Jennifer Jason Leigh had paid her dues and began to take on more substantial roles in the 1990’s starting with an impressive one-two punch of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues in 1990. From there, she never looked back, tackling roles in mainstream Hollywood fare like Backdraft (1991) and Single White Female (1992), and more challenging material in independent films like Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Georgia (1995). The latter was a very personal, passion project for the actress whose mother, Barbara Turner, produced the film and wrote the screenplay, and was directed by Ulu Grosbard, a friend of hers. Georgia depicts the tempestuous relationship between two sisters, both of whom are singers with Leigh playing the younger, less talented one, and Mare Winningham playing the older, more successful one. The film is rich with characterization as it explores the complex relationship between two siblings.
From when they were little girls, Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Georgia Flood (Mare Winningham) loved to perform in front of people. Now grown-up, their paths have taken very different directions. When she’s not cleaning rooms at a motel, Sadie scrapes by with the occasional gig as a backup singer, leading a nomadic existence with a string of failed relationships. In contrast, Georgia is a very successful country-folk singer with tons of adoring fans, a loving family and a comfortable life. After getting fired from her latest gig, Sadie travels to Seattle to see her sister and live with her for a bit while she tries to sort out her life, which is going nowhere.
Leigh delivers a truly fearless performance as she actually sings in the film, unafraid to play someone who makes up what she lacks for in talent with passion. For example, she sings a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” in a raspy whisper that is mesmerizing to watch and then sings backup for a band (that features X’s John Doe no less!) terribly, screeching her way through a song. It really takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there like Leigh does, not just in the music scenes but also off-stage in the way she relates (or doesn’t) to those around her. As always, the actress fully inhabits the role and it starts with her look, adopting raccoon-eye makeup and a perpetually disheveled appearance that represents her messy life.
Sadie is obviously the black sheep of her family with her self-destructive tendencies that Leigh doesn’t overplay – it is there in every scene in the way Sadie carries herself, like how she tries to keep it together while performing a cover of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” after taking too much NyQuil. As the song goes on she slowly backs away from the microphone and slouches up against a wall with a look that says so much, almost like she can’t believe what’s happening, like she’s watching it all unfold from outside of her body. Leigh’s gutsy performance culminates in an intense performance of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” that seems to go on forever (in a good way) as we see Sadie at her most vulnerable. This sequence encapsulates her character perfectly – all ambition and passion with no talent. She tries so hard that your heart really goes out to her despite being a painfully awful singer. It is this scene that really divided critics and fans of Leigh but I’ve always found it powerful and real with a rawness that is rare. This sequence also says a lot about the relationship between Sadie and Georgia as the former threatens to come apart at the seams on stage while the latter helps her out by providing supporting backing vocals towards the end of the epic rendition of the song.
Winningham is excellent in the title role. I’ve never been a huge fan of her work outside of Miracle Mile (1988) but I really enjoyed what she does in Georgia, playing the supportive older sister. She has a tough job of playing the less flashier role but it is still an important one because she has to provide the ying to Leigh’s yang. For most of the film she maintains an impenetrable air of control but occasionally she vents her frustrations about Sadie to her husband Jake (Ted Levine) and Sadie’s husband, Axel (Max Perlich). I like the relationship between Jake and Georgia. In a few scenes that they have together they suggest two people that have been married for years and know each other very well because they’ve been through so much together and now have settled into a familiar rhythm that Sadie threatens to disrupt.
Leigh and Winningham capitalize on their years of actual friendship to play believable sisters. Georgia loves Sadie but can’t stand her chaotic, spontaneous way of life because it goes against everything she believes in. Over the course of the film, the tension between them simmers until the inevitable boiling over moment thanks to years of conflict and baggage that comes out due to Sadie finally pushing Georgia’s buttons so much that her controlled façade finally cracks.
Underrated character actor Ted Levine is excellent as Georgia’s laidback husband Jake. He has a wonderful scene with Leigh early on where Jake tells Sadie why he no longer tours with Georgia after years of being regarded as nothing more than one of the road crew and how he and his wife had a series of meaningless affairs only to finally emerge in a more stable place. During the ‘90s, he played a variety of roles, from a creepy serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1990) to a cop in Heat (1995), but with Georgia he gets to play a normal, decent guy.
