Jennifer Jason Leigh was literally born into the film industry: the daughter of the late actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner, she made her film debut in the extremely obscure Death of a Stranger when she was only fourteen. A few years later, Leigh dropped out of high school to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute.
Her first important TV role was as the anorexic heroine of The Best Little Girl in the World (1981), for which she voluntarily went down to 86 pounds before the cameras turned. This "method" approach was typical of Leigh, who, even after obtaining stardom, indulged in intense subtextual preparation, such as writing a diary in the style of whichever character she happened to be playing. A lighter excursion followed with Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), which cast her as Phoebe Cates' sexually curious best friend. But just as Leigh's career was building and she was becoming a star, tragedy struck when her father, who was shooting a role in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), was killed during an accident on the set.
It wasn't until 1990 that Leigh began to win true critical respect —as well as a reputation for taking on dark, difficult roles—as that was the year she starred in both Miami Blues (1990) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989). Playing ex-con Alec Baldwin's prostitute lover in the former and yet another lady of the night in the latter, Leigh was rewarded with a New York Film Critics Circle Award for her powerful performances.
More acclaim followed, first for her work as a drug-addicted narcotics agent in Rush (1991) and then for her portrayal of a phone sex worker in Robert Altman's 1993 Short Cuts (1993). As part of the film's ensemble cast, she won a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for her performance. In later efforts, Leigh demonstrated a fondness for flamboyant, curiously accented characterizations, notably her maniacal "roommate from hell" in Single White Female (1991), her Katharine Hepburn-style comic turn in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and her deliberately artifice-laden portrayal of writer Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).