By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It was to have been a routine stop on a routine press tour, yet another town in which the actress was to show up, chit and chat with the local media about her movie, then move on--the traveling salesman getting the word out, moving The Product. Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Your Town Here--all stops along the circuitous route from set to cinema, from making the movie to making the pitch. The actor's real work begins after the cameras stop rolling; time to play nice to the tape recorders now.
Today was to have been one of those days: Marcia Gay Harden's in town, pushing director-star Ed Harris' Pollock, a biography of painter Jackson Pollock over which Harris obsessed for a decade. In it, Harden plays Pollock's supportive but ultimately, if not tragically, put-upon wife, artist Lee Krasner, a woman who sacrificed her own gift to make sure the world knew of her husband's. If the film is flawed--the worst that can be said of it is that it leaves too many blanks, presenting Pollock as a narcissistic, drunk, slightly mad genius and little else--the performances are startling, upsetting, riveting. Harden is proud to be part of the traveling sales presentation; she wants--no, let's say needs--you to know how good she is in Pollock. Harden and Harris don't just act; they spar and tangle, like Ali and Foreman reinterpreting Astaire and Rogers.
But this morning, newspapers across the country are filled with the story of how Harden had been in the shower in a Denver hotel the previous day when the phone rang. It was her lawyer, calling to notify her she'd been nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in Pollock. Journalists reveled in recounting how a soaking-wet Harden hugged the man delivering her morning breakfast; she was overjoyed at the news, and her elation has become contagious. After all, she no more expected the nomination on February 13 than she expected to wake up with a third eye. Pollockhad been overlooked by the Golden Globes, the so-called forecaster for the Oscars, and despite Harden's being feted by the New York Film Critics Circle, self-proclaimed insiders figured Catherine Zeta-Jones would get the nod for Traffic,or Michelle Yeoh would garner the bid for her work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Besides, until last Friday, Pollockwasn't even in theaters; it showed in New York for one week in December, for Oscar consideration, but only now does it slowly make its way into theaters across the country.
At this moment, Harden sits in the dim corner of an empty bar attached to one of those very theaters in Dallas, only a few miles from her parents' home, and wonders just what her shot at the Academy Award really means. Wearing a pale pink suit, she looks at once businesslike and glamorous--like Sandra Bullock making a presentation to stockholders. She knows the nomination, much less the golden doorstop itself, is no ticket to the chocolate factory; she mentions the names of past Oscar winners--Marisa Tomei, Geena Davis, Mira Sorvino--and says, simply, the award "didn't help them."
So she tempers her joy with the knowledge that after 11 years in the film business, she's made only a handful of films of which she's truly proud, among them 1990's Miller's Crossing, her first movie; 1992's Used People, in which she appeared with Shirley MacLaine and Marcello Mastroianni; and 1996's The Spitfire Grill, which she chose for the chance to work with Ellen Burstyn. But even her best films remain little-seen; she's done astonishing work--Harden plays complex without having to open her mouth--but in front of the cameras, rarely in front of audiences. Little wonder, then, she's upset that this very morning, USA Todayinsisted she's best known for her role as Robin Williams' wife in the 1997 remake of Flubber.
"One of my managers said, 'This nomination is so good, because finally people will know who you are. There are so many big directors who have no idea who you are,'" Harden says. "And I was like, 'Oh, uh, good.' I don't give a shit what it does, as long as it helps. It would be dishonest for me to be so polished and so composed and forget the yippee. But at the same time, of course, you have to keep these things in perspective. Had it not occurred, does that say anything about the performance? Does it denigrate the performance? Do you stop believing the performance? You really have to have those thoughts beforehand. I did, because I wasn't expecting a nomination, and so I was prepared to be all stiff upper lip: 'No, it's fine, really.'
"It's interesting, because so many of the questions that Pollockasks are similar things: the relationship between the critic and the artist, the relationship between the audience and the artist, the need for approval by the artist. This is the season where there's an award given out every four minutes from December till March, and you had to start thinking--I had to--about those things, because Pollockhad been overlooked for almost everything."
She could say the same thing of her own career, which too often has found her taking jobs for the "milk money." For every Spitfire Grillor Angels in America, for which she was nominated for a Tony Award in 1993, there have been too many made-for-TV movies, too many things such as Spy Hardand Space Cowboysand Desperate Measures--paychecks, and little more. They have been movies that asked of her only to show up, hit her marks, and say her lines, and too often, they've given nothing back. That is why it's important she hit the road to promote Pollock: Ed Harris stretched her and, finally, wrested from her such an astounding performance that she transcends the occasional bit of overwrought dialogue ("You've done it! You've cracked it wide open!" Krasner tells Pollock after he's stumbled across his slash-and-drip style of painting).