Rude awakening

There is a moment in the controversial new film, Georgia, which will pretty much decide what you think of the movie and its star, the ever courageous, enigmatic Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Actually, there are nine of them. Legendary "actor's director" Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, Straight Time) lets the camera roll that long so he can record Leigh live as a drunk, arrogant, out-of-control groupie who thinks she can sing. Leigh's tortured version of a Van Morrison ballad goes on for nine wretched minutes, though Morrison shouldn't have any complaints. "Take Me Back" is the oddly moving centerpiece of Georgia, a mild-mannered, brittle little character-study that doesn't seem to care very much whether you like it or not.

Much like the actress, who also served as producer on this project that took four years to develop, Georgia deconstructs the mythic relationship between self-destruction and ability. Leigh plays Sadie, a wannabe singer with a voice like a garbage disposal who worships suicidal greats like Joplin and Chet Baker. Problem is, she's withering in the shadow of a great performer who's anything but reckless--her older sister Georgia, a Mary Chapin Carpenterish musician played with superb passive aggression by Mare Winningham.

Georgia and Sadie grew up together, but they couldn't be more different.
In her parents' home, which she saved from being sold to strangers, Georgia presides over a mean dinner table, gently scolds her children for wasting time before school, and cares for a sweet-natured husband played by Ted Levine ("Buffalo Bill" from Silence of the Lambs). She also finds the time to record best-selling albums and perform concerts in front of thousands.

The goofy, loose-limbed, substance-dependent Sadie casts her own poisonous shadow in Georgia's life. She's the dust and dirt that has accumulated on the singer's coattails, an affable nightmare that keeps screeching for a more exclusive space in Georgia's heart.

Georgia is a startlingly perceptive film in the way it understands how, as adults, we carry on the family roles we played as children. Sadie may be a talentless leech, but it's clear that at least part of her downward spiral is a bid for attention from the talented sister she once worshiped and whose supreme personal balance seems contingent on Sadie's chaos. If Georgia weren't forced to be her sister's keeper all the time, who would she be?

The film was written by Barbara Turner (although Leigh is an uncredited collaborator), the veteran scriptwriter most famous for 1968's Petulia, another feature that avoids conventional emotional catharsis and shoots for a deadpan profundity that allows Turner's beautifully plain dialogue to shine. In some ways, the real star of Georgia is the elliptical screenplay, which paces scenes according to the general inarticulateness of its characters. Luckily, Turner uses this as a trampoline rather than an excuse, catapulting humble moments of revelation toward the attentive viewer. (Notice how Sadie is always introduced as "Georgia's sister" and usually greeted with "I'm a big fan"; the disappointment on Leigh's face is palpable).

Barbara Turner also happens to be Leigh's mother. During a telephone interview with this writer, she identified the stray autobiographical thread that runs through the film: Her oldest daughter Carrie, just like the character of Sadie, was a heroin addict before she finally cleaned up. In one airport scene, for example, a pathetically underweight Sadie, shaking violently in the early stages of withdrawal, is forced to beg for a pair of shoes so she can board the plane to see her sister; while your heart's in your throat, you should know that Turner's daughter Carrie did the same.

In the end, Mare Winningham gives the more affecting performance, but Leigh's flamboyant, fidgety turn dominates. Like every other aspect of Georgia, Leigh is more concerned with charting her character's mythological self-deception than making you like her. This is the story of her brilliant career, which might explain why she has never and may never win an accolade as mainstream as an Academy Award. Her great gift isn't emotional fluidity, it's a religious devotion to characterization above and beyond everything else--including audience approval. By the time Georgia is over, you may be glad to get rid of Sadie, but you probably won't soon forget her.

Georgia. Miramax. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Max Perlich. Written by Barbara Turner. Directed by Ulu Grosbard. Now showing at the Inwood.

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