Jennifer Jason Leigh (born February 5, 1962) is an American film and stage actress, best known for her roles in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Hudsucker Proxy, Single White Female, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Georgia and Short Cuts. She is also the co-writer and co-director of the film The Anniversary Party, made with fellow actor Alan Cumming.
Leigh has a reputation for playing characters on society's bottom rung, often prostitutes or junkies. She is also known for her intensive method-inspired research into her roles.
Leigh was born on February 5, 1962 in Hollywood, California. She is the daughter of actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner. Her parents divorced when she was two.Leigh's birth name was Jennifer Leigh Morrow. She changed her surname early in her acting career, taking the middle name Jason in honor of actor Jason Robards, a family friend. Leigh's parents were Jewish, of Russian descent on her father's side.
Leigh has an older sister, Carrie Ann Morrow, who was credited as a "technical advisor" in Georgia. Leigh also has a half-sister, actress Mina Badie, from her mother's marriage, who acted alongside Leigh in The Anniversary Party. The director Reza Badiyi was her mother's second husband and was at the time her stepfather.
Leigh worked in her first film at the age of nine, in a nonspeaking role for the film Death of a Stranger (The Execution) (1973). At 14, she attended Stagedoor Manor Performing Arts Training Center in Loch Sheldrake, New York summer acting workshops given by Lee Strasberg and landed a role in the movie The Young Runaways (1978). She also appeared in an episode of Baretta.
An episode of The Waltons and several TV movies followed, including a portrayal of an anorexic teenager in The Best Little Girl in the World, for which Leigh dropped to 86 pounds (39 kg) under medical supervision. She made her big screen debut playing a blind, deaf, and mute rape victim in the 1981 slasher film Eyes of a Stranger, which she quit school to star in. In 1982, she played a teenager who gets pregnant in the Cameron Crowe-scripted high school comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which served as a launching pad for several of its young stars. While decrying the writing as sexist and exploitative, Roger Ebert was enthusiastic about the acting, singling out Leigh, saying, "Don't they know they have a star on their hands?"
With the exception of Ridgemont High and a small role in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy Easy Money, Leigh's early film work consisted of playing fragile, damaged, or neurotic characters in low-budget horror or thriller genre films. She played a virginal princess kidnapped and raped by mercenaries in Flesh + Blood (1985), an innocent waitress pursued by the psychopathic title character in The Hitcher (1986) (both films pitting her opposite Rutger Hauer), and a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Heart of Midnight (1989).
In 1990, Leigh made a significant career breakthrough when she was awarded New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress and the Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayals of two very different prostitutes: the tough streetwalker Tralala who submits to a brutal gang rape in Last Exit to Brooklyn, and Susie, a teenage prostitute who falls in love with ex-con Alec Baldwin in Miami Blues. Roger Ebertincluded Last Exit in his list of Best Movies of 1990, calling Leigh's performance brave, though his review of Miami Blues was much less sympathetic, simultaneously criticizing Leigh's ability to play dumb roles and praising her ability to play smart roles. Entertainment Weekly, in a backhanded compliment, called her "the Meryl Streep of bimbos".
Leigh was then cast in her first mainstream Hollywood studio film, the firefighter drama Backdraft, in which she played a more conventional role, the girlfriend of lead actor William Baldwin. Leigh found more success in the gritty crime drama Rush (1991), portraying an undercover cop who becomes a junkie and falls in love with her partner, played by Jason Patric. Her next film, Single White Female (1992), was a surprise box-office success, bringing Leigh to her largest mainstream audience yet, portraying a mentally ill woman who terrorizes roommate Bridget Fonda. Leigh was awarded the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain and nominated for Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress. Leigh costarred with Kathy Bates as a tormented, pill-popping woman hiding a history of childhood sexual abuse in the adaptation of Stephen King's novel Dolores Claiborne (1995).
