quentin Tarantino’s America-detonating parlor room murder western The Hateful Eight. At the beginning of the second act, just before the tension bursts and the carnage begins, Domergue takes a moment to play guitar and sing a song (the Aussie folk ballad “Jim Jones at Botany Bay”). Until then, Domergue’s behavior had been composed entirely of cruelty and impulse, aimed at getting under her captor John Ruth’s (a joint performance by Kurt Russell and Kurt Russell’s Splendiferous Moustache) skin. She knows that one of her hidden allies has poisoned the communal coffee pot, and that timing will be crucial if her escape is to succeed. But the true extent of her craftiness does not become clear until she tunes the guitar.

As she turns the pegs, patiently listening to the guitar until it tells her it’s ready to play, Leigh reveals that Domergue is a good deal more than she has presented to either Ruth or the audience. Throughout her song, she waits and watches as Ruth heads for the tainted coffee, shifting her attention between the carafe and her guitar. When Ruth drinks, she allows herself a private smirk. It’s a smile so small that it almost doesn’t register, particularly compared to her outright grin a few moments later, when the doomed Ruth asks her to finish her song and she replies with a verse celebrating her escape and his imminent death. It’s a moment of realization, of satisfaction for a villain who has had to keep up a careful act for most of the film. It stands out to me in the same way that Leigh’s heartbreak does in Miami Blues.

Domergue and Susie are dramatically different roles. Susie is naïve, if not so oblivious as to excuse Junior’s actions to herself. Domergue is ruthlessly cunning, and juggles several schemes in the service of her grand plan to escape. Susie is quiet. Domergue revels in being as obnoxious as she can, and has a truly magnificent evil laugh. Susie is an optimist who must grapple with reality intruding on her life’s dreams. Domergue is a nihilist whose only moment of joy (that does not come from screwing with someone) is a brief family reunion (that ends badly). Despite these considerable differences, Leigh’s performances demonstrate her talent for seeding subtle, striking moments throughout the entirety of a performance.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is one of the finest actresses working today. She knows how to find incredible moments of character in the stillness between big moments, and when she does, it is thrilling. The Brooklyn Drafthouse is running a series of Leigh’s films stretching from the earliest days of her career in the 1980s to the end of the 1990s. As an Austin resident, I can’t make it myself. But I can encourage those of you who can go to go.

Special thanks to Hope Wesley Harrison [the author’s Mom] for her invaluable aid in editing and refining this piece.

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