TELLURIDE, Colo. She has the face of an angel, and she plays roles from hell: That describes the acting career of Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was honored in a tribute here at the Telluride Film Festival.
In a decade of starring roles, she has played hookers three times (in "The Men's Club," "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Miami Blues," not counting her phone-sex operative in Robert Altman's forthcoming "Short Cuts"). She has also played a short-order cook, an undercover narc and, in "Single White Female," a psycho roommate.
Many of her roles might have seemed, on paper, unpromising or exploitative. Leigh made them so special that now, in her early 30s, she is considered one of the best actors in the movies. It isn't often the festival selects someone so young for the Telluride Medal. But a director like Altman considers her "the standard-bearer of her generation."
And she has three big movies on their way to the theaters: After "Short Cuts," she is a tough-talking newspaper reporter in "The Hudsucker Proxy," from the Coen brothers, and then she plays the brilliant, sad Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle."
You might pass her by in a crowd. "Nobody ever recognizes me in restaurants," she said. "That's just fine." She wanted to be an actor from the age of 4, she said, "because I was shy, and acting was a way of hiding behind a character, of being somebody else." Altman once told her mother: "She has no personality," meaning that as high praise.
Well, she does have a personality, but as she loses it in roles, she seems to be transformed. In "Last Exit to Brooklyn," she was a brassy hooker who seemed to own the street. "I loved that," she said. "I didn't want to give it up."
She has become famous for the lengths she will go to in preparing for a character. For her first big role, the made-for-TV movie "The Best Little Girl in the World" (1981), which was about an anorexic teenager, she starved herself to 86 pounds. Her Dorothy Parker, glimpsed in a few early rushes that were shown here at the festival, looks uncannily like photographs of the famous Algonquin wit. But in "The Men's Club," she looks like Jean Harlow; in "Last Exit," she looks like a tawdry sex bomb, and in "Short Cuts," she's a harried housewife who does phone-sex calls as a part-time job.
She likes to live a role. Dorothy Parker smoked all the time, and so Leigh did, too, becoming a chain-smoker during the shoot. Then she stopped: "I don't smoke, but I love to smoke, so one of the first things I want to know about a character is, does she smoke? Dorothy Parker never wanted to be alone, and on the shoot, there were 26 actors, and we hung out together all the time, sitting up all night playing word games, talking endlessly.
"I believe in research," she said. "I want to know all about a character, the more the better." For "Short Cuts," she got to know half a dozen phone-sex performers, and her dialogue in the movie is verbatim from the scripts they would use.
She is never concerned, she said, about her image when she plays characters who might seem unsavory, and is outspoken in defense of her decision to play so many prostitutes: "Most of the women you see in the movies are wives, and their primary function is to prove that the husband is straight. Prostitutes are often more connected with life, they cut more quickly to the core, they need courage and strength."
Leigh was affectingly plain-spoken and honest during the question-and-anwser session after scenes from her work were screened here. One audience member asked her if she'd ever failed to "get" a character, and she said she had: "I was never able to get inside the character I played in 'Backdraft' (the assistant to a Chicago alderman). Ron Howard, the director, was wonderful in trying to help me, and I struggled and fought, but I was never able to figure her out, to get inside of her. It was like swimming in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."
Sometimes, she admitted, she gets so involved in a character that the character's problems become her own. "It takes me a couple of weeks to come down. I'll call up my mother, real depressed, and she'll say, well, that's how your character is feeling. Now how do you feel?"
Her mother is screenwriter Barbara Turner, who was present for the tribute. Her father was the late actor Vic Morrow. She grew up in the business, then, but doesn't seem to really regard it as a business: "I really do believe that some movies have the power to change lives. Not necessarily any of the movies I've been in . . . but, yes, I believe that a moment or a line of dialogue can do something to you that changes you, makes you see things in a different way."