February 24, 2016

Jennifer Jason Leigh Looks Forward to Her First Oscar, Olivia de Havilland to Her 100th Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

“She’s a gutsy girl,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh. “A little bit of an animal.” Leigh’s talking about Daisy Domergue, the character she plays in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a supporting role that has brought her an Oscar nomination, the first of her long career. Even if she wins, it won’t excuse the Academy’s failure 20 years ago to recognize her once-in-a-lifetime performance as Sadie Flood in Georgia (1995), a film written by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner and directed by Ulu Grosbard.

In a featurette about The Hateful Eight, producer Stacy Sher says of Daisy, “She’ll try anything, she’ll push it all the way, she’s crazy like a fox: you don’t know if you should feel sorry for her, you don’t know if you should despise her.” According to co-star Walton Goggins, “Jennifer just takes it to a place where we’re all looking at each other, did you see that? did you see what she did with that?”

Judging from the clips showing Leigh delivering lines like “When you get to hell, tell them Daisy sent you,” she’s “supporting” in name only. All indications are that Tarantino wrote a show-stealing role for her in which, like Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, she “can smile” and “murder while she smiles.”

Heart and Soul

Much of what’s been said about Leigh’s performance as Daisy could apply to what she accomplishes in Georgia as a drugged-out, desperate, third-rate Janis Joplin with a touch of ugly genius, the black-sheep younger sister of the title character, a folk singer diva played by Mare Winningham, who received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. While she was “honored and touched to be nominated,” Winningham understood the irony of the oversight: “Jennifer was the heart and soul of that film. While we were making the movie, I thought not only that she would get a nomination, but that she would win.” In her mind, Leigh’s “will always be the greatest performance of that year, and a lot of other people thought so, too,” including Meryl Streep, who told Winningham during the ceremonies, “Jennifer should be here.”

Of the countless Oscar oversights over the years, the failure to so much as nominate Leigh for Georgia is among the most conspicuous, all the more since she was voted the year’s Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle and the Montreal World Film Festival.

Not an Easy Film

In his Los Angeles Times review of Georgia, Kenneth Turan gets right to the point. Leigh “tears you apart …. With ratty hair, too short skirts, and too much personality, Sadie looks and acts like the Little Match Girl on drugs. One of those irrepressible people everyone would give a lot to repress, Sadie is led by her relentless bravado, posturing like a boxing champion even though she’s never won a fight.”

As Turan concludes, “It’s not an easy film,” but “it outperforms everything in sight.” Like Leigh as Daisy, Leigh as Sadie “pushes it all the way.” She’s painful, hard to take, strident, embarrassing, and hopelessly touching, whether she’s turning herself inside out singing Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” or losing it at an airport ticket counter. What Morrison does so brilliantly and inimitably, breaking the song into repeated fragments, riffing, musing, agonizing, Sadie does with a life-or-death intensity, but while the character in the moment grates and glares so that you’re tempted to cover your ears or hide your eyes, the actress seduces you, steals your heart, and leaves you wanting to raid the nearest video store (those were the days) to rent everything she ever made, which I did, but nothing came close.

There’s a limit to what civil, well-behaved audiences can tolerate. The members of the Academy who overlooked Leigh’s raw, bravura performance may well have found it merely repellent, embarrassing, even threatening, like people looking the other way when someone is “making a scene” — like the people in the airport hiding behind their newspapers and magazines when Sadie goes ballistic after being prohibited from boarding a flight because she’s barefoot; so she vents, swearing, pacing, begging, “Anybody got a pair of shoes so I can get on this plane?” — until a boy who’s not afraid of her unlaces his Keds.

A year later Leigh was playing Catherine Sloper in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square (1997), based on Henry James’s novel about a shy, inarticulate heiress who falls prey to a fortune hunter. Like Tarantino, who researched Leigh for the part of Daisy by watching her most characteristic films, notably Georgia, Holland may have seen the eloquently damaged Sadie as a clue to what Leigh could do with another vulnerable young woman.

Almost 100

By far the best film version of James’s novel is William Wyler’s The Heiress (1946), in which Olivia de Havilland gives an Oscar-winning performances as Catherine. Named for Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, de Havilland is approaching her 100th birthday. In fact, she and James have the year 1916 in common. He died on February 28, she was born four months later on July 1.

