One for Friday: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, “If I Wanted”

Yesterday, I wrote about Jennifer Jason Leigh’s acting in The Hudsucker Proxy as part of the ongoing Greatish Performances series. As I noted when I first cooked up (okay, stole) that recurring feature, the inclusion of a specific performance doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m declaring it the very best work of the thespian in question. In fact, in the case of Leigh, there’s a very different turn that I instinctively invoke in those rare occasions when I might be asked to name her best screen performance. I don’t think Leigh was ever better than she was in the 1995 film Georgia.

Written by her mother, Barbara Turner, and directed by Ulu Grosbard, Georgia casts Leigh as a struggling rock singer named Sadie Flood. She toils in dingy clubs and dank bars while her sister, Georgia, enjoys fame as a country music singer. Like a lot of films set on the stages of rock ‘n’ roll, there’s drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior as Sadie tries to soothe her lack of success with whatever feeling-dulling material is at hand. This sort of sedated pathos is right in Leigh’s wheelhouse and she plays Sadie with a reeling agony that’s downright piercing. The film’s plot may sometimes be pat, but Leigh’s performance never is. As usual, she gives it her all.

That extends to the scenes on stage. Part of the movie’s premise is that it’s not just bad fortune that’s kept Sadie at the bottom; she’s simply not very talented, growling her way through songs to make up for a lack of pitch-perfect clarity in her voice. The distance between her capabilities and her dreams is most starkly measured out in a scene in which her sister Georgia is in the audience and Sadie calls her up to the stage to sing a duet. Georgia is played by Mare Winningham, probably best known at the time as the above-the-title cast member who seemed to be most embarrassed about her place in the the Brat Pack movie St. Elmo’s Fire. By this time, she also had a fledgling recording career. In fact, the song used for the duet, “If I Wanted,” was actually pulled from one of Winningham’s albums. When Georgia takes the stage and sing in her pristine, mellifluous voice, the contrast against Sadie’s sandpaper-made-from-gravel intonations is meant to make it perfectly clear which sibling actually belongs in the music biz.

Funny thing, though: I actually prefer–even far prefer–Leigh’s vocal performance to Winningham’s. Maybe it’s all that Sonic Youth and Pogues and Hüsker Dü and Tom Waits I listened to in college (it’s surely that), but I’ll take Sadie’s passion over Georgia’s precision any day. Leigh knows that Sadie is damaged goods, but, as the actor bringing her to life, Leigh also knows she has an obligation to believe in her, to feel the same agonizing intensity Sadie felt when she launched into a song. That doesn’t automatically make the song a classic, but it does invest it with a commendable level of energy and import. It is central to telling Sadie’s story on film, both in what it intends to say and what it perhaps inadvertently reveals. I also think it sounds pretty damn cool all on its own.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, “If I Wanted”

(Disclaimer: It looks to me like the Georgia soundtrack is out of print, and I doubt any label executions are in a big rush to make sure it gets loaded onto the company servers for digital distribution. The song is presented her with the belief that there’s no other way to obtain it, short of deep digging at the used CD shop of your choice. Should there be anyone out there with due authority to request its removal who takes umbrage with this theory and, therefore, wants the offending file removed from its online distribution point, I will gladly fall in line. Especially if it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s small, but I’m pretty sure she could take me.)