What is the first film you think of when you hear Jennifer Jason Leigh’s name? For some, I imagine Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a quintessential film from their youth. Am I right? For others, it could be something as recent as The Hateful Eight, which unquestionably became her most critically acclaimed work when she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in 2016. What’s for certain, though, is how versatile she is as a performer, and that’s exactly why Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career is the latest to be discussed here on “As Seen on Twin Peaks.”
This series takes a look at the acting careers of the cast of Twin Peaks—one performer at a time. But instead of looking A-Z through their entire filmography, I’ll be picking out one film to represent each actor, which will be followed by a 10 Questions-style discussion between myself and one of my fellow 25YL staffers about the film and various other credits. Now, the films I’ve picked to be discussed are not necessarily each actor’s most famous role, or most critically acclaimed performance, or biggest box office success. Instead, I’ll be focussing on those hidden gems, overlooked treasures and underrated masterpieces. And, to make things more interesting, each article will feature a range of different perspectives between myself and my guest. Some films will be familiar to the two of us, others might be first-time watches, and some movies will be a completely new experience for us both.
So, once again, join Paul Casey and I as we discuss Jennifer Jason Leigh, her career, Twin Peaks, Annihilation and more!
Jon Sheasby: Annihilation is by far and away the most recent film I’ve picked to be discussed in this series, as it only came out earlier this year, and we in the UK were lucky enough to get it as a Netflix exclusive shortly after it came and went in the States. Alex Garland’s film will almost certainly feature on my “best of” list at the end of the year, but how about you, Paul? What are your thoughts on this thematically rich sci-fi wonder?
Paul Casey: I loved the hell out of it. It reminded me quite a bit of The Last of Us and Prometheus, which is a very good thing! I feel this is the role that Natalie Portman has been working up to her entire career. It’s a masterful acting performance. I think good sci-fi like Annihilation should be celebrated whenever it happens—even if you have to fight against a lot of negativity around it, as we had to with Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (my favourite of all of his films). Annihilation was thankfully appreciated far more than that movie, and I think Netflix should be really praised for distributing such a thought-provokingly beautiful but incredibly bleak movie. It’s a sad movie, but there’s some deep philosophical stuff going on there that raises the spirits that such a big movie could have so much to say (following Prometheus in that regard). I love Oscar Isaac in pretty much everything and even though it’s a relatively small part, he nails it. Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent too. I’d watch any adventure with her character. Maybe someday we’ll get a prequel of some sort with her as the lead!
JS: While Annihilation was acclaimed by critics and fans alike, the movie got kinda shunned by the studio after test screenings brought about a concern with its mass appeal. Obviously, Hollywood is a business first and foremost and that must be respected, but the wannabe artist in me often gets infuriated with the way intellectual, complicated films are treated when their profitability gets questioned. From your point of view, where do you stand on art vs. business? Do you side with the studio in this case, or do you empathise with Alex Garland’s disappointment with Annihilation’s non-cinematic worldwide distribution?
PC: I’m always on the side of the artist. I love comic book movies (as you’ll probably know from my Twitter), but I think it’s sad that so few movies get the appropriate funding that aren’t about people in capes. It’s depressing, but I think it’s our responsibility as members of the audience to prove that complex and thought-provoking pictures get a fair shake. Money does talk, and if we support innovative, profound works of art, then we will hopefully get more of them. It reminds me of Mother!, which was one of the most compelling and original movies I’ve seen in probably a decade. Some folks got caught up in criticising it as being pretentious, but that entirely misses the point. Originality should always be praised, even if the movie doesn’t move you individually. It’s counter-productive to tear down an original work, even if it has its flaws.
JS: Annihilation is only the second directorial effort from writer extraordinaire, Alex Garland, whose output thus far has been nothing short of incredible. Works like 28 Days Later, Dredd, and Ex Machina all bear his stylistically unique voice, which is getting recognised more and more as one of the most original and thought-provoking in the industry. When you look through his filmography, which is the one film that stands out to you personally and why?
PC: I love 28 Days Later. Dredd was a brilliant, tight and thrilling movie, but my favourite apart from Annihilation is Sunshine. It’s a terribly underappreciated picture with a great concept and top performances. It just wrapped me up from start to finish. I would love Danny Boyle to do more science fiction. Garland is a great talent, and I hope we get to see many more films from him.
JS: One of the things that makes Annihilation noticeably stand apart from most studio-backed projects is its predominantly female-led cast, which is in keeping with the original novel. Surprisingly, the gender roles weren’t changed for the film adaptation, as it seems like Hollywood is only interested in letting a female ensemble carry a movie on this scale when there’s already a well-known intellectual property attached such as 2016’s Ghostbusters reboot and this year’s Ocean’s 8. Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson are all fantastic actresses in their own right and they’re all superb here too, but how did you react to the work of Jennifer Jason Leigh in this film specifically?
PC: She’s just so damn competent. She pulls you in and gets you so invested in the story being told. She’s a pro—that’s the best way I can put it. As I said, I would love to see more of her character at some point in the future. She’s not a carbon copy Hollywood standard actor, as she looks like she’s lived a real life. Her face has a thousand stories in it, which really helps in a film like this, as you need to know that everyone has been going through really harsh times.
JS: JJL is one of those actresses who might not be a household name to younger crowds, but she’s incredibly respected within the industry and is going through somewhat of a resurgence after her career-defining performance as Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight. That movie also saw her share the screen with future Twin Peaks: The Return co-star, Tim Roth, and both of them chewed the scenery in spectacular fashion. I know you’re a big fan of westerns, Paul, and I know you love a bit of Twin Peaks, so I’m going for something different with this question. Which on-screen pairing do you think would come out victorious in a good old-fashioned hypothetical Mexican standoff: Daisy Domergue and Oswaldo Mobray or Chantal and Gary “Hutch” Hutchens?
