Jennifer Jason Leigh
Family & Companions
Movie critic Rex Reed acerbically described the characters in Jennifer Jason Leigh's gallery as a collection of "sluts and nuts." The soft-spoken actress affectionately referred to the hookers, drug addicts and head cases she often played as a group of vulnerable, injured women she was thrilled to get to know on-screen, but grateful she didn't encounter in real life. From her breakthrough role in the early '80s teen comedy-drama "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) through career highlights including the gritty "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1990), period drama "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" (1994), Jane Campion's dark thriller "In the Cut" (2003) and Quentin Tarantino's gory western "The Hateful Eight" (2015), Leigh matured from a versatile ingénue into an actress of subtlety and range. Leigh's intelligence and candor made her one of the leading talents of her generation.
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 Uli 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" (2011-15). After notable time away from feature films, she returned to movies in 2013, appearing in the lauded teen drama "The Spectacular Now."
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Made her stage acting debut in "Man of Destiny"
Made her first TV appearance in "The Young Runaways" on "World of Disney" (NBC)
TV-movie debut in "Angel City" on CBS
Made her feature debut in the low-budget horror flick "Eyes of a Stranger"
Gave her breakthrough performance in poignant teen comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"
NY stage debut, "Sunshine" off-Broadway at Circle Repertory Theatre
Turned in a searing performance as a gang-raped hooker in the gritty drama "Last Exit to Brooklyn"
Played a drug-addicted undercover cop in "Rush"
Was blasted by critics for her rare appearance as 'the girlfriend' in Ron Howard's blockbuster "Backdraft"
Had memorable role as Bridget Fonda's psychotic roommate in "Single White Female"
Was featured as a harried young mother/phone-sex operator in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts"
Played title character in the period drama "Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle"; first film with Campbell Scott
Wrote, co-produced, starred and sang in "Georgia," a drama written by her mother and loosely based on her sister's battle's with heroin addiction and self-image problems
Starred as Kathy Bates' disturbed writer daughter in "Dolores Claiborne," the film adaptation of Stephen King's novel
Re-teamed with Altman for the jazz era "Kansas City"
Was praised for her performance in Anjelica Huston's directorial debut "Bastard Out of Carolina" (Showtime)
Was featured as the favorite daughter of a molesting father (Jason Robards) in "A Thousand Acres," loosely based on Shakespeare's "King Lear"
Lent her voice to the vampire Lilly on HBO's gritty comic book adaptation "Spawn"
Co-starred with Campbell Scott in the Hallmark TV period romance "The Love Letter" (CBS)
Vocal talents featured in episode of Disney's animated TV series "Hercules: The Wonder Boy Years"
Replaced Natasha Richardson as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret" on Broadway; her first collaboration with Alan Cumming
Played a computer game designer in David Cronenberg's bizarre sci-fi drama "eXistenZ," opposite Jude Law
Featured in "The King Is Alive" (Dogma 4) about a group of passengers who decide to stage "King Lear" when their bus breaks down in the desert; premiered at Cannes Film Festival
Starred in the romantic drama "Skipped Parts" with Brad Renfro
Co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred in "The Anniversary Party" with her "Cabaret" co-star and friend Alan Cumming
Returned to Broadway succeeding Mary-Louise Parker as the lead in "Proof"
Co-starred in "The Quickie"
Cast with Meg Ryan in "In the Cut," directed by Jane Campion
Played convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucked in CBS TV Movie "Crossed Over"
Appeared in Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition"
Starred opposite Christian Bale in "The Machinist"
Was cast in the thriller "The Jacket" with Adrien Brody and Kris Kristofferson
Was directed by her husband Noah Baumbach in "Margot at the Wedding"; earned an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actress
Joined the cast of Showtime's "Weeds" in a recurring role as Nancy's (Mary-Louise Parker) sister Jill Price-Gray
With husband Noah Baumbach, co-wrote the screenplay for "Greenberg"; also acted in the film, which was directed by Baumbach
Co-starred on Broadway in "The House of Blue Leaves," with Edie Falco and Ben Stiller
Appeared on the soapy drama "Revenge"
Was featured in the sensitive teen drama "The Spectacular Now"
Appeared in the Kristen Wiig comedy "Welcome to Me"
Had a starring role in Quentin Tarentino's "The Hateful Eight"
Appeared in sci-fi thriller "Morgan," directed by Luke Scott, son of Ridley Scott
Played Lady Bird Johnson in the Lyndon Johnson biopic "LBJ"
Played the girlfriend of a desperate man on the lam in the Safdie brothers' drama/thriller "Good Time"
Gave a stirring portrayal as a Cheetos-addicted assassin on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return"
Co-starred with Oscar Isaac in Alex Garland's fantasy adaptation "Annihilation"
Co-starred with Benedict Cumberbatch on Showtime mini-series "Patrick Melrose"