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:
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.