Lord knows how they persuaded her to put on this getup. That fez/turban; the tantalizing nakedness. But Carole Lombard always seemed to be game for trying things. She earned her earliest role in 1921 at age twelve, when a director saw her playing baseball in the street. Later on she revealed onscreen a neat, unexpected combination of traits — as David Thomson puts it, she had “a powerful attraction for men because she could be elegant and kooky, gorgeous and grounded; a lover and a pal all at the same time with the best cheekbones this side of Marlene Dietrich.”

Back to the horrors of finishing an article — wonder if it’s easier to write semi-naked, with a fez/turban on one’s head? But lord knows I don’t have the energy for the makeup. (Thanks to the Charlie Parker folks for the image.)

Holly Hunter

18 April 2010

She’s appeared in film and TV for almost thirty years and has received the Academy Award for Best Actress, two Emmys, and a pile of other awards and nominations for many of her roles — yet I was surprised to find David Thomson give Hunter only a cursory, uninspired treatment in his otherwise invaluable New Biographical Dictionary of Film (2002).  This is my attempt to make up for it.  

One might be tempted to refer to her as “the thinking man’s [fill in blank with name of less talented starlet],” but it’s too easy.  I think Hunter is so distinctive because she has a perverse desire to be dissonant — she doesn’t play her beauty for the thinking man’s benefit (or anyone else’s); she’s wary but not fragile; she’s unexpected but not quirky.  Her characters can suddenly become sharp-edged and mean.  Holly Hunter is eminently watchable — one of the most watchable women of her generation.

Except for her intelligent beauty, nothing about Holly Hunter’s profile seems to have designed her for a career in Hollywood.  She grew up on a farm in rural Georgia (her hen won a national 4-H prize when Hunter was in high school), and to the best of my knowledge, she’s never performed without her trademark accent on display.  She graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1980 before launching her professional acting career.  She’s relatively tiny (5’2″); and is so good a pianist that she performed all the music for her acclaimed role in Jane Campion’s “The Piano.” 

She appears almost disingenuously modest about her career.  “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that’s just the way it is,” she said, according to IMDB.com.  “And in many ways, I take what I can get.  But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”  Looking at the long list of her films and TV work (from which I compiled this short list), I’m struck by her consistent talent in choosing interesting parts and making them more interesting:

  • Raising Arizona (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Roe vs. Wade (1989)
  • The Piano (1993)
  • Copycat (1993)
  • The Firm (1993)
  • Home for the Holidays (1995)
  • Jesus’ Son (1999)
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
  • Thirteen (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Nine Lives (2005)
  • Saving Grace (TV show, 2007-2010)
  • Hunter’s characters often inhabit that weird place between comedy and pathos, but you know immediately it’s not a recognizable pathos but something more real, awful.  In “Raising Arizona” her comically inconsolable weeping contrasted nicely with her otherwise drill-sergeant relationship to mouth-breathing H. I. McDonough (Nicholas Cage).  But in “Broadcast News” it was something more:  she paused every morning in the midst of her breakneck routine, sat on the edge of her bed, and indulged in a private crying jag.  Audiences laughed, but they weren’t sure they were supposed to.  In “Home for the Holidays” (a wonderful and much-overlooked film, in my opinion), she headed home to Baltimore in a terrible state — lonely, confused, worried about her daughter, dreading a family visit.  “Hey, little brother,” she breathes into the phone early in the film, beginning a mortifyingly desperate message for the Robert Downey, Jr. character (a message that comes back to haunt her).  Her eyes are huge, she’s a wreck.  Each time, the viewer can’t see her character’s fragility as pure comedy, even when it’s funny.  She’s not playing to type.  She’s fantastic.

    She has the same complicated relationship to her sexiness.  For a long time, she seemed resigned to cutie pie status; her diminutive frame, distinctive accent, and heavy bangs distracted from her sex appeal — she was smart, not a beauty.  In “Broadcast News” her character’s brief affair with William Hurt’s dim-witted anchorman made so much sense because she lacked all the conventional beauties he possessed — how could she not want to be wanted by him, no matter how smart she was otherwise?  Likewise, her mixed views of herself made it impossible for her to fall in love with the shlubby Albert Brooks, her best friend.  In all those early parts, her resolute jaw lent daggers to her voice.  Over time, though, she used her big, dark eyes to terrific effect — most strikingly in “The Piano,” in a face starker than Emily Dickinson’s, with heavy eyebrows and that fiercely black, parted-in-the-middle hair that granted her face little prettiness.

    At some point in her mid-30s she grew into her beauty as she grew out her hair.  Don’t get me wrong: she never tried to be a Julia Roberts or appear in rom coms.  Rather, she developed a lithe way of using her body — moving slowly and with a slightly wicked, self-conscious, rolling gait that (in my mother’s phrasing) told you she was looking for trouble.  Not that it made her sexiness conventional.  Her tongue remained just as sharp, her characters idiosyncratic and generally disinterested in pleasing anyone. 

    By the time she appeared in “Saving Grace” she was nearly 50.  In its pilot she appeared in a few nearly-nude scenes in which her tiny, skinny frame is covered with alarmingly blueish pale skin.  Being willing to appear in such a shot — on television, no less, and in a Hollywood that rejects actresses when they cease to be youthfully sexy — impressed me yet again with Hunter’s determination to be her own woman, to display her character’s troubles on her very body.  I didn’t latch onto that show (the religious angle never worked for me), but it wasn’t because of her, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and it didn’t change my overall respect for her skill in finding great parts.  She seemed all the sexier in “Saving Grace” for downing shots of whiskey, sleeping with younger men, and pulling hard on all those cigarettes — cigarettes now coded for TV viewers as “bad” — and letting her natural smarts get a bit fuzzy in the haze.