Leigh achieved her greatest acclaim in the role of Sadie Flood, an angry, drug-addicted rock singer living in the shadow of her successful older sister (Mare Winningham), in Georgia (1995). For the role, Leigh dropped to 90 pounds (41 kg) and sang all her songs live, including a rambling 8½-minute version of Van Morrison's "Take Me Back". Georgia was met with critical praise. James Berardinelli claimed, "There are times when it's uncomfortable to watch this performance because it's so powerful",]while Janet Maslin of the New York Times noted Leigh's "fierce, risk-taking performance and flashes of overwhelming honesty". Leigh won New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress] and Best Actress from the Montreal World Film Festival, as well as an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Some expressed surprise that she was not nominated for an Academy Award, while Winningham was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Throughout the 1990s, Leigh worked with many independent film directors. She worked with Robert Altman in Short Cuts (1993), playing a phone-sex operator, and Kansas City (1996), as a streetwise kidnapper. Leigh has expressed admiration for Altman and called him her mentor. In a change of pace from her "bad girl" roles, Leigh played the fast-talking reporter Amy Archer in the Coen Brothers’ comic homage to 1930s screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy(1994). Leigh took her first lead role as the writer and critic Dorothy Parker in Alan Rudolph's film Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994). She received a Golden Globe nomination and a National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, as well as Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress and Fort Lauderdale Film Critics Best Actress Award. In another radical change of pace, she starred in Agnieszka Holland's version of the Henry Jamesnovel Washington Square (1997), as a mousy 19th-century heiress courted by a gold digger. In David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (1999), she played a virtual reality game designer who becomes lost in her own creation.
Leigh had a brief role as a doomed gangster's wife in Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition (2002), and costarred as Meg Ryan's brutally murdered sister in Jane Campion's erotic thriller In the Cut (2003). After a long period of avoiding prostitute roles, she played alongside Christian Bale as his prostitute girlfriend in the thriller The Machinist (2004). Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle commented that "As the downtrodden, sexy, trusting and quietly funny prostitute, Leigh is, of course, in her element". Her performance as a manipulative stage mother in Don McKellar's film Childstar won her a Genie Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in 2005. After many years of wanting to be in a Todd Solondz movie, she appeared in Palindromes (2004). She also appeared in the psychological thriller The Jacket (2005), alongside Adrien Brody.
In recent years, Leigh appeared in the 2008 ensemble film Synecdoche, New York and has acted in two films written and directed by her then partner Noah Baumbach: Margot at the Wedding, costarring Nicole Kidman, and Greenberg. Leigh has said that the roles were not specifically written for her, as Baumbach does not write roles with actors in mind.
Leigh has received three separate career tributes: at the Telluride Film Festival in 1993, a special award for her contribution to independent cinema from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2002, and a week-long retrospective of her film work held by the American Cinematheque at Los Angeles's Egyptian Theatre in 2001.
In 1998, Leigh took on the lead role of Sally Bowles in Sam Mendes's Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret, succeeding Natasha Richardson who originated the role in Mendes's production. She succeeded Mary-Louise Parker in the lead role in Proof on Broadway in 2001. Her other theatrical appearances include The Glass Menagerie, Man of Destiny, The Shadow Box, Picnic, Sunshine, and Abigail's Party. In 2011, she played Bunny in the Broadway revival of House of Blue Leaves in New York City alongside Ben Stiller and Edie Falco.
In 2001, Leigh co-wrote and co-directed The Anniversary Party, an independently produced feature film about a recently reconciled married couple who assemble their friends at their Hollywood Hills house, ostensibly to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary. As the evening progresses, the party disintegrates into emotional confrontations and bitter arguments as the facade of their happy marriage crumbles. Leigh was inspired by her recent experience filming the low-budget Dogme 95 film The King Is Alive. Leigh and co-writer Alan Cumming drew freely from their personal experiences in the writing of the film. Leigh plays an aging actress who makes jokes about her lack of Academy Award nominations and is fearful of losing her bisexual husband (Cumming). The film was shot in 19 days on digital video, and costarred the pair's real-life Hollywood friends,including Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow,Jennifer Beals, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey, and Leigh's sister Mina Badie. Leigh and Cumming jointly received a citation for Excellence in Filmmaking from the National Board of Review,and were nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. The movie received generally positive reviews.