IT MAY BE DIFFICULT to recall – this many prostitutes, psychos, phone-sex operators, alcoholics, and smack addicts later – that Jennifer Jason Leigh was once the darling young thing whose character inspired Jackson Browne to sing ”She’s got to be somebody’s baby” back in 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Leigh has spent the intervening 13 years cultivating a career as Nobody’s Girl – and no tender devotionals have been commissioned to accompany the scenes that found her getting gang-raped in Last Exit to Brooklyn, torn limb from limb in The Hitcher, going on a killing spree in Single White Female, spewing casual gutter talk in Short Cuts, and getting hooked on everything short of phonics in Rush and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. And that doesn’t even include her latest role as a desperate, strung-out would-be rock singer in Georgia.
Sure, this string of unusually meaty parts has made her the envy of every young actress who doesn’t have her eye on Demi Moore’s paycheck. But might our antiheroine regret having gone so far against ingenue type that she thwarted her shot at becoming America’s sweetheart? Nah. ”I couldn’t be America’s sweetheart,” Leigh protests. ”I would suck! I’d be a really bad sweetheart to America – trust me.”
Leigh may order her roles seamy side up, but they haven’t hardened her visage into anything less winsome at 33 than the 20-year-old’s baby face that launched a dozen Jackson Browne couplets. Rarely has any major actor with such an unmistakably sweet mug snuck it past so many casting directors into so many unmistakably ignoble roles.
”It seems to me she has a super-high moral character,” says Steven Soles, Georgia’s music producer, who worked with Leigh on her vocals. ”She could put anyone to shame with her code of moral behavior – though you’d never know that from her choice of roles. You’d think she was the worst slut.”
Or the best. Leigh’s rabid affection for the reprobates, rogues, and losers whose leprous skins have offered her shelter has brought her to the point where, in talking about Leaving Las Vegas, at least a few folks referred to the desperate, sad hooker played by Elisabeth Shue as ”the Jennifer Jason Leigh part.”
”Everyone’s got some kind of neurosis,” Leigh says of her career choices. ”They’re what make people tick. I don’t want to see people without them – I don’t. Generic stuff I just can’t do; I’ve learned that lesson already.”
What Leigh prefers is, for example, playing the roommate who stole Bridget Fonda’s identity and gave Steven Weber such an unwelcome eyeful of spike heel in Single White Female a few years back. ”Um, I really liked that girl!” she says, laughing. ”No, I didn’t watch it and go eeeyaaaah. She’s actually kind of vulnerable, and what she wants is love, in a certain way. I’m more creeped out when I see myself be really cut off from parts of myself…. I mean, yeah, she’s also a psychotic, but I kind of like that!”
LEIGH PLAYS ANOTHER pretty edgy single white female in Georgia, a little picture that’s attracting a big Oscar buzz for her performance as sexy, pathetic Sadie, a self-medicated rock singer whose substance abuse extends to any substance in sight (dig that NyQuil-guzzling scene!). Her foil is Mare Winningham as her sister Georgia, an all-too-sober, all-too-successful folksinger whom Sadie repeatedly provokes with her obnoxious attempts to be seen at any cost. Though uncredited as a writer, Leigh (in real life, a near teetotaler) came up with the basic story line herself; the screenwriter she handed it over to for development – her mother, Barbara Turner (TV’s Somebody’s Daughter) – describes her daughter’s original concept as ”someone needing so badly to be the other person, because the other person embodies perfection for her. And then Georgia, the sister who seems to have it all, feeling that she’s being stripped of everything every time Sadie is around.”