Last night the crowds patiently lined up to see the movie that captured most of the acclaim at the recent Montreal Film Festival. The movie, Ulu Grosbard's "Georgia," surprised some Montreal observers when it won the festival's best picture award. But nearly everyone agreed that its star and co-producer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, more than deserved Montreal's best actress award and now I know why.
In his introduction David Overbey made no secret of his feelings about "Georgia." A veteran festival programmer, whose courageous choices and impeccable taste help to explain why Toronto is such a smash hit, Overbey put it like this. "Just when you thought you would never bother to see another American film in your life they came through with another one," he said. The producer Ben Barenholtz joined Overbey on stage, followed by Grosbard and screenwriter Barbara Turner who, one should point out, is Leigh's mother (the actress's father, you may recall, was the late actor Vic Morrow).
"Now I have to tell you that I'm deeply in love - she is this generation's Bette Davis," gushed Overbey.
Looking far more demure than Bette Davis Leigh walked on stage wearing a stylish navy blue pants suit.
Overbey happens to be right about this remarkable actress. She brings to each of her roles a brittle quality and a defiant edge that immediately suggests Davis.
In "Georgia" she is anything but demure. Ghost pale, her eyes ringed in heavy black mascara, she plays the desperately seeking Sadie whose self-destructive life as a singer of punk rock is in sharp contrast to that of her sister Georgia, played with quiet dignity by Mare Winningham.
Georgia is already an established star, a serene folk-rock singer with a lilting voice similar to that of Judy Collins. Away from the stage she lives like any conventional suburban mother, delivering her children to school and maintaining a surprisingly ordinary home life. Sadie is not blessed with the same talent. Her voice is as scratchy and boozed-up as that of the late Janis Joplin. But when she sings of hard times there's so much genuine pain and rage in her voice the audience is completely riveted.
Slowly the movie reveals the tensions and conflicts in the love-hate relationship between the two sisters. Georgia, who flinches at the very sight of her out-of-control sister, treats Sadie like a wayward child. Played with a poignant combination of vulnerability and intensity by Leigh she is, indeed, like a needy, disruptive child as she bounces from one bad gig to the next in a plaintive search for some sort of validation.
Your Film Scouts' reporter was lucky enough to be invited to a private dinner after the movie. There Ulu Grosbard, the director, expressed his admiration for Leigh. "She had to perform in front of 2500 people even though she had never sung before. She's fearless," raved the director. Winningham, on the other hand, has sung professionally and her voice is completely captivating which was why Grosbard insisted she was the best possible choice for the role of Georgia. Even better she and Leigh have been close friends since she acted as Leigh's "chaperone" in a summer camp.
At the end of dinner actress Diane Ladd approached Grosbard, explaining to him that she, too, had directed a movie in the festival. "It's called 'Mrs. Munck' and it stars my ex-husband Bruce Dern," said Ladd. "He happened to be available." Ladd continued to sound like a publicist as she added "The screening is tomorrow morning at 11:30." As Ladd moved on to the next table Grosbard couldn't resist saying "This is someone who knows how to work a room."
The dinner finally wound down. After congratulating Leigh and her mother I prepared to
leave. "The night is young but I ain't," said another departing guest.
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