Friday December 8, 1995
It's not as if Jennifer Jason Leigh isn't a known quantity, not like the kind of intense, edgy, nervous work she specializes in has not been seen and appreciated up to now. But, even with all that as a backdrop, what she accomplishes in "Georgia" tears you apart.
Unlike performers desperate to try something out of their range, Leigh takes a more difficult, more rewarding route. Like a practiced athlete, she has gone deeper into herself and taken a familiar characterization to another level so forcefully that we've never seen anything like it before.
Of course Leigh had help. Without co-star Mare Winningham, an underappreciated actress and an old friend, plus an insightful and intelligent script by Barbara Turner, the actress' mother, and the firm, naturalistic direction of Ulu Grosbard, such an excellent result wouldn't have been possible.
It's also fitting that there was a family aspect to "Georgia," because Leigh and Winning-ham play sisters, and what this downbeat, beautifully realistic film concerns itself with is how deep and troublesome are the ties of blood, how brutal an attachment a sibling relationship can be.
Though Leigh's character dominates the film, her name is not Georgia but Sadie. Yet the title is right because it is sister Georgia who looms largest in Sadie's mind, "the single person," Sadie is overly fond of saying, "I will miss when I leave this Earth."
With ratty hair, too short skirts and too much personality, Sadie looks and acts like the Little Match Girl on drugs. One of those irrepressible people everyone would give a lot to repress, Sadie is led by her relentless bravado posturing like a boxing champion even though she's never won a fight. "I'm great, this is great, things are gonna break for me" are her mantras, but in truth she has an almost unerring instinct for doing the wrong thing at all times.
Georgia is, of course, just the opposite. Introduced singing a knockout version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" to a huge arena audience, Georgia is a Linda Ronstadt/Bonnie Raitt type of star, a pulled-together individual who also keeps house, drives her two kids to school and has a husband so stable his name is Jake (Ted Levine).
The only thing Georgia cannot handle, in fact, is her sister. Being around Sadie unnerves her, makes her feel suffocated and ill at ease. And it's only partly because Sadie is a substance abuser addicted to "whatever's cheap or free" or even that the younger sister is uncomfortably determined to make a singing career out of her own questionable talent.
It's more that Georgia experiences Sadie as unbearably needy, someone who wants to try Georgia's life on for size as well as the clothes she frequently borrows. "Nothing is enough for you," Georgia tells her, and she complains to Jake with some truth that her sister "swallows people up."
"Georgia" is set in Seattle and its vibrant music scene, where the successful Georgia lives with her family in the sisters' childhood home and where Sadie returns after an indeterminate time away, a typical bit of which, spent with legendary singer Trucker (Jimmy Witherspoon), is shown in flashback.
Now that she's back in town, Sadie sets out to have the music career that, despite a voice on the far side of questionable, she is sure is coming. She hooks up with her ex-boyfriend Bobby (X's John Doe) and his band, singing backup at bowling alleys and weddings (her "Yossel, Yossel" is something special). She also gets romantically involved with the earnest Axel (Max Perlich), who thinks saying "very much so" is expressing an opinion, but her slide into decline and her looming conflicts with her sister are never far away.
"Georgia" took the unusual step of recording its 13 musical numbers live, a risk that has paid off spectacularly in terms of emotional intensity. Hearing Winningham sing in a rich voice that justifies the script line "God kissed her" underlines why Sadie is inextricably involved with her sibling. And to hear Leigh go through an extended, agonizing 8 1/2-minute version of Van Morrison's "Take Me Back" is to understand better than any dialogue could convey the extent of Sadie's drive and desperation.
If there is one quality that defines "Georgia," it's how nonjudgmental it finally is. With Leigh's exceptional performance to build on, Sadie is a person we come to care for despite herself. She is not a bad soul, just an impossible one who lacks so much as a clue about being an adult. And the film allows us to both despair for her as Georgia does and admire her for, in Jake's words, being "original and brave and without malice."
Turner, who has worked extensively in television since "Petulia," her best-known feature screenplay, has turned in a script that is a model of careful and thoughtful character development. And director Grosbard, whose previous films have included "The Subject Was Roses" and the memorable "Straight Time," brings an emphasis on the reality of the moment that allows even actors with smallish roles, like Perlich, John C. Reilly as stoned drummer Herman and Jason Carter as a would-be manager, to shine like stars. "Georgia" is not an easy film, but in the American independent arena, it outperforms everything in sight.
Georgia, 1995. R, for substance abuse, language and a sex scene. Released by Miramax Pictures. Director Ulu Grosbard. Producers Ulu Grosbard, Barbara Turner, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Executive producer Ben Barenholtz. Screenplay Barbara Turner. Cinematographer Jan Kiesser. Editor Elizabeth Kling. Costumes Carol Oditz. Music Producer Steven Soles. Production design Lester Cohen. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sadie. Mare Winningham as Georgia. Ted Levine as Jake. Max Perlich as Axel. John Doe as Bobby. John C. Reilly as Herman. Jimmy Witherspoon as Trucker.