Thursday, May 15, 2014

Question for the Week of May 12-18: Oddest Role Pattern

Have you seen a truly confusing trend in one actor's choice of roles?
Well, this is a fine question, but there are a couple of distinctions to be made here. For the first, I am reminded of something I heard quoted by writer/director Nicholas Meyer - an actor convinces you that they are someone else, while a star convinces you that someone else is them. This means that Cary Grant is often playing "Cary Grant, the movie star" just in a different role. And, although I won't delve into it today, Tom Cruise is often playing a variation on one particular archetype.

The second distinction is that there are particular types of movie stars. The most obvious is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who always played a physical paragon who is also a smart alpha-male and who is never once asked "odd accent - where are you from?" While Arnie has been in notable comedies, there's a similar type: the martial arts star. That's why we can look back on series of films with Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and others.

But, to wiggle around the whole "they're a star more than an actor" issue, the really odd trend involves the early work of Jennifer Jason Leigh. I have thought the world of Leigh since I first saw her, and her work in Single White Female, The Hudsucker Proxy, and more, have only strengthened that fine impression. What was so odd about this career path?

Please keep in mind I do not take this topic lightly, but: the characters she portrayed in 6 out of her first 19 film roles were raped. Yes, this happens to the parts she plays in Flesh + Blood (1985), Heart of Midnight (1988), The Hitcher (1986), Rush (1991), and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990). The first was an adventure/drama, the second and third were B-level horror films (supernatural and thriller, respectively), the fourth was about undercover cops, and the fifth was a nightmarish drama.

Yet I did say 6 movies, right? Well, in The Eyes of a Stranger (1981), JJL plays a girl who's been deaf, blind, and mute since she was abducted and abused by a man years earlier. The violent act doesn't occur on-screen - a small mercy considering tEoaS is slasher pic about a murderer/rapist - but it is the motivation for the film's lead, her sister, to try to stop the maniac loose in their city. This was the young actress' first (or second) film role, and the abuse only goes downhill from there.

The reviewer describes Leigh's role in the film at the 1:30 mark.

That last of the five I mentioned, of course, was the most awful. It's fitting, then, that LEtB was based on a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., who wrote the equally-terrifying Requiem for a Dream. Whatever the opposite of heart-warming is, that's Selby's work.

In Last Exit, Leigh played a cheap moll who picks up guys, screws them, then cleans out their wallets as they sleep. She's living the hustler's life that she must live to survive. The character gets gang-raped in this story, so I guess Selby was always batting 1.000 in the real-life horror category.

A trailer full of surprises! Bare breasts(?), Paulie from Rocky, Jerry Orbach, and the voiceover guy completely flubs the author's name.

F+B was more complicated, however. In that film, JJL plays a medieval-era princess who is kidnapped by Rutger Hauer and his band of Mad Max-style vandals. This scene is notable because Paul Verhoeven's picture takes an unusual tack: educated in a convent, the bratty noblewoman orders her handmaiden to have sex so that she can see what the act looks like. The servant's enjoyment of the act and words of encouragement to her lover are what the privileged lady takes away from it.

This is how we get a scene where a woman has sexed forced upon her, then turns it around on her attacker. As Hauer's character thrusts into her repeatedly, the noblewoman basically asks if that he's all he's got. Turning the event from having her choice taken away into one of making demands is all that her role has to fall back on. And this ruse on her part pays off well, as she is ultimately accepted by people that would have tormented an open-hearted, weeping victim.

2/28/15 Update: Youtube took this video down for violating their nudity and sex policy, which is laughable and annoying, considering what else you can see there.

HoM and Hitcher, however, are easier to judge. It's not clear that either scene was necessary to the story or the character, so they seem even more egregious for including it. In The Hitcher, JJL is second-fiddle to C. Thomas Howell, the male lead. When CTH picks up the wrong hitchhiker, he meets a nutjob who fixates on finding someone to stop his killing spree.

