There’s an extraordinary scene at the end of the pretty good 1981 slasher Eyes of a Stranger in which Jennifer Jason Leigh’s blind deaf-mute character has just regained her sight after being sexually assaulted and beaten in her home by a serial killer. The teenager has managed to turn the tables and shoot the vicious bastard, enabling her to stand in front of a bathroom mirror to see herself for the first time since she was abducted and hideously traumatized as a child. Now a woman, she takes her hand (that’s bright red from the serial killer’s blood) and wipes it down her cheek before dipping a couple of fingers into her mouth. Then (with downcast eyes and an impossible-to-read face) she opens her torn blouse to wordlessly fondle a pink-nippled breast.
At this point, I’m willing to listen to your interpretation of such a queasy little sequence coz I sure as hell am flailing. Is it supposed to be some sort of eroticized portrait of violence? A delayed sexual awakening? Or is the character weirdly grateful for the latest assault in that it’s enabled her long lost vision to return?
All I do know is that it immediately underlined Leigh’s decade-long fondness for plunging into the most unpleasant subject matter, stuff that invariably riffed on violation, nudity, sexual uncertainty, passivity and the most appalling brutality. As her star rose during the 80s you could never accuse Leigh of plumping for safe, middle of the road characters. Blandness was anathema. Her roles were markedly sexual, taking in everything from childhood abuse to prostitution. Even in something as tame as 1984’s Grandview, U.S.A she plays an adulterous tramp who beds a washing machine salesman and indulges in mild bondage while insisting on being called ‘Miss Baby Doll’. Pick one of her 80’s efforts and, chances are, she’ll be smoking, nudey and R-rated. Indeed, this was a girl with a perverse fondness for having control wrenched away, a partiality that often saw her turned into the plaything of male aggressors.
Meg Ryan, she wasn’t.
Early on Leigh had a strong attraction for portraying virgins. In her 1982 breakthrough hit, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she might have been gloriously upstaged by the bikini-shedding Phoebe Cates, but she still played her part in a worthwhile ensemble comedy that’s essentially a study of fragile bullshitters. Here she’s a fifteen-year-old high schoolgirl and part-time waitress that wants to know about sex. This involves copying her best friend’s blowjob demonstration on a lucky carrot in the middle of the school cafeteria, an impromptu display that causes all the boys to applaud. Not that it answers all her questions. “When a guy has an orgasm,” she asks, “how much comes out?”
Soon she’s repeatedly lying about her age to hook up with a 26-year-old guy, eventually having her cherry lovelessly popped in a baseball dugout while staring at the graffiti-daubed ceiling. By Leigh’s standards, this is quite a tender introduction to sex. Fast Times remains much more sweet-natured than most of her early flicks, but she’s still an underage girl dealing with everything from premature ejaculation to abortion.
Easy Money followed, a dismal Rodney Dangerfield comedy in which she marries a Puerto Rican and freezes on her wedding night. “I dunno what to do,” she says. Well, girl, I suggest watching your other films. By the end her frigidity has given way to insatiability in an awkward storyline that fits in fine with all the other blundering on show.
Somehow Easy Money was a hit unlike 1985’s medieval mega-flop, Flesh and Blood. Director Paul Verhoeven had the last laugh, though, as his eye-opening effort has endured to become a cult flick. Not that it’s any good. It’s an increasingly bonkers mix of black comedy, frequent nudity, religious lunacy, rampant ignorance, the Black Death, pillage, sexual violence, dismembered dogs flying through the air, casual murder, and all-round sheer bloody horror. One minute it’s unapologetically nasty, the next it’s a swashbuckling romp, and then it’s like Verhoeven couldn’t give a flying fuck about the slightest plausibility.
Never mind. I enjoy it, especially the way the effortlessly cool Rutger Hauer strolls around like some kind of rock ‘n’ roll soldier. It also provided Leigh with her first starring role as a virginal aristocrat who’s sex-obsessed from the first moment. “How do you behave when you’re all alone with a man?” she asks her chubby lady-in-waiting. “Will you show me how it’s done?” When her maid demurs, Leigh simply orders her to fuck her lover in the bushes while she watches. She’s now added voyeurism to her smorgasbord of sexual quirks, although she doesn’t seem too impressed by what she perves on, eventually beating them with a branch and demanding they stop.
Then again, this is one fucking weird girl. Shortly afterward, she demurely meets her intended husband and curtsies before digging up a mandrake beneath a pair of rotting hanged corpses. “Eat it and we’ll love each other forever,” she tells him while proffering half the vegetable under the executed men’s dangling legs.
I could be wrong, but this might be Leigh’s idea of romance.
