It seemed in the early years of her career that she possessed the promise of an up-and-coming actress, securing supporting roles as ingénues alongside some of Hollywood’s heavyweights at the time (Michael J. Fox, Tom Cruise, Kevin Kline), but worked on the cusp of stardom, lacking that one movie vehicle that would allow her to really shine and showcase her true capabilities as an actress. It did happen eventually, in 1995.
After starring in 80s flicks Cocktail and Back to the Future II and III, The Marrying Man and Soapdish, Shue seemed to sort of fade, doing some work on TV and appearing in little seen films like Twenty Bucks and Heart and Souls. In 1995 she played a role unlike any we had ever seen her play before, as Sera, a prostitute who befriends a man intent on drinking himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas. It was such a departure from the 80s teen comedies Shue had starred in previously, a far cry even from the most adult role she’d had to that point as Tom Cruise’s love interest in Cocktail.
Leaving Las Vegas is a sad and tragic film about two characters who are deeply wounded and desperate though selfless and good. They find a sort of respite in each other, a measure of grace and of redemption, a form of companionship and salvation. The film really becomes Sera’s story as she turns the clichéd role of a hooker with a heart of gold into a complex portrait of an unforgettable woman, who, through defeat continues to find a reason to hope, try and love. It remains the performance of Shue’s career.
With Shue delivering one of the best performances in one of the best films of 1995, there was just cause to believe that the floodgates of good roles and opportunities would open up for the undercast, underappreciated actress, but it wasn’t destined to be so. Shue made a string of forgettable movies like Palmetto, Molly and Hollow Man. She starred in the action, thriller, The Saint, opposite Val Kilmer which was the most commercially successful film of the bunch. Watching Piranha, I was happy to see Elisabeth Shue onscreen again, but I also felt a little sadness at seeing her in this cheesy B-movie parody playing it straight amidst the utter ridiculousness of all the gratuitous nudity, gory deaths and corny dialogue, a stark contrast to her finest role in which she was a true revelation.
What are your favourite Elisabeth Shue roles? Let us know in the comments section.