And yet Leigh is not really a star. She’s not a fashion icon; people routinely confuse her with other three-named actresses. Perhaps in response, over the last decade, she’s begun stepping up as a quasi-autobiographical auteur. The 1995 drama Georgia was written by her mother, who based Sadie, Leigh’s character—a fragile junkie with a successful sister—on Leigh’s own sister Carrie Ann Morrow, who was a consultant on the film. In 2001, Leigh wrote, directed and starred in The Anniversary Party, a clever ensemble piece about an aging actress and her Hollywood circle, played by Leigh’s own circle, including Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates.
Baumbach has followed a similar path, diverging from early comedies toward the rawly confessional Squid and the Whale, which, like Georgia, used family misery as material, drawing an unsparing portrait of the ugly divorce between his parents, film critic Georgia Brown and novelist and professor Jonathan Baumbach. But when Baumbach and Leigh met, they were at different points in their careers. When I talk to Baumbach after his return from Toronto, he clarifies that Leigh’s version of their own history is not quite right: Her tale of how they met is the “official story,” he says, laughing. Although it’s true they began dating after the LaBute play, they’d met for the first time four years before that, in the Toronto airport, at Customs. Back then, Leigh was riding high on raves for her performance in Washington Square, while Baumbach was literally lugging the film reels of his second film, Mr. Jealousy, which looked like it might not get distribution. “I went there with dreams of bidding wars; it was one of the more humiliating experiences of my career! So by the time I met her in 2001, she’d already seen me at my worst.”
Several years later came The Squid and the Whale, which won him plaudits as the new Woody Allen. At the time, Baumbach talked about how the film was an emotional breakthrough, enabling him to be less ironic, more open to intuition. Did meeting Leigh play a role? I ask him.
No, that time line wasn’t exactly right, he points out: When they met in 2001, he was already a few drafts into The Squid and the Whale, though the movie wouldn’t be produced for three years. But maybe, he says, I should flip my suggestion around. “Because I was opening myself up in my work, I was opening as a person. Falling in love with Jennifer—somebody so accomplished and dynamic and in the same business—if I’d been with her a few years before, I might have been intimidated. But since I met her, she’s been the single inspiration for me.”
Margot is a brutal vision of family dysfunction created, improbably enough, by two artists in the honeymoon phase of a happy domestic collaboration.
Margot at the Wedding is an intriguing composite of the couple’s sensibilities. It features recognizable Baumbachian motifs: notably, a preteen boy with a wrecking-ball intellectual as a parent (this time, the mother). The milieu is set, as with The Squid and the Whale, among terrifyingly articulate East Coast literary types who wield insights as bludgeons. But the film also seems inflected by Leigh’s interest in sisterhood, and her specialty at dramatizing the coping tools of damaged women, as in one sequence in which the estranged sisters played by Kidman and Leigh discuss their violent father, then turn to the plight of a third sister—“raped by the horse trainer!”—and the sisters burst into giggles, making it impossible for a viewer to tell whether they’re joking, and if so, about what.
“It’s funny, but in a really scathing, brutal way,” Leigh says about the movie, which she praises for the way in which its cruelty rises out of real behavior, a character-centered sensibility she suggests has become a rarity. “Just to see people so exposed, and the undoing that happens, the destruction that ensues. It all could happen over the course of a breakfast. It’s that way in families.”
Leigh required none of her famously thorough research for this role, she told me; she’d been living these characters with Noah all year long. “I show Jennifer every draft,” says Baumbach. “I’m working all day writing. It’s not as if I’m writing a page and ripping it off and reading it to her—but it’s a natural outgrowth of everything else we do.” He wasn’t specifically tailoring the role of Pauline for her, but early on, he knew Leigh could play the part, “although I’m not someone to do some big production, wrapping the script in a bow and handing it to her!”
In a sense, Margot at the Wedding could be taken as a B-side single to Georgia’s sister act, only with Leigh playing the warmer, more stable of the duo, a kind of New Age Stella to Kidman’s New England Blanche DuBois. It’s a performance that softens the film’s meanest sequences, capturing the way family members may long for an Eden of intimacy that never existed.