When we first meet Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Kristen in Rush, we’re watching her through a fence as she’s being doubted. The film invites us, like Jason Patric’s veteran narco, to think that this woman isn’t going to be up for a job, before she blows past her male opponents on the track on which she’s training. That’s kind of the recurring theme for this movie, and it’s a familiar one in the tradition of “Don’t call me Babe!” But it works here because of what we see of JJL in the next scene – she’s passive, quiet, and scared.
A typical JJL performance pits her as a woman who struggles with her desires, who is vulnerable but exhibits unusual bravery. There are usually drugs and sex – sometimes gratuitous – and JJL embraces these highs and lows and has ever since playing a teenager in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Here, JJL is a cop who is tough but doesn’t act it: that role goes to the assured fuck-up Jim Rayner, played with occasionally excessive intensity by Jason Patric. The strength of Patric’s performance is how JL responds to him, and the way her confidence comes and goes as she gets deeper into doomed romance and the heroin addiction that comes with it. It’s easier to be impressed by Patric’s tics and shakes and shudders, but Leigh is the one who owns up to how awful she feels and tries to keep her emotional and physical earthquake from showing.
There’s no scene where, like the pipsqueak Hooks in the Police Academy movies, she flips the switch of repressed rage. She likes being scared, she tells Rayner, in a Texas accent that it feels like the character is a bit ashamed of. Rush came out at the end of 1991, the same year that Jodie Foster would appear in Silence of the Lambs. Like Foster’s Clarice Starling, JJL’s Kristen is a smart woman of a dubious past with ambitions that lead her to the lairs of dark people. It’s easy to see JJL playing Clarice – she’s only a bit younger than Foster and has a similar intelligence, stoic but often unglamorous beauty, and vulnerability and toughness that are identical. Foster won her second Oscar for Silence, while Leigh has only been nominated once for her supporting role in The Hateful Eight. While Foster was working with Jonathan Demme at the top of his game, Leigh had to create her own luck by pursuing unconventional roles in uncommercial films. After Silence, Foster struggled with a string of high-profile duds like Sommersby and Maverick, and has really never had the right kind of role since. In choosing a career in mostly independent movies, JJL thrived and yet never became a big box office name – in this case working with Lili Fini Zanuck in the only feature film she ever directed. The wife of grand producing poobah Richard Zanuck, this might be seen as nepotism, but the film is unpretentious, unromantic, and solid (it depends too much on its Eric Clapton-heavy classic rock score, and it’s mostly known today as the movie that gave us Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which seems kind of out of place given that it’s about the death of his son). But it never ascends into the kind of operatics you expect from a movie with this kind of heavy material.
Intriguingly, the early 90s were a good time for young stars to play smart and capable but haunted cops – alongside Leigh and Foster, we could also include Jamie Lee Curtis in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel. All three of their movies feature women trying to establish themselves to male superiors (Sam Elliott, Scott Glenn, and a cadre of suits in Blue Steel). All three feature the women struggling with their desires for violent, dangerous men. It’s the last part of this formula that I like the least – I think I’d prefer a Clarice Starling movie that doesn’t have Anthony Hopkins’ stagy Hannibal Lektor. But even if they had to share the stage, it was a welcome sign that strong women in the movies didn’t have to carry machine guns or karate-kick Roger Moore to show that power.
(You can watch RUSH on Tubi, with ads, for free; it’s a pretty good service and the ads aren’t overwhelming.)