Sunday, October 27, 2013

GEORGIA (1995)

Jennifer Jason Leigh:  Georgia
 There may be no sadder figure than the artist with no talent. As a singer, Sadie Flood couldn't even be described as a game amateur.  Her voice scrapes along in what she imagines is a display of heart and soul, her skinny arms flail about, but audiences don't know what to think of her. "I'm real interesting," she says at one point in Georgia, a film about two sisters, one with talent, one without. Not surprisingly, the untalented Sadie is the one we can't look away from, much like Salieri was more interesting than Mozart in Amadeus.  Sadie, played to scalding perfection by Jennifer Jason Leigh, may suspect that she lacks talent, but imagines she can overcome it with shear bravado. Hence, all of her performances in Georgia are overlong, off-key, and borderline embarrassing. Yet, there have been few film characters that I have loved more than Sadie Flood. I would like to take her by the hand, give her a blanket and a bowl of soup, and help her to find a song in her vocal range.
 Ulu Grosbard's Georgia is not a perfect film, and at times I think it's not even a good film. Leigh's turn as Sadie  keeps it on the list of films I like to revisit, but Mare Winningham as the title character, a successful country singer, is not particularly compelling. She sings well enough during her concert scenes, but looks more like a tired folk act than a country music star.  Also, the whole "rich sister/poor sister" contrivance feels like something recycled from a 1930s "women's picture." The main element that doesn't work for me is Georgia's whole blase attitude about her success.  "I never cared about being famous," Georgia tells Sadie. "You were the one who wanted it."
First of all, that sounds like bullshit. We're made to believe that Georgia is content to live on her small farm and iron her children's clothes, but performers who get to the top of the country music field aren't there by accident. They've worked at it. They are image conscious. And they don't stay at the top without fighting.  It's also an incredibly cruel thing to say to Sadie, who routinely plays to empty rooms. But Georgia seems to hate Sadie's existence. She describes her as "a thousand pounds of dead weight." Georgia has a point. Sadie is a drug addict and a drunk. She's irresponsible. She nearly dies at two different times in the movie, and spends a portion of the film in a rehab clinic trying to kick a heroin habit. She either suffers from the unimaginably low self esteem, or she has bought into the whole tragic rocker pose. If she can't sing like Janis Joplin, at least she can die like her.
Sadie dresses like a 1970s punk, sporting too much Siouxsie Sioux eyeshadow,  but she leans towards music from an even earlier era, such as Lou Reed and Van Morrison (including a nearly 10 minute version of  Morrison's 'Take Me Back,' which you'll either find fascinating or unbearable). She even tries some country warbling, perhaps in imitation of her sister. None of it really fits her.  For all of her talk about being authentic, it's more likely that she has adopted various poses that she has read about in magazines. She just grabs at anything and smears it on, whether it's music, makeup, or drugs. She befriends the drummer of her band (John C. Reilly in one of his early roles) and the two become drug buddies. They commiserate, but neither is bright enough or strong enough to offer  more than a shoulder to pass out on. 
Out of nowhere, Sadie marries a well-meaning yokel named Axel (Max Perlich). He's a vintage car mechanic, a good bloke, but while he cares about Sadie, he can't keep up with her highs and lows.  He doesn't really fit her, either. He's just another part of her mismatched wardrobe (she can barely remember his name). The scene where Sadie realizes he's leaving her is astounding. He says he's simply going away to visit relatives, but she knows he isn't coming back. There's very little dialogue; Leigh does it all with a few slight facial gestures. She thinks, perhaps, that Axel might return, but she also senses that the one good thing in her life has died before her eyes.
What I find most endearing about Sadie is that, for all of her rock and roll affectation, she seems to crave simple things. She marries a regular guy; she enjoys a meaningless flirtation with Georgia's stoic husband (Ted Levine, a few years removed from his role in Silence of the Lambs); she craves the camaraderie of a band, yet can't show up on time for gigs; she seems to enjoy playing with Georgia's kids; and in a scene at the rehab clinic, she awakens from a dream and cries out, "Where's my sweetheart?" I was moved, and not only because I've awakened from those dreams myself and know the sadness of the cold, empty bed; I was moved because the self-destructive rocker wants love, but like her quest for fame, may only find it in her dreams.
There is also the issue of Sadie's catch phrase, used more than once in the movie: "I dedicate this song to my sister, the only person I will miss when I leave this earth." It's a loaded line, and I can never tell if it's an earnest expression of love, or a way to lay some guilt on Georgia. Sometimes I think it's just another one of Sadie's poses, a line designed to get a response from an audience. Even during the film's major set piece, when drug-addled Sadie is wandering shoeless around an airport, she seems to be working the crowd. When you can't find love at home, you try for the love of strangers. When you don't have the charm or talent to win these strangers' affection, you do a lot of empty shouting. The pain and sorrow of this film is in watching Sadie try to win over a bunch of people who don't give a damn about her.
Grosbard directed only seven films, but his vast theater background attracted many great actors to his work, including Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, and Robert Duvall. Many of Gosbard's films dealt with warring family members, and Georgia certainly fits into his favorite theme. Grosbard was what they call in the business "an actor's director," in that he allowed actors plenty of room to work, gave them plenty of 'actorish moments," sometimes at the expense of the story. For this reason, many of his films feel long and sluggish. Much of Georgia feels like a dullish movie wrapped around a great performance, and like most of Grosbard's work, it never quite comes to a conclusion. Georgia eventually shows some compassion for Sadie, but we get the idea that Georgia wouldn't mind if Sadie just vanished. There is no blowout or climax to speak of; Grosbard simply ends the film with Georgia performing in a huge venue, while Sadie struggles through another dead-end gig. One is famous, one is not. The song remains the same. 
Jennifer Jason Leigh was very much an actress of the 1990s. When that decade is recalled by future film buffs, her name should be front and center. Films like Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) Miami Blues (1990) , Rush (1991) Single White Female (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) Dolores Claiborne (1995),and Bastard out of Carolina (1996), established her as an actress who could easily switch from being an indy darling who loved challenging roles, to an actress capable of starring in a commercial hit. Her versatility inspired Anthony Lane of The New Yorker to write in '94 that Leigh reminded him "of the young Robert DeNiro in her strange, shocking ability not only to pick the lock of a character and slip inside,  but to breathe more easily once she is there."
She hasn't been acknowledged by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts, a situation that borders on criminal neglect. In an ironic case of life imitating art, Winningham was nominated for her work in Georgia; Leigh wasn't. (In fairness to Winningham, she did a good job with a character that wasn't  colorful or likable, which couldn't have been easy.  Maybe the Academy acknowledged her because she simply managed to stay in the game even as her co-star was going up in flames.)
Leigh still works regularly - she's currently in Kill Your Darlings (2013), where she plays Allen Ginsberg's mentally disturbed mother - but I don't know if she'll ever again throw herself into a role the way she submerged herself into Sadie Flood. I wonder if Leigh's preference for tortured characters took a toll of some kind?
The screenplay was written by Leigh's mother, Barbara Turner. According to the film's folklore,  the story was loosely based on incidents from their family. Leigh's sister Carrie allegedly ran away from home as a youth and created all sorts of turmoil. Perhaps Leigh is playing a character based on her own sister? Carrie served as an "advisor" on the film, so at least she lived through whatever her problems may have been. I'm not  sure the same can be said for Sadie Flood. The film ends with her playing to yet another empty room, her hair chopped to madhouse length, her body withered to the bone. She seems to be approaching her final trick: disappearing entirely. I hope she'll end up in that land of dreams where her secret sweetheart awaits.

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