The always watchable Max Perlich turns up as a nice guy named Axel who loves Sadie unconditionally despite her lack of reciprocation because she uses people, whether it is for food or a place to stay or for a gig. He is kind and understanding, judging by the amount of patience he displays for her various antics but even he has his limits as she eventually finds out. Leigh had previous worked with Perlich on Rush (1991) and she was obviously impressed with his work on that film when it came time to cast the role of Axel in Georgia. Look close and you’ll also see John C. Reilly in a small role as John Doe’s drummer who appears to be constantly stoned. He has a nice scene with Leigh where his character laments being fired from the band and talks about his life as a junkie whose time is running out.
Jennifer Jason Leigh had always wanted to make a film about sisters and also play a failed singer because she knew that she couldn’t sing. She came up with the idea that the older sibling would be the better singer and that her longtime friend and fellow actress Mare Winningham would play that role. She had always wanted to work with her mother, celebrated screenwriter Barbara Turner, but never had the opportunity. While making Rush, Leigh called her up with “this very vague notion of an idea,” with the hope she would like it enough to write a screenplay for it, and she did, working on it over seven months in 1991.
Ben Barenholtz who loved the script for Georgia and agreed to help find financing. He shopped it around at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival and French production company Ciby 2000 offered him the best deal: total financing and creative control.
However, a year passed before Ciby gave the greenlight and Grosbard began to question recording the music live because every music supervisor he spoke with told him not to do it as it lacked control. With the help of Altman and fellow director Alan Rudolph, Turner convinced Grosbard to film live music and stick with the unhappy ending. He felt that to do otherwise would have been false: “Studios try to do films like this, and paste on a happy ending, and the film fails anyway, and they blame it on being an ‘art’ film.” Ciby also had to be convinced about the casting of Winningham because they were unfamiliar with her work but hearing a tape of her songs sealed the deal. When she was first offered the role in 1992, she turned it down despite how good it was because there was “something weird about playing a famous singer when I was just trying to start my singing career.” However, six months later, the record label that released her debut album, folded and she changed her mind and decided to do Georgia.
Georgia was shot over 45 days on a budget of just over $7 million. Leigh was so focused and committed to playing a drug-addicted singer that she didn’t even notice she had lost a considerable amount of weight (going from 105 lbs to 89 lbs) until filming had ended. She recalled, “I was emaciated and felt horrible, horrible, horrible. This character living inside me was like a virus, and like a virus it takes two or three weeks to dissipate before you come back to yourself.”
Georgia received positive notices from critics with Leigh not surprisingly getting the lion’s share of the praise. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and felt that it was just “not a simply plotted movie about descent and recovery, but a complex, deeply knowledgeable story about how alcoholism and mental illness really are family diseases.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “With an exploratory style in the spirit of John Cassavetes, Georgia turns Sadie inside out without giving a neatly dramatic structure to her story. The result is a film as maddening and unpredictable as the character herself, held together by a fierce, risk-taking performance and flashes of overwhelming honesty. Sadie would be unbearable if she didn't feel so real.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A” rating and Ken Tucker wrote, “Different in its rhythms from every other movie out there right now, Georgia puts you through the wringer, but you come out feeling exhilarated.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “If there is one quality that defines Georgia, it's how nonjudgmental it finally is. With Leigh's exceptional performance to build on, Sadie is a person we come to care for despite herself. She is not a bad soul, just an impossible one who lacks so much as a clue about being an adult. And the film allows us to both despair for her as Georgia does and admire her for, in Jake's words, being ‘original and brave and without malice.’” Finally, in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle wrote, “As Leigh hurtles through the sky, it's good to have Winningham on screen as a sane point of reference. Leigh's best scenes are with Winningham, whose Georgia keeps Sadie in check – and whose emotional clarity keeps Leigh from getting sloppy.”