    It’s also been interesting to see Hunter’s long list of characters whose complicated maternal status, marital status, and career make them more interesting.  Whether she gets her husband to kidnap a baby for her (“Raising Arizona”), chooses abortion (“Roe v. Wade,” which reflected Hunter’s own firm pro-choice views), struggles as a single mother or young widow (“The Piano,” “Home For the Holidays,” “Thirteen,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou”), or wrestles with her career (“Broadcast News,” “Saving Grace”), taken together her characters exemplify the struggles of a whole generation of women in a “post-feminist” age.  I find it striking that, with the recent cancellation of “Saving Grace,” Hunter has apparently determined to take a break from acting to be with her family — her domestic partner and her twin 4-year-old boys, whom she bore at age 47.  I hope it’s not a decision that came from a lack of roles.  I want to keep watching Holly Hunter in roles that expand our understanding of complex human emotions — and not least because right now, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren seem to be the only women over 50 getting parts that allow them to be interesting and have sex lives. 

    David Thomson: I think we shouldn’t be surprised if Holly Hunter has more awards awaiting her — and if your next edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Film requires a serious revision of your earlier entry.

    It’s simply wrong to remember the screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as wholly innocent or de-sexed.  Sure, the Hollywood Production Code eliminated a lot of the open sexuality of the earlier era, forbidding all on-screen representations of sexual contact.  Yet those rules led screenwriters to create a host of scenarios that nominally adhered to the rules yet found ways to make them erotically charged and even risky.

    I can’t think of a better example than Jean Arthur in my favorite film of hers, “The More the Merrier” (1943).  To use an apt phrase of David Thomson’s, Arthur had a “rare querulous quality” onscreen that, he suggests, resulted from her ambivalence about acting and Hollywood more generally.  After serving as a forgettable ingénue in several dozen silents and early talkies, she remade herself in the mid-30s by bleaching her brunette hair and utilizing that distinctively froggy voice to great effect in films such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  By that time, her unique combination of innocent idealism and worldly wisecracking seemed perfectly pitched for the era’s films.

    “The More the Merrier” has a slow start, but viewers shouldn’t give up: the film really starts to jell after a somewhat belabored first twenty minutes of antics.  Premised on the wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., young working girl Arthur rents her spare room to the elderly Charles Coburn, who presumptuously determines to improve her love life by finding her a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella.”  Coburn promptly rents half of his room to the wry, laconic, tall and handsome GI Joel McCrea, who beautifully underplays his part.  The film starts to cook as soon as McCrea appears onscreen, and is propelled by the tensions over sexual propriety between the two roommates—highlighting Arthur’s delicate querulousness.  It consistently returns us to its favorite image: a scene shot through the windows of the apartment’s two adjoining bedrooms, with each room’s bed sharing the same wall, showing us how close Arthur is to McCrea as they lie in bed—even as the wall assures us they’ll behave themselves.

    The best scene comes when Arthur and McCrea are wandering slowly back to the apartment one night after a night of cocktails and dancing, passing through what appears to be a sea of couples necking on stoops and sidled up against trees.  Nervous, she natters on with questions about his previous girlfriends and transparently false assertions of confidence in her engagement to the awful Mr. Pendergast.  McCrea responds only in the most cursory way, fixing his attention on getting some small touch of her skin—what amounts to small physical battle between them.  It’s a scene equivalent to those choreographed Fred and Ginger dances enacting the pleasurable friction of resistance.  McCrea doggedly tries to put his arm around her, touch her arms, run his hand along her neck; Arthur dodges.  His arm snakes underneath her cloak; Arthur evades, yet positions herself for more.  When they finally clunk down on the steps to her apartment building, McCrea’s offensive begins in earnest.  Now offering mere grunts for responses, he insistently caresses her arms, her shoulders, her back.

    In a perfect movie moment, Arthur succumbs.  Her chatter is interrupted by the pleasure she takes in his increasingly successful kisses—and when he hits the sweetest spot on her neck, she simply has to pause mid-sentence:  her eyes close, her neck extends, and her chin lifts as she concentrates fully on the kiss’s delight.  At the end of the kiss, her eyes widen, her absurdly long false eyelashes bat a few times with brilliant comic disconcertion, and she stutters as she completes her meaningless sentence.  The die is cast: she reaches for his face and indulges in a long, passionate kiss on the lips.  Arthur’s great knack here is to remind us that we’re watching a comedy, yet still leave no question about the passion between them.  As they slowly walk upstairs to the apartment—that dangerously private, intimate space, where only a wall separates their beds—the tension continues to rise, and the film must create a crisis to relieve it.


    Post-Code films attain their delicious tension all the more because they could show such delimited physical contact.  Considered in that context, the motif of the wall between the two beds becomes all the more sexy, enhancing desire while demanding physical separation.  McCrea and Arthur whisper pillow talk to one another through the wall and display to us in highly intimate closeups that all the boundaries between them have crumbled; only the wall sustains their chastity.  Even at the height of the Code’s influence, writers and actors undermined it with images of erotic intimacies all the more effective for the walls that fell, Jericho-style, only after these movies ended and the theater lights came back on.