Surprisingly, Leigh was only murdered once in the 80s (although there were strangling and drowning attempts in Flesh and 1987’s Sister, Sister). Still, what she lacked in quantity, she made up for in memorability in 1986’s hugely entertaining The Hitcher, a horror-thriller that was met with howls of protest over its violence and full on approach. Believably cast as a trusting, down-to-earth waitress working at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere with dreams of moving to California, she gets involved with C. Thomas Howell as he tries to flee the demonic madman Rutger Hauer. As usual it’s mainly a reactive role, typified by her horrifying fate. Abducted, gagged and tied between the cab of a Mack truck and its trailer with our stylish maniac revving the gas, it’s an agonizingly drawn-out scene. Or perhaps I should say stretched. “She’s sweet,” Hauer says after a horrified Howell has clambered into the cab to try to bargain for her life. Yes, Mr. Hauer, she is, she’s really sweet, so surely you’re not gonna take your foot off the…
Oh, you are.
Well, this is the area in which Leigh excelled during the 80s, playing a victim of sexual assault no less than five times. You have to say that’s proclivity rather than mere coincidence. Following Eyes of a Stranger, she’s raped at length by Hauer in Flesh and Blood as women and children cheer him on. It’s a full-frontal piece of exploitation, made ickier by Verhoeven’s curious presentation which is a long way from the traditional understanding that rape and its aftermath are not very nice. “You won’t get me to scream,” she tells Hauer as he settles down to his sadistic business. “If you think you’re harming me, you’re wrong. I like it. I like it!” Then she wraps her legs around his back, causing him to frown while his thrusting pelvis understandably slows. Is this how a virgin reacts to rape? Well, in Verhoeven’s less than sensitive world, yes.
Things shortly get even murkier when she starts wooing her rapist. Of course, this could be a survival tactic, but her relationship with Hauer is blurred all the way through. At points, she definitely appears smitten. Whatever the case, she’s soon rubbing a foot into his crotch beneath the dinner table while sparking jealousy in his prostitute ‘wife’ and sexual competitiveness from another wannabe rapist. Then there’s the bath scene after her merry band of outlaws have conquered a castle in three minutes flat. Just watch her smiling and standing stark naked on its candle-adorned rim with both hands above her head looking down at her recent violator. “The whole world belongs to us,” she says with apparent glee. You have to say this is a confident, bold actress. Hauer would probably agree. “I’ve always wanted a girl with soft skin,” he says after she jumps into the steaming water. A moment later he’s pulling her toward him by her nipples.
Three years after her bout of medieval madness Leigh starred in one of her worst films, Heart of Midnight. It wants to be the 80’s answer to Polanski’s Repulsion, a glorious black and white flick that delved into male abusers, female sexual repression, insanity and latent violence. Midnight does its best to be daring but it’s merely overlong, boring, laughable, incoherent and technically inept. Leigh plays a repressed, traumatized, mentally unstable young woman who inherits a seedy nightclub/ brothel from her dodgy uncle. Five minutes later three punks (including a young Steve Buscemi) see her undressing at a window and decide that’s all the invitation they need. “Tell me you wanna fuck me,” Buscemi demands while lying on top of her as a fellow rapist takes Polaroids. We later learn Leigh is a victim of childhood sexual abuse and almost scratched a boyfriend’s eye out for going too far. “I don’t even like sex,” she says at one point. Hmm… You might not like it, girl, but its more extreme manifestations sure have a thing for you.
The ‘best’ was yet to come, though. Leigh first played a hooker in 1986’s widely panned Men’s Club, a small part that paved the way for Peak Leigh in 1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. If you’re ever curious about what it’s like to take a swim in the cinematic equivalent of a toilet bowl, this one’s for you. Set in 1952, Leigh plays a hardened bitch in an undersized bra on the streets of New York. Her first scene sets the unwavering tone in which she’s slapped by a pimp, eventually bawling at a concerned passerby: “Go fuck your mother! I hear she’s a good hump!” Leigh is tits-deep in a world of homophobic bullies, heroin, savage beatings, incandescent industrial relations, paid sex, self-loathing, closet gays, robberies, and marital rape. Just about everyone hates everyone and I’m not sure there’s a single sympathetic character in the whole shebang.
Leigh is an aggressive, bleached blonde bottom feeder, a skanky ho happy to lure johns into getting robbed. Toward the end she appears to lose her mind, drunkenly ripping her top open in a crowded bar while saying: “How do you like my tits?” Not surprisingly, she’s pushed around and pawed before being taken outside and thrown into the back of a wrecked car. “Come on, you bastards,” she bawls at the dozens of men queuing up, “I’ll fuck you blind!” I have no idea if this prolonged gang rape is supposed to cast such an obnoxious character in a more sympathetic light, but it did make me wonder if Leigh ever attended her movie premieres with family. Last Exit was Leigh’s final 80’s flick. In later decades the sleazy concentration of passive abuse fell away, but she couldn’t help having another go at hooking in 1990’s Miami Blues and 2004’s The Machinist while also getting to watch her thirteen-year-old self give daddy a hand job in 1995’s awful Dolores Claiborne. Clearly, old habits die hard. Now in her sixties, I guess that means there’s still a chance of getting to see her play a geriatric gangbang victim.