A grade-school memory from May 11, 1981: I’m rapt in front of the TV, watching Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing the anorexic teenager Casey in the ABC Monday Night Movie The Best Little Girl in the World, refuse to eat the peanut-butter-slathered piece of bread her exasperated dad (Charles Durning) is trying to force into her mouth. The teledrama, one of the actress’s earliest high-profile productions (she was nineteen at the time of the original broadcast), is small-screen social studies at its most strident and hysterical. But Leigh’s ferocity and defiance in the scene have always stayed with me; these qualities have, in fact, been at the core of many of her best performances (which aren’t always in her best movies). Her acts of resistance are brilliantly on display in the last four titles to screen (all on 35mm) in the Alamo Drafthouse tribute “Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One.”
The first part of the JJL salute, which began last month and which includes most of her major titles up to The Anniversary Party (2001) — her inaugural, and so far only, outing as director (a responsibility she shared with her co-writer and co-star Alan Cumming) — perversely skips Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), featuring Leigh as Stacy, always yearning for experiences outside the pizza parlor. In Amy Heckerling’s enduring Reagan-era coming-of-age ensemble comedy, Leigh’s high school sophomore stands out for her sexual curiosity and appetite — and for the fortitude she displays when her bedmates disappoint (and worse).
Most charitably, Leigh’s role in Paul Verhoeven’s depleting, scabrous Flesh + Blood (1985; screening May 8), the earliest JJL title in the Alamo retrospective, could be thought of as Stacy’s Black Death–period forerunner. Set in Western Europe in 1501, the first Hollywood-backed film by the Dutch provocateur finds Leigh’s Agnes, a prince’s convent-raised virgin daughter promised to the poncey son of an Italian nobleman, kidnapped by a group of mercenaries led by Rutger Hauer’s Martin. Leigh’s first scenes in Flesh + Blood — before she’s brutalized repeatedly — are her finest: Agnes, burning to have a firsthand demonstration of what the nuns surely refused to mention, demands that her maid and a male servant do it al fresco, then orders them to stop mid-coitus. Still baby-faced, the actress elevates this display of wild caprice with impish inquisitiveness. Leigh performs even greater scene-salvaging as Agnes perseveres through multiple rapes and a few rope-bindings, quickly realizing that the only way to survive is to feign deep sexual enthrallment to the commander of these Late Middle Ages savages. “If you think you’re hurting me, you’re wrong. I like it. I’ll take you. Oh, I can feel you. Go on, my brave soldier,” Agnes tells Martin as he thrusts away — lousy dialogue exalted by Leigh’s venomous delivery.
When Leigh is called upon to essentially mimic someone else, as she was in the Coen brothers’ mannerist, late-1950s-set capitalist comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994; showing May 1), she still adds subtle notes to the ventriloquism. As Amy Archer, the Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter (for her “series on the reunited triplets”) for the Manhattan Argus on a stealth mission to expose Norville Barnes, an executive naïf played by Tim Robbins, Leigh speaks in a patois that’s high screwball by way of Seven Sisters lockjaw: equal parts rapid-fire Rosalind Russell and aristo-articulating Katharine Hepburn. Zippy and uncanny, Leigh’s performance is the most sharply drawn in this breakneck work of excessive buffoonery; her skills at titrating her fast-talking character’s fourth-estate imperiousness are wonderfully evidenced when Amy quietly, but no less tartly, corrects Norville’s pronunciation of karma while they sit in a Beatnik bar.
There’s no obvious antecedent for Allegra Geller, the “game-pod goddess” Leigh plays in David Cronenberg’s Existenz (1999; screening May 2), perhaps the goopiest of the body-horror maestro’s sci-fi freak-outs. In his Voice review, J. Hoberman praised Leigh’s “witchy gusto”; Allegra, the designer of the diabolical VR diversion of the title, does seduce with a kind of sinister sorcery. She convinces tech-phobic Ted Pikul (Jude Law) to succumb to her game’s most gruesome demand: surgical penetration at the base of the spine, a crude operation that creates an orifice into which an umbilical “bio-port” — and later, Allegra’s wet, excited finger — can be inserted. “I knew that it was the only thing that could give my life any meaning,” Allegra says to Ted, explaining why she devoted five years to developing her immersive-simulation scenarios. Thanks to Leigh’s adroit performance, Allegra is a fascinating contradiction: a dystopic “demoness,” in the words of the insurrectionists out to kill her, who wants to render the body superfluous but structures her game parts to resemble our most viscous organs.
In Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia (1995; playing April 30), written by Barbara Turner, the actress’s mother, Leigh enacts another kind of body horror: that of the drunk, strung-out singer, whose rapacious need and rage destroy everything around her. Playing Sadie Flood, the younger sister of Mare Winningham’s eponymous angel-voiced folk-rock star, Leigh burns with an incandescent fury as her raccoon-eyed barroom belter self-sabotages again and again. As she tears through Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back,” she is all raw, riveting, exposed nerve endings — an exegesis of extreme vulnerability that’s a dress rehearsal of sorts for Leigh’s rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in Charlie Kaufman’s superb stop-motion Anomalisa (2015), a film that proves just how palpable and electric the actress is even when she’s not physically present.
Jennifer Jason Leigh: Part One
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn
Through May 8
More:Film and TV