March 15, 1996 in Seven

Harsh ‘Georgia’ Tells Story Of Frustration

Dan Webster Staff Writer
 

The film is called “Georgia,” but Sadie is the story.

Sadie is Georgia’s sister, see, and no two siblings could be more different. Georgia is the Earth Mother to Sadie’s Riot Grrrl. Georgia is harmony to Sadie’s discordance. Georgia is popular success to Sadie’s bar-croaking ambitions.

Ultimately, Mare Winningham is Georgia to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Sadie, and the contrast there, too, couldn’t be greater, both in acting style and in the resulting characterization.

About the only way the two actresses are similar is in quality, which is uniformly high, and in the intensity that both bring to their respective roles.

That uniform quality, more than anything else, is what makes the Motion Picture Academy’s Best Supporting Actress nomination for Winningham such an insult. For while honoring Winningham, the Academy chose to ignore Leigh.

And given the artistic connection between these two talented actresses, a connection that is at the very soul of this film, the Academy’s action is a little like rewarding Oscar while slighting Mayer.

Then again, now that Ulu Grosbard’s “Georgia” finally has come to Spokane, some movie fans in our own city probably won’t be any more accepting of it than the folks who hand out Oscars.

They won’t be ready to accept its harshness nor its raw exploration of family misfortunes, much less the bravura performance pulled off by Leigh that is as difficult to endure as nails on a blackboard.

Yet it is exactly that mix that makes “Georgia” so… well, if not great, then at least a film that flirts with greatness. And square at the heart of “Georgia” is Leigh, standing out in a role that she was born to play.

The brilliance of “Georgia,” which is based on an original screenplay written by Barbara Turner (Leigh’s real-life mother), is that it isn’t about much of anything specific. The film’s uncomplicated plot begins with Sadie attending a concert of her crowd-pleasing sister, a folk-swing stylist with a national reputation, and ends with near-talentless Sadie wailing one of her sister’s tunes in a seedy Seattle bar (there’s that contrast again).

In between, the story appears to wander about as aimlessly as Sadie does - from bar to bar, high to high, man to man - always in search of something that’s destined to elude her, always finding her way back to the sister who is both her source of self-torture and means of salvation.

In the hands of many directors, this sense of seemingly random storytelling would be judged a jumbled mess. The “fix” would involve a standard Hollywood plotline entailing a more obvious play of good vs. bad, action and reaction. In other words, something suitable for television.

But in the hands of veteran Grosbard (“Straight Time”), “Georgia” is left to be the study of life as most of us experience it, as frustrating and unfulfilling as it is joyful and contented - with the emphasis on the former.

The whys of “Georgia” are left largely unexplained. We know only that the two sisters were once close, that Sadie was always the one who wanted to sing, that Georgia was the one who could sing and that some dark pain, likely involving their shadowy father, still hovers over them both.

But that’s OK. We get to know as much about the characters of “Georgia” as we do most people in our real lives. We judge them by what we see them do and how they act, and in that respect the characters of “Georgia” are nothing if not memorable.

That includes Ted Levine (“Silence of the Lambs”) as Georgia’s husband, whose seemingly peaceful life can’t completely mask his troubled past. It includes John C. Reilly (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), who portrays a drummer whose drug addiction gives him a soulful connection to Sadie. And it includes Max Perlich (“Beautiful Girls”), who discovers - as others have before him - that love isn’t enough to save Sadie.

As for Oscar nominee Winningham, she is everything she needs to be. She sings songs of her own composition, which are good and which she performs well, and she is the kind of person who survives by holding on tightly to everything around her.

Ultimately, however, “Georgia” revolves around Leigh. Her Sadie is the emotional storm that swirls around Winningham, whether belting out an eight-minute-long version of Van Morrison’s song “Take Me Back,” crying with pride at her sister’s success, berating a flight attendant for not letting her board an airplane without shoes or braying to an audience that Georgia is the only person she will ever miss when she herself is gone.

