#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 1994)
To the degree that Jennifer Jason Leigh is pigeonholed, it’s as the dark, damaged character whose rolling displeasure probably helps drive the plot. It’s certainly served her well over the years. Even though she may be one of the most appallingly overlooked actresses by the most significant awards-giving bodies (her name was bandied about a potential contender for around a half-dozen performances, but she’s never received an Oscar nomination), she has a weighty body of work that, taken together, could fuel an especially depressing weekend movie marathon. The overwhelming dourness of her filmography is especially notable given that her first significant movie roles were in early eighties’ comedies, although, as if providing career foreshadowing, her character notably got an abortion in one of those. While many of those darkly dramatic performances are flat out sensational, they do wind up unfortunately obscuring her range.
Of course, there are always the Coen brothers around to push into unexpected corners. Given a sizable budget for the first time–thanks largely to the involvement of Joel Silver’s production company when he was still the fattest of Hollywood fatcats due to the overwhelming success of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard franchises–Joel and Ethan Coen constructed an elaborate tribute to the screwball comedies of decades earlier, albeit dressed up in a level of stunning design that Howard Hawks couldn’t have conjured up in his booziest imaginings. In The Hudsucker Proxy, Tim Robbins plays a small town schmoe who’s placed in charge of a major corporation as part of the devious machinations of a gruff executive played by Paul Newman. Both of those actors fit into the quirky, comic Coen brothers mold with different degrees of comfort. Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other hand, absolutely owns it.
Leigh plays Amy Archer, the bold, bright, brash lead lady reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Shooting out words like a over-caffeinated blackjack dealer dishing cards, Leigh is in the rapid-fire territory of the legendary Rosalind Russell or Kate Hepburn when she was occupied with chasing down leopards and stammering suitors. She faces every challenge with a withering putdown sharper than a spinning saw blade, and is quick to remind anyone who dares tangle with her that her talent and smarts have been certified by no less than the stuffed shirts who hand out the Pulitzer Prize. It takes a marathoner’s endurance to get through the dense scenes that the Coens hand over to her, and Leigh delivers in spades. She’s terrifically funny and effectively gives a sense of a person whose motoring mouth and whirring brain are taking turns trying to keep up with one another.
If that were it, though, the performance could be more easily dismissed as little more than homage to the sort of whirligig wonders seen on Turner Classic Movies on the happiest showcase nights. Since the Coens are at the helm, there’s also a little trickery afoot. In order to get the scoop on the lunkhead being roundly celebrated as a great idea men by a compliant press, Amy poses as a sweet girl lost in the big city, and one who just so happens to be from his hometown to boot. In keeping with the era that the film is set in (and simultaneously paying tribute to), Leigh slips into the slip of another classic Hollywood archetype in these scenes, that of a dewy, innocent ingenue. She’s playing Amy playing a role and doing it with expert care, giving just the right little hints of the person behind the artifice. Watching her exploit the earnest joyfulness of Robbins’ character while simultaneously disarmed by it is one of the great joys of the film. Her deft interplay with Robbins’ enthusiasm in these scenes is also hugely important for the softening of her steely, chilly heart that, by the necessities of the transplanted old genre, is sure to come. Leigh, inherently incapable of delivering falsehoods, manages to honor the bang-bang stylization of the film and the character, while also extracting real emotional value.
I’ve already name-checked a couple key actresses who were stalwarts of the genre The Hudsucker Proxy ingeniously apes, and they were certainly the ancestral performers I though of when I first saw the film. Since then, though, Leigh herself helped me realize to whom the performance is most clearly indebted when she provided the narration for a TCM bumper celebrating Barbara Stanwyck. Though she did it all during her lengthy career (and I do mean all), Stanwyck brought a special zest to her own forays into screwball comedy. Like Leigh many years later, Stanwyck operated with truthfulness as a genetic necessity. Punchlines never intruded on an inner veracity to the characters she played. What’s more, Stanwyck had a gift like no one else for playing the smartest person in the room, surveying all others with a mix of amusement and kind-hearted pity. Remarkably, this was even true when she was playing a character who was supposed to be a bit of a dim bulb. Stanwyck simply channeled her fierce intelligence into a totally appropriate mixture of street smarts and common sense.
Leigh carries a comparable strength. She commands a scene and, in turn, commands the screen. Over and over again in The Hudsucker Proxy she verbally topples everyone around her like they were ill-set bowling pins. She’s not visibly trying to win any of these battles, either; that’s just who she is. She walks in, counters every argument, leaves a major dent in the collected psyches present and strolls away with a primo stogie as a prize. Leigh plows through the atypical role with such assurance that it becomes evident that she’s one of those actors who could have actually benefited from the old Hollywood system, when studios made a big investment in a star and then threw them into absolutely everything, trying to get the best bang for their buck. She’s a great character actor who too often got stuck playing variations on the same character. The Hudsucker Proxy proves that great work can result when filmmakers have the inspiration to let her subvert expectations.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory