I have to say when I went into this film in 1995, I went in with great trepidation. Looking at the ads and poster before going in, I thought, ELIZABETH SHUE… MISCAST. There’s just no way. Another hooker with a heart of gold – seen it. Wait a second here, not so fast. This is something new, something real.
I knew I was in for something tremendous with Nicolas Cage. Everyone was talking about his performance but her performance was just as shattering as his. Even more so, because I wasn’t expecting that level of rawness and depth from her, Happy-go-lucky, sweet ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING / SOAPDISH, lovely little Shue to deliver such an exhilarating / affecting / moving performance. It one of those films I love and love talking about… the specific scenes and her especially, but I can’t watch again and again. It’s too devastating, too bleak. Maybe it hits too close to home – whatever it is – I can’t watch it again. SOPHIES CHOICE and FRANCES I can play on a loop, but not LEAVING LAS VEGAS – it’s too tough.
Hookers have always been a lucky place for actresses to get noticed. THE APARTMENT, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and PRETTY WOMAN made the actresses that played them legends. They all were engaging and showed their smarts but went just surface deep in the world of prostitution. This one cuts in deep all the way - it amputates. It takes you into the world of being paid for sex and into the psychology of those that do it. Those therapy scenes are amazing. I always thought Elizabeth Shue needed a few more voice classes and needed more depth to her characters. But not here. I thought her sweet voice was perfect for Sera and she reached great depths – depths to spare. It’s a shame we’ve lost her over the years – she really proved herself to have the talent. The combination of director, right script and co-star makes all the difference I guess. I have a theory about Elizabeth Shue - I don’t think Hollywood knew what to do with her after this film. What she is? Is she a good girl or a bad girl? Her entire career before LEAVING LAS VEGAS she had established herself as the good girl, the good friend, and the trusting best friend. Whatever happened she bared all and her true ability with Sera in LEAVING LAS VEGAS.
Sera, like Cage could have turned cliché, playing a hooker and a drunk, but with them it’s anything but Hollywood trope.
Sera is bruised and hardened with a deep need to take care of someone. Her face in and eye express her desire and longing to save this fellow down an outer. Cage got all the heat and deservedly so, but Shue is right there with him. When an actor takes on something like alcoholism it can be like acting wearing a mask – it frees you. Shue doesn’t have anything to hide behind, any tics or mannerisms to use, she has to play it straight, alert, together, the responsible one of the two. She grounds the film and his performance. When I think about this film, I see her face and the tragic reflections of where Cage is heading, his pain and how she feels nothing but love and hope for him. It’s a remarkable achievement – her reactions. Her hope to rescue him is her own redemption and how she punishes herself, (walking into a motel room with a group of frat boys) when she betrays him is the climax of the film and then her finally returning to "be" with her new love as his body LEAVES Las Vegas. A haunting, gorgeous image in the motel room at the films close, sweet yet brutal.
Her performance had more raw emotional impact than any other of the decade, (the 90’s). Her warmth and dedication to this new friend is overwhelming. It’s all in her eyes and in the silences. Watch her closely every time he takes a drink. It hurts. And then as she watches him push his food around his plate - trying to will him to eat. Heartbreaking. No other actress conveyed her needs and characters mission so strongly using no dialogue. Then she has to play this other character as well, the hooker persona. The callus, be whatever you want me to be call girl seductress, as well as the young lady trying to find herself in therapy, the friend, the lover and then to watch her turn on a dime with her apartment managers - (Laurie Metcalfe is genius as the apartment manger – her best screen performance in those tiny little moments.). As much as I wanted Susan Sarandon to finally win her OSCAR, which she did, I was secretly rooting for ELIZABETH SHUE.
A “job” well done. I hope she finds another role someday to suites her ability. She's fantastic. Come back Shue, come back.