It’s a performance unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s one for the ages - if not for Oscar.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos

MEMO: Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Georgia” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Ulu Grosbard; starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John C. Reilly and John Doe Running time: 1:57 Rating: R

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Georgia:” Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “Georgia” comes from the place art comes from before it becomes art. It comes from the blast furnace of art - pain, impulse, passion, heat, need, long periods of being alone. It’s one of the great sister movies and one of the great performance movies. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: “Georgia” … is all about raw emotion and misdirected fearlessness. It’s the umpteenth courageous, warts-and-all performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress who proves with practically each new movie that there’s no challenge she won’t face, no degraded corner of the human soul she won’t explore. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: Since much of “Georgia” takes place during performances, director Ulu Grosbard (“Falling in Love”) should have worked harder to make the music more interesting. Leigh can act a song, but can’t sing one. That’s part of her character’s problem, but it also becomes the movie’s problem. Despite its shortcomings, “Georgia” remains a strong cautionary tale about how rock and drugs mix all too well. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: Jennifer Jason Leigh is an exceptional actress with a gift for playing damaged souls, but would it kill her to comb her hair? As the drug-addled Sadie in “Georgia,” Leigh wallows in the smelly, rumpled greasiness of her character. Jane Sumner/Dallas Morning News: “Georgia” won’t just be on your mind when you leave the theater; it’ll be a lump in your throat. This fierce, juicy peach of an independent film, so nuanced and uncompromised, is honest in a way that Hollywood can’t seem to allow. Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: It’s difficult to watch. Selfimmolation always is. And although it’s a performance that drew raves at film festivals, it’s also drawn harsh criticism from some critics who can’t separate the actress from the role, and have called Leigh self-indulgent and self-destructive for taking it. And maybe she is. But the part is also a stunner, and Leigh is stunning in it. William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: The filmed-in-Seattle drama, “Georgia,” which already has won several major festival awards and best-actress accolades from the New York Film Critics (for star Jennifer Jason Leigh), is reminiscent of the kind of uncompromising movies Hollywood regularly turned out in the “Five Easy Pieces”-era of the early ‘70s. It’s a rich, engrossing ensemble drama that reveals itself slowly, is filled with with multi-dimensional characters and multi-layered performances, and works toward an amazingly verisimilitude. It never seems to be inhabited by “movie characters,” but by people who are every bit as unpredictable and ultimately unknowable as people in real life.

Two sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Georgia” Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Ulu Grosbard; starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Ted Levine, Max Perlich, John C. Reilly and John Doe Running time: 1:57 Rating: R

2. Other views Here’s what other critics say about “Georgia:” Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: “Georgia” comes from the place art comes from before it becomes art. It comes from the blast furnace of art - pain, impulse, passion, heat, need, long periods of being alone. It’s one of the great sister movies and one of the great performance movies. Bob Strauss/Los Angeles Daily News: “Georgia” … is all about raw emotion and misdirected fearlessness. It’s the umpteenth courageous, warts-and-all performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress who proves with practically each new movie that there’s no challenge she won’t face, no degraded corner of the human soul she won’t explore. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: Since much of “Georgia” takes place during performances, director Ulu Grosbard (“Falling in Love”) should have worked harder to make the music more interesting. Leigh can act a song, but can’t sing one. That’s part of her character’s problem, but it also becomes the movie’s problem. Despite its shortcomings, “Georgia” remains a strong cautionary tale about how rock and drugs mix all too well. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: Jennifer Jason Leigh is an exceptional actress with a gift for playing damaged souls, but would it kill her to comb her hair? As the drug-addled Sadie in “Georgia,” Leigh wallows in the smelly, rumpled greasiness of her character. Jane Sumner/Dallas Morning News: “Georgia” won’t just be on your mind when you leave the theater; it’ll be a lump in your throat. This fierce, juicy peach of an independent film, so nuanced and uncompromised, is honest in a way that Hollywood can’t seem to allow. Stephen Whitty/San Jose Mercury News: It’s difficult to watch. Selfimmolation always is. And although it’s a performance that drew raves at film festivals, it’s also drawn harsh criticism from some critics who can’t separate the actress from the role, and have called Leigh self-indulgent and self-destructive for taking it. And maybe she is. But the part is also a stunner, and Leigh is stunning in it. William Arnold/Seattle PostIntelligencer: The filmed-in-Seattle drama, “Georgia,” which already has won several major festival awards and best-actress accolades from the New York Film Critics (for star Jennifer Jason Leigh), is reminiscent of the kind of uncompromising movies Hollywood regularly turned out in the “Five Easy Pieces”-era of the early ‘70s. It’s a rich, engrossing ensemble drama that reveals itself slowly, is filled with with multi-dimensional characters and multi-layered performances, and works toward an amazingly verisimilitude. It never seems to be inhabited by “movie characters,” but by people who are every bit as unpredictable and ultimately unknowable as people in real life.


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