The way de Havilland bravely, forthrightly surrenders herself to the role of Catherine, she could have been reading over James’s shoulder as he wrote. “She was not ugly; she had simply a plain, dull, gentle countenance. The most that had ever been said for her was that she had a ‘nice’ face, and, though she was an heiress, no one had ever thought of regarding her as a belle. Her father’s opinion of her moral purity was abundantly justified; she was excellently, imperturbably good; affectionate, docile, obedient, and much addicted to speaking the truth.”

I imagine James would have been moved to see a character he himself had treated so shabbily — he found it impossible to reread Washington Square and left it out of the New York Edition of his works — brought so warmly and brilliantly to life in The Heiress. That the author’s symbolic dismissal of his embattled heroine mirrors the father’s treatment of his awkward, hapless, inarticulate daughter is — what else but Jamesian?

A no less Jamesian turn is how profoundly the power and scope of de Havilland’s Catherine overshadows Montgomery Clift’s performance as the devious Morris Townsend. Clift was said to be so unhappy with how he appeared onscreen that he walked out of the film’s premiere.

The Last Star

The headline of a recent New York Times piece (“Oscar’s Heart May be in Hollywood, but His Accent is British”) would have worked as well 76 years ago when Gone With the Wind dominated the 12th Academy Awards. Three of the picture’s four stars, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland were English, and even apple-pie-American Clark Gable is said to have recited Shakespeare in his teens, with the emphasis on the sonnets.

“The Last Star” is the title of a January 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview in which Olivia de Havilland talks about being the only surviving cast member of Gone With the Wind. She also recalls losing the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Hattie McDaniel, the first black to win an Academy Award. While entering de Havilland’s name for Supporting Actress was actually studio strategy to avoid splitting the Best Actress vote with Vivien Leigh, Olivia’s Melanie is in the finest sense a supporting character, given the way that her warmth and integrity make a perfect foil for Leigh’s flamboyant Scarlett O’Hara. Having outlived everyone involved with GWTW, de Havilland has continued fulfilling that role as a supporter and spokesperson for the film and everyone in it (she says she’s seen it “about 30 times”). The fact that she’s all by herself doesn’t make her melancholy. “Instead,” she says, “when I see them vibrantly alive on screen, I experience a kind of reunion with them, a joyful one.”

Mean What You Say

Interviewed for the Academy of Achievement as “The Last Belle of Cinema,” de Havilland explains what drew her to the character of Melanie: “The main thing is that she was always thinking of the other person … She had this marvelous capacity to relate to people with whom she would normally have no relationship.” No less important in de Havilland’s development as an actress is the simple lesson she learned from James Cagney, who told her, “whatever you say, mean it,” advice she also had from GWTW director Victor Fleming: “Remember, everything that Melanie says, she means.” Her commitment to the terms of this lesson is evident not only in her Oscar winners, To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress, but in the dual role of twin sisters in The Dark Mirror (1946), which impressed James Agee: “Her playing is thoughtful, quiet, detailed, and well sustained, and since it is founded, as some more talented playing is not, in an unusually healthful-seeming and likable temperament, it is an undivided pleasure to see.”

On Demand

The flat screen era of cable, Netflix, streaming On Demand has kept my wife and I at home, addicted to one series after another, almost all of them of a such high quality — production, acting, writing, cinematography — that we’d be hard put to give our homebound version of an Oscar to any one series or actor or actress. Right now we’re looking forward to new seasons of The Americans (March 16), Game of Thrones (April 24), Peaky Blinders and Orphan Black (both in April), Penny Dreadful (May 4), Poldark (autumn 2016), and David Lynch’s revival of Twin Peaks, which is in production and shrouded in secrecy. One thing we know is that Jennifer Jason Leigh has joined the cast. The combination of Lynch and Leigh should be worth waiting for judging from what Anthony Lane says of Leigh’s Daisy in The Hateful Eight, “one slow look that she gives, raising her face, with a black eye and a crinkled grin, to fill the screen, may be the most convincing portrait of wickedness — and of its demonic appeal — in all of Tarantino. With that smile alone, Leigh possesses the film.”