PC: Oh, I think Daisy and Oswaldo easily! Chantal and Hutch are pretty bad people, but they’re also kind of goofy. I don’t know if they’re the most capable of assassins. Daisy and Oswaldo are remorseless, and they do meet their end at the hands of good old Sam Jackson, but they are pure evil. I’d say Daisy has butchered far more people than Chantal and Hutch.
JS: In doing research for this discussion, I came across a quote about JJL that I found particularly befuddling. In his Entertainment Weekly review of 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, famed film critic Owen Gleiberman said, “Here, as in The Men’s Club, Miami Blues, and many other films, Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an accomplished sexpot performance — she’s becoming the Meryl Streep of bimbos. Yet I always have the same trouble with Leigh. Her characters are so oriented toward men that they don’t reveal enough emotions of their own.” Crazy, right? To find problems with JJL because of the characters she plays is pretty ridiculous to me. We know women are too often underserved in Hollywood, but as a performer, you have to take the best parts you’re offered. In saying that, later films like Single White Female, eXistenZ, and The Machinist all spring to mind, which saw JJL shed that bimbo tag and challenge herself with more difficult roles.
When you look through JJL’s filmography, which period of her work stands out to you the most? Her earlier roles in films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or her work from the ’90s onwards in films like Single White Female?
PC: I think her middle-to-later period stands out the most for me. eXistenZ, The Machinist, Single White Female, and Synecdoche, New York are all excellent films with superb performances. I know that people like to use that old test that says you’re severely lacking if you don’t have (at least) two women talking to each other about something other than a man. While there is some truth to that, I don’t think it’s a foolproof way of examining art. If the characters are strong and the performances are strong, then you can get just as much insight into a female character as you would in let’s say a mediocre film with the right ratios of male-to-female screen time or what have you. So, I wouldn’t be so quick to put down those movies of hers. She’s damn good in pretty much everything she’s done, from small movies to some of the bigger ones.
JS: While I think it’s fair to say JJL didn’t have a whole lot to do in The Return, her performance (as well as Tim Roth’s) is among my favourites from the revival series. I think it says a lot about them as performers, too, as they were willing to take on such roles that many others with their history and legacy within the business might deem to be too unimportant or small. That kind of subversive casting really made me appreciate The Return even more, and it heightened my respect for people like JJL and Tim Roth who just wanted to work with David Lynch no matter what. With that being said, how did you react to JJL’s appearances as Chantal? Was she used perfectly within the narrative, or should she and Hutch have had more screen time to develop our relationship with those characters even further?
PC: I think it’s almost always better to leave the audience wanting more. I would love to see a spin-off where we follow their career as assassins. I think both JJL and Roth did a brilliant job. Some really fine comic timing and humour mixed with ruthless violence. But yeah, I think they fit in perfectly in that world and I think the time they got was just about right to serve the overall story.
JS: One of the more surprisingly controversial aspects of The Return came in Part 16 when the Polish Accountant offed Chantal and Hutch in an explosively bloody shootout. Many, including myself, were disappointed with the immediacy of their deaths, as the Polish Accountant was basically only introduced to kill them in a very Quentin Tarantino-esque fashion. Yes, this is a random act of violence that could happen at any time of the day in real life, but Twin Peaks isn’t real life and there are rules to storytelling. Admittedly, David Lynch often doesn’t care about such rules, but to me, it still felt like a scene played for shock value and comedy rather than something that felt earned. Where do you stand on the demise of Chantal and Hutch, Paul? Are you a fan of the way Frost and Lynch decided to off them, or do you have thoughts similar to my own?
PC: I liked it. I think it fits into the Twin Peaks world where everyone is capable of hiding terrible secrets, and I also think it’s a little nod from Frost and Lynch to the audience about the way they think life should be—that by being rude and aggressive they ended up dead and if they had manners they would have lived.
JS: Are there any more of JJL’s works that you’d like to highlight other than what we’ve talked about today? Personally, I’d have to throw The Hudsucker Proxy out there. It may not be considered among the Coen brothers’ best and it’s one of the most notorious box office bombs of all-time, but there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had. Hell, Sam Raimi even co-wrote the movie with them, so its failure is something that really makes me wonder what went wrong. Still, I enjoy that movie but what about you?
PC: Yes, The Hudsucker Proxy is a good movie. I think her role in The Hateful Eight is just so well drawn and performed and is probably my favourite of all of her work that I’ve seen, which is quite a bit. I would say that—even though it’s not a big role—everyone should watch Synecdoche, New York, which is perhaps the finest film Charlie Kaufman has ever had a hand in. But yeah, for bigger roles I’d say The Hateful Eight. She’s so sinister, and you just know by looking at her that she’s killed a lot of people. Thank Tarantino for writing such a good character—he has always seemed very good at writing for women—but most of all thank JJL for pulling it off so well.
JS: And finally, Paul, this question was to be expected, right? If you could recast any role from the history of film and TV with Jennifer Jason Leigh in their place, which character would you choose and why?
PC: Oh, let’s see. I think that she could do a great job at a performance like Laura Dern’s in Inland Empire. Something that required big emotional range. She could play a mean Commissioner Gordon in a Batman picture or maybe even an older Barbara Gordon. And I’d love to see her in a Woody Allen picture, something like Crimes and Misdemeanors in Anjelica Huston’s role.
Once again, I want to thank Paul for taking the time to join me for this latest edition of “As Seen on Twin Peaks.” So, you’ve read ours, but what are your thoughts on Jennifer Jason Leigh? Favourite roles, performances, works? Please leave a comment and let us know by following the information about our social media accounts, which can be found below. Alternatively, you can follow me on Twitter (@JonSheasby), and we’ll continue the conversation over there.