The titular villain's evil, psychopathic behavior becomes a 7even-esque cat-and-mouse game - he taunts Howell's role for the pic's running time, trying to get him to "man up." Now, the assault is off-screen, thank heaven, and IMDb doesn't even acknowledge that a rape occurred, but I think it did. If you look at what happens to Leigh's role, you can see how excessive Rutger Hauer's part is, and that this movie would totally have the torturous highwayman force himself upon a woman to make the male lead suffer more. Look at what happens after the scene of Rutger in bed with her:

By comparison, the scene in Heart of Midnight is easier to accept. In that picture, Jennifer plays a troubled woman who inherits property from her uncle. There, she's plagued by supernatural apparitions, and possibly buried memories. It's a B-horror movie with many, many abstract scenes, and that help makes the forced contact less shocking and terrible. The otherworldly aspect helps, too.

While it is an incomplete assault, she barely gets away. And she is terrified by a street gang that pours liquor down her throat and makes her say nasty things as they fondle her. Her sense of safety in her home is destroyed. All things considered, tho, what's almost worse is some horrible behavior by the investigating detective.

It starts at the 3 minute mark, if you need to see.2/28/15 Update: No, wait, Youtube took the video down because the uploader violated copyright policy.

Rush, then, represents the most confusing scene out of the five. Ms. Leigh plays a rookie undercover narc who is paired with Jason Patric's experienced officer. They want to do the right thing, but they're using the drugs they buy and always in danger, so they spiral out of control. What struck me so strongly about this scene is that Patric seemingly forces sex upon his professional partner in order to cure her of her drug withdrawal.

I kid you not. Now, I'd never touch heroin and I've never been through drug withdrawal, but I'm pretty sure getting laid - much less forcibly - wouldn't help. Here's the description from IMDb:
Jason Patric at one point forces himself on Jennifer Jason Leigh. She is pushed face down on the bed and her pajama bottoms are pulled off, briefly baring her buttocks. Patric then pulls his own pants down (no male nudity is seen) has rough sex with her from behind.
There is nothing about this moment that makes sense, by real-world logic or by the logic of the narrative. Ultimately, Rush is about the emotional collapse of two law enforcement personnel, so I guess such desperate straits could serve the story well. But it's hard to see how a guy would think "she's drying out from too much junk! I've got to stick it in her now! Whether she wants to or not!"

Then again, Rush did give us Gregg Allman as a murderous, evil drug lord, so... net win? I can't find the clip of the scene, but the following should give you an idea of the officers' personal deterioration:

Honestly, I can understand why a young actress would gravitate toward meaty roles, ones that require her to display a range of emotions and to inhabit a character with a real arc, with real problems. And, quite sadly, sexual assault is a real problem - it's not like being attacked by Freddy Krueger, or hunted by a Terminator robot. I can also understand that some success wouldn't make such a dedicated actress suddenly turn to just one genre or type of part.

And yet, despite the hatefulness my relatives and I have toward sexual violence and abuse, this odd string of parts in Ms. Leigh's career proved to be too much for me and one member of my family. At some point, my brother and I started engaging in next-level snark, saying, "It's not a Jennifer Jason Leigh role unless she's getting raped." It's a pretty extreme comment to make, I know - then again, it's a pretty extreme set of roles that JJL accepted...


  1. You do make a strong case here about JJL(who I haven't seen in a movie for quite some time-last one I can recall is Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) and yeah, despite the sad amount of victim roles given to women in Hollywood, it does seem like she had more than her fair share of them.

    My guess is a bad combination of artistic choices and agent advice. Some of those movies may have been attempts to be considered a "serious" actress but B movie fare like the Hitcher, not so much.

    1. That's a bit harsh. Even JJL's wiki page acknowledges her as having a fondness for characters that are on the fringes of society or downtrodden. I wouldn't be surprised if she hand-picked all these roles, but damn it is an odd thing...

  2. I was just trying to give her the benefit of the doubt with that-you're right, some actors and actresses are drawn to certain types of roles(Helena Bonham-Carter never seems to have met a wacky character she didn't like and neither has Johnny Depp).


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