Old Hollywood may have treated performers like baseball cards to be swapped, hoarded or sold, but at least under the studio system a young actress could build an impressive career. Ingrid Bergman made most of the movies she's adored for before the age of 35 -- "Casablanca," "Gaslight," "Notorious," "Spellbound," "Joan of Arc," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- and Bette Davis had "Of Human Bondage," "Petrified Forest," "Jezebel," "Dark Victory," "The Little Foxes" and "Now, Voyager" (to name but a few) under her belt by the same age.
Today, many movie actresses don't hit their stride until their mid-30s, when convention dictates that they have only a few years left as leading ladies. (Glenn Close wound up playing Mel Gibson's mother in "Hamlet," despite the fact that she's only nine years his senior.) In an industry that insists that few women can open a film, young actresses aspiring to be more than just this year's bimbo need to make their bid for distinction quickly and emphatically. Two talented women, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Juliette Lewis -- at least ten years apart in age -- prove cases in point.
Leigh has slowly grown from a little-known performer favored by discriminating cineastes to the kind of actor who commands the cover of Premiere magazine -- currently for "Georgia," penned by her mother, Barbara Turner. "Georgia" is less a movie than a platform for Leigh's full-throttle Sadie, a talentless, vice-prone rock and roll singer fixated on her gifted older sister. To say Leigh's performance calls excessive attention to itself will not do -- it's like a black hole that inhales the rest of the film, culminating in a much-talked-about eight-minute rendition of Van Morrison's "Take Me Back," Sadie's desperate, croaking and ultimately failed grope at self-expression in front of a crowd of 3,000.
Actors notoriously love this sort of role, but for Leigh, Sadie represents more than just a one-shot opportunity to chew some scenery. She's the culmination of a series of Leigh performances in which substance abuse provides one remarkably consistent theme ("Rush," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," "Dolores Claiborne") and prostitution ("The Men's Club," "Miami Blues," "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and, more or less, "Short Cuts") another. Leigh has voiced a stubborn preference for sullen, self-destructive characters, and by now even some of her most ardent admirers have begun to complain of monotony. Apparently, a girl doesn't need Jack Warner to be typecast.
Juliette Lewis first attracted serious notice at 19, with her extraordinary performance as Nick Nolte's teenage daughter in "Cape Fear" (1991) a mutable blend of innocent and thrill-seeker, putting Robert de Niro's two-dimensional bad guy schtick to shame. Over the next two years, she played a precocious student for Woody Allen ("Husbands and Wives," 1992) and Johnny Depp's radiant soulmate in Lasse Hallstroem's unjustly undernoticed "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993). Both performances have a miraculous, palpitating immediacy, and in "Grape" she achieves what usually seems impossible: a depiction of serene goodness that's also interesting.
Unfortunately, since then Lewis has appeared in a string of glorified action movies, the stylized products of the current taste for auteur violence: "Kalifornia," Oliver Stone's execrable "Natural Born Killers," "Strange Days" and, currently "From Dusk 'Til Dawn," with a poster that offers the image of Lewis pointing a gun directly into the viewer's face. She now plays trashy nymphets, abuse victims and half-wits; these directors don't seem to know what to do with her miraculous vulnerability besides brutalize it.
Perhaps Lewis' choice of roles, like Leigh's, reflects a lamentably limited personal preference -- or perhaps she's pursuing the kind of attention she got for "Cape Fear," mistaking that movie's willful sadism for tough-mindedness. At any rate, both Leigh and Lewis are charting markedly different careers from women like Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, performers of lesser talent and greater fame -- movie stars rather than actresses -- who opt for cuddlier girl-next-door parts. There's a certain machismo to their choices, from Lewis' gun-toting to Leigh's appetite for bitter, screwed-up, unattractive characters; they aren't nice girls.
In many ways, these women resemble the young male actors of the '50s -- Dean, Brando and Clift -- who sought to prove themselves with a flamboyant intensity that defied traditional cinematic masculinity. They played anti-heroes and boys wracked with self-doubt, they agonized freely and visibly, jettisoning the ideal of manly stoicism. They showed a "feminine" abandon to emotional display and at the same time hinted at a potential for violence. In contemporary parlance, they had an edge. This, they asserted, is real acting.
Because traditional Hollywood career wisdom advises against playing too many hookers or lowlifes, the direction Leigh and Lewis have taken can similarly pass as true integrity. Not for these mavericks the sweet, safe, chick flick parts preferred by wimpy Winona Ryder. Furthermore, popular audiences usually do need to be clubbed over the head by a performance before they're impressed by the acting: currently, leading men get the most kudos for playing mentally or physically disabled, insane, homosexual or at the very least foreign characters. Leigh's Sadie Flood is a big, flashy role that has "Look at me act" written all over it, and sure enough, everyone's talking Oscar. Nuance, restraint and shading may be a sterner test of an actor's instrument, but they get a lot less attention.
Ultimately, opting for the naughty side of the madonna/whore dyad constitutes a pretty tame rebellion, just another corner in the same old playground. As a persona-crafting strategy, it feels like a sassy "bad girl" counterpart to "bad boy" directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (who helmed "From Dusk 'til Dawn"); if so the operative word is "girl," not "woman." It's the result of playing ball with an industry that equates "dark," smart-alecky posturing with profundity.
Consider this: Leigh is around the same age as Emma Thompson (the variation in Leigh's reported birth date may be the only Old Hollywood thing about her), yet still seems like a less mature talent. And, while the prospect of Leigh starring in the forthcoming film adaptation of Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina" (directed by Angelica Huston) can't fail to please fans of the novel, if Leigh's determined to play mistreated adolescents, why not stretch a little and go for Joan of Arc? Or imagine Lewis, instead of Ryder, as Jo March, cutting the syrup of "Little Women" with a tang of genuine danger.
Whether the sameness of the actresses' recent resumes results from personal preference, industry bias (they aren't movie-star beautiful), bad handling or simply the much-bemoaned lack of good parts, they're both being wasted because neither is being challenged. That might have happened under Jack Warner anyway, but at least then we'd know who to blame.