Scenes From an Indie Marriage

Photo: Katja Rahlwes/Hair styling by James Mooney for Art Department; Makeup by Wada for Jed Root

Jennifer Jason Leigh met Noah Baumbach in 2001, she tells me. Leigh was living in the West Village at the time; she had a night off from the lead role in Proof, so she’d gone out alone to catch a show. The play was Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, a tale of sexual gamesmanship among artists that might throw most ordinary folks off human relationships entirely.

Instead, Leigh ended up going to dinner with Baumbach and his friend Josh Hamilton, Leigh’s co-star in Proof, who were also attending the LaBute play. Leigh and Baumbach began dating; they married in 2005. “The world feels free to ask about it,” the actress tells me about the transition into marriage, as we eat at Les Deux Gamins, not far from the apartment the couple is renovating. “I mean, you signed the thing! You bought the house. But in a way, it’s not that weird for me, because I do love it; this was always my childhood idea of what a marriage would be.”

From accounts I’d read, I’d expected Leigh to be a lump of introversion: a null presence who flares only onscreen. Instead, she’s intimidating, with gorgeous caramel streaks in her hair and big, movie-star sunglasses. But she relaxes as she describes her notion of connubial bliss. It’s a familiar fantasy, one that animated Joan Didion’s memoir of her life with John Gregory Dunne, an ideal I remember picking up like a virus in high school, when I read about Woody Allen’s relationship with Mia Farrow, back in those sweet and innocent days, before the fall. There’s another model, of course, in which love is poisoned by competition: Baumbach himself portrayed it with acid specificity in his memoir of his parents’ Park Slope divorce, The Squid and the Whale. But Leigh and Baumbach are clearly aiming for something different from their parents’ lives (she’s the child of artists who split up as well): marriage as an idyllic, never-ending brainstorm among supportive equals.

On October 7, the New York Film Festival screens the couple’s first truly shared project: Margot at the Wedding, starring Leigh, Nicole Kidman, and Jack Black. The scathing family tragicomedy is Baumbach’s symbolic, though not literal, sophomore effort as a director and writer, and it features Leigh as Pauline, a hippieish mother “less grounded than she thinks she is,” as Leigh puts it. Though both spouses are established artists—Baumbach the hot director, Leigh the indie chameleon—Margot at the Wedding is their debut film as a couple.

When it came time for filming, the duo made an agreement, one Baumbach jokingly calls “due diligence”: If they had a conflict on set, they’d never let it show. As it turns out, the precaution was unnecessary, they say. By that point, Leigh says, “I was so excited to work with him as an actress. It was wonderful, just talking about scripts and film and all of that. When he’s given me notes, they’ve always been good and specific. So I was excited to show off for him in a way—for him to see how easy I am to work with, what a pro I am, you know? I’m not a complain-y girl. I love the work, and I’m really serious, but I’m also easygoing. I couldn’t wait for him to see that side of me.”

Margot at the Wedding, in other words, is a brutal, near-LaButean vision of family dysfunction created, improbably enough, by two artists in the honeymoon phase of a happy domestic collaboration.

It’s two days after the Toronto Film Festival: Leigh and Baumbach didn’t see many movies, she tells me, or even attend the screening of their own film (they were too busy promoting it). We’re at Letterpress, a stationery shop on Christopher Street, so Leigh can purchase thank-you notes she and Baumbach can share as a couple. But although the store is filled with eccentric designs she likes—she admires a black-and-white photo of a bride and groom—she can’t decide what to buy. She’d like the cards to be small. She’d also like them to have envelopes. “This was not a good idea, with my personality,” she moans, fretting over some tiny cards without envelopes. A pink-and-blue motif of glittery eggs is too girlie. “It’s fine for me, but Noah’s not sending this card. I’ll tell you that right now. This would be more his thing,” she says, picking up a card showing a sketch of a feral-looking owl escaping from a battered cage. “My mother would love this card, too. She has a great sense of humor; she loves Edward Gorey.”

Leigh’s mother is screenwriter Barbara Turner, who wrote Pollock. Her father is actor Vic Morrow, who died when she was 20 in a tragic accident on a film set. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her mother remarried, to TV director Reza Badiyi. Leigh became famous for her role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then later won raves playing sexually damaged waifs; when she aged out of waifhood, she offered up a fresh set of risky, stylized performances, building a mystique as a shape-shifter with a meticulous work ethic. At 45, she’s worked with pretty much every major independent director, including the Coen brothers, Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg, and Jane Campion.

Margot blends Baumbach's interest in East Coast intellectual cruelty with Leigh's fascination with damaged women. Photo: Andrew Eccles

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.

Much of Leigh’s own personality, she acknowledges, was shaped in response to her older sister, a wild child who was the muse not only for Georgia but for her mother’s earlier TV film Freedom, and who is currently a drug-addiction counselor in California.

“She was a very—” Leigh begins, then pauses, struggling to describe their childhood dynamic. “I mean, who knows why, exactly, because I could point to my parents’ divorce, I don’t know, I was 2 at the time, she was 5! But she had a very, very difficult time, and she was a very emotional kid. A lot of acting out. And so I was a very good kid.”

Leigh remembers “literally going off to clean my room” when her sister freaked out. She can recall her own inner dialogue: “‘I don’t want to be that. I don’t want that attention. That’s scary.’” She laughs. “I want to act that!”

Voyeurs eager to find analogues to Baumbach’s or Leigh’s life are unlikely to find them, at least in any clear-cut way, in Margot and the Wedding. But the film does possess an intriguingly metafictional quality, an obsession with the repercussions of artists who cannibalize their families for material. It’s a theme that not only resonates with Leigh and Baumbach’s family-based films, but that also comes up in Leigh’s The Anniversary Party, in which an actress’s best friend accuses the actress’s writer husband of cruelly caricaturing his wife. (“His image of you is a possessive, fragile neurotic!” “But I am a possessive, fragile neurotic!”) In Margot at the Wedding, two of the most brutal showdowns revolve around a semiautobiographical New Yorker short story written by Margot—perhaps the first time one has been used as the proverbial gun in the first act.

“As artists, we have to answer to that all the time,” says Leigh. She’s referring to accusations of unkindness: the notion that using family experiences by definition crosses an ethical line. “Unless you’re Philip Roth and you just don’t give a fuck!” Still, taking such risks is a necessity for truly great art, she insists; it’s at the heart of the most daring films. “You have to write in a personal manner for it to mean something—to be good, I think. Even if it’s like the Coen brothers’ stuff, where it’s completely crazy, it’s still personal in some way, or it wouldn’t be brilliant. It’s just how recognizable it is.”

Scenes From an Indie Marriage