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. Pollock had 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, Pollock wasn'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 Today insisted 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 Pollock asks 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 Pollock had 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 Grill or 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 Hard and Space Cowboys and 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).
In 1990, she was like the rookie baseball player who hits a home run in his very first at-bat in the big leagues. Harden was 30 when Joel and Ethan Coen cast her as Verna in Miller's Crossing, and she had never before appeared on film. Before then, she'd been a drama student at the University of Texas at Austin and New York University, she appeared in a few plays, and she struggled. When the Coens cast her as the deceptively tranquil woman caught between her gangster boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) and sniveling brother (John Turturro), Harden thought: This is it, and this is how it will always be. For some, it would seem, the first time is the best time, and Harden spent so much of her career trying to recapture just a bit of that magic.
"I was spoiled on that movie," she says of Miller's Crossing. "I was out of nowhere. I just graduated from school, I was doing theater, and I got this amazing role in this amazing movie with these two really great filmmaking brothers. When USA Today said I'm most remembered for my performance in Flubber, I think that's bullshit. I think that's bullshit." She shouts the last sentence, through a smile. "I think Miller's Crossing was for a long time the thing I was most remembered for, and I used to think, 'It's maddening that the thing that asked the most of me and the thing I'm most remembered for is the first movie.' I used to wonder if I would always be yearning for that. Maybe you are always yearning for your first if it's such a high like that. I mean, why not? It was a great part in a great film, so you yearn for something like that, and I think some of the other stuff I did, I wasn't and maybe I'm still not such a great marketer of my films or my work. I sound like I'm excusing my career, and I don't mean to be doing that. I think that Flubber thing threw me this morning. My deep, dark art film--Flubber."
After this interview, Harden will go back to Los Angeles and audition for another movie. Then, it's off to fittings with designers making her Oscar gown and jewelers hoping to decorate the actress in their shiny finery. For a while, she will revel in the hype and hoopla, even when there's work to be done. Maybe she figures she deserves it--all those years of all those modest to mediocre movies no one's seen, all those years of wondering if she'd ever recapture the joy of the first time.
But at the same time, she also worries about not wasting the opportunities an Oscar nomination brings. She talks of being responsible about her choices from here on in, of putting pressure on herself to select wisely--to work for pleasure, not pay. "You don't want to follow it up with something chintzy," she says, "and some chintzy performance where I'm dancing on a pole in a bar or something." (She's referring to the lead role in last year's dreadful Coyote Ugly--a part she was up for.)
But there remains one last question: Why was Harden nominated as best supporting actress when she has almost as much screen time as Harris? When it's posed to her, she takes a long pause; she doesn't want to answer, to appear the least bit ungrateful. Even if she has the same question.
"When I won best supporting actress from the New York film critics, that tipped off Sony [which is distributing Pollock] that I had any chance--and it's always a campaign, we're not naive about these things, I think--my chances would be stronger in a supporting than in leading," she says, slowly. "And it kind of makes sense: Lee Krasner supported Pollock. And Kate Hudson is not a supporting actress in Almost Famous, but I suppose her publicist and people behind the film felt that's where her chances were. Ultimately, I don't care, to be frank. I think it's a character lead from a show, but I don't even know if I should say that.
"I know some actresses will say, 'If it's going to be supporting, I don't want to go. Don't take ads out for me for supporting, don't put me there. Give me a leading.' I know some actresses have maintained a campaign for leading actor. But look, I ain't no spring chicken." She smiles. "I've been in this business for a long time, and at this point, I'd just like to go that party."