Oscar Snubs, 90's Indie Edition: Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia
Wednesday, 17 February 2016
So I am not super into the Oscars this year, I don't think I've seen any of the movies, but there is one person I am rooting for, because she should have won a damn Oscar by now several times over: Jennifer Jason Leigh (she's been nominated for Hateful 8, which no I haven't seen yet because what is it like five hours long?! ;-0).
I wanted to write about Leigh's staggering performance in the not hugely remembered or known 1995 independent film Georgia today (I mean, maybe it's more known than I realize, but it's not one of those movies you assume someone has seen if you know what I mean!).
I have a lasting fond spot for this film, it represents an era in which independent cinema was thriving. It was the one of the first films I ever saw by myself in the cinema, when I was first living in New York and challenging myself to be brave and independent by going to the movies alone (this was one of those things you "must" learn to do in NY that I actually came to enjoy :-)).
Crucially, it has two strong, female lead performances (Mare Winningham was nominated for best supporting actress). I think maybe why Leigh, inexplicably to me and many others at the time, lost out on the best actress nomination (she was nominated and won other awards like New York Film Critics and Independent Spirit). Like they had to pick only one, and Winningham's less flashy character for once won out - because Sadie had a few too many rough edges? I honestly struggle to see how anyone would watch this film and not think she at least deserved a nomination.
Anyway, maybe it's because I saw it in my youth that it has stuck with me, and maybe I remember it fondly because I haven't seen it a million times (the dvd is out of print in the U.K. anyway), but even in revisiting clips like this one on Youtube it still staggers me that Leigh didn't get a nomination alongside Winningham.
It's about two sisters, Georgia (Winningham) and Sadie (Leigh), who are singers. Obviously one of them is a much better singer than the other, technically speaking. Georgia is a very successful artist who makes a living at her art, we see her playing large concert halls, as opposed to Sadie's life gigging at dive bars, in the shadows. Georgia also has a stable family life with husband and children in tow.
Sadie is the rebel, the drifter, the one who for whatever reason has a passion for music that is so strong that she will do anything to keep going with it, despite the hard fact that she isn't really (traditionally) talented. She drifts from band to band as a backup and occasional lead singer (X front man John Doe features in one of her bands, along with a scene stealing turn by a young John C.Reilly, who plays stoned off his face better than any human ever!), playing bars and other low key gigs. When things hit rock bottom the band barely makes it through a Velvet Underground cover, I'll Be Your Mirror, at a bar mitzvah in a surreal and sadly comic scene.
What the film and the actresses portray so well is the simple fact that we can't always choose our passions. And while initially you might begin the film thinking "Ugh, Sadie, just accept reality" already, slowly she wins you over. You can't help but root for Sadie. She pours her heartbreak (and often a bottle of Jack Daniels), into every song, using her soulful expression and interpretation where she lacks pitch. It becomes beautiful despite the painfulness of it. There is a scene where she sings Van Morrison's "Take Me Back" ( it's never online for long because he takes his stuff down), that is spine chilling with the eerily accurate homage she pays to him.
Sadie is also an addict, and the film's depiction of this does descend into gritty realism, but is never sensationalist either. Sadie is infuriating at times, and her co-dependent relationship with her sister is an integral part of the film.
The trouble is Sadie both idolizes and resents her sister for her talent and success, and while Georgia takes pity on Sadie, she keeps her sister at arms' length at all times emotionally. She (understandably) has had enough after a lifetime of Sadie's screw ups, but their sisterly bond means she can never turn her back on her entirely. I don't have a sister but the portrayal of sisters in this film resonated as true to me. There were so many layers and resentments and harsh truths in their interactions, but at the same time so much love.
Both actresses are amazing, but there is no question the film belongs to Leigh. She is not a pretty cinematic addict, she is down in the gutter and clawing herself out, with a brief glimmer of hope, then breaking your heart all over again.
Of course it could be seen as a cautionary tale for chasing your dreams at the expense of reality. But it is also painfully close to home for most artists - be they writers, actors, musicians, whatever, to face failure and rejection and be beaten down by it over and over again. It's just life, albeit a side of it we rarely see onscreen.
I guess her performance didn't get a nomination because the overall tone of this film was not cautionary or particularly penitent when it came to addiction. I mean, Sadie is unquestionably tragic, we sense there is no happy ending for her.
But she is also oddly inspiring, an uncomfortable proposition. Most "failed artist" stories portray a person who is tragically unrecognized but inherently deeply talented, so has worth/inspiration value. The film that most reminded me of this one recently was Inside Llewyn Davis, although while depriving us of a happy ending, it still made sure we knew its hero deserved one because of his talent.
Sadie has no redemption, only a cycle of escape, striving, self-delusion, heartbreak and in that, I think there is a strange beauty. Sadie is never going to make it, but she can't ever accept this. Georgia does the rare thing of saying everyone deserves a shot at their dreams, no matter what.