It seems to be a great time to review the career of Holly Hunter. The annual viewing of Home for the Holidays is behind us and movie awards season has already garnered kudos for the 5-foot-2 dynamo’s supporting turn in The Big Sick. Add to that the fact that Hunter has one of the lead roles in the next Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) HBO series Here and Now while production’s underway on Incredibles 2 and now we’re almost overdue for this recap.
So with no further ado, here are five landmark Hunter performances (and three that should garner a further look-see):
1. Broadcast News
With only a couple days preparation, Hunter stepped in to the plum part of Jane Craig. The role in this 1987 James L. Brooks film had been written for Debra Winger, who dropped out due to pregnancy. Not only did Holly not miss a beat, she burned up the screen as a network TV producer who is far better at her job than taking care of her personal life. Can anyone conceive of Winger now in the role? This is a woman who can tell her network boss he’s made a mistake in one beat and then show extreme insecurity about her ability to get and keep a man the next. Not to mention the fact Jane’s not even sure she wants the man, a dumb-as-dirt but easy-on-the-eyes anchorman played by William Hurt. In the other corner, Jane’s got a bestie played by Albert Brooks, who might be even smarter than she is but doesn’t have a clue about how to turn friendship into romance. She’s crafty, but multi-tasks better than anyone in her male-dominated world would feel the need to do. Holly scored her first Academy Award nomination for the role, and it now seems like a colossal mistake that the statue went to Cher. Moonstruck is a fine film, but doesn’t require its lead to hit all the beats Holly had to for Jane, a character who can break down in tears one moment and then transform to the Rock of Gibraltar in the same closeup.
2. Saving Grace
Hunter dove into the lead role of the TNT series in 2007 with gusto. She deftly handled characteristics traditionally given to a male character – Grace Hanadarko’s a sexually charged, heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, commitment-phobic, act-first-think-later detective hesitant to change even with an angel on hand to help her. The show only aired for three seasons, but each episode seems to contain everything but the kitchen sink — running the gamut from heartbreaking emotion to belly laughs. And Hanadarko has back story coming out her ears, she’s got more than just post-traumatic stress disorder after being on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing and as one of the many victims repeatedly assaulted by her priest. That informs the “wild child” she’s become, but thanks to Earl the Angel (Leon Rippy) and best friend Rhetta (Laura San Giacomo), the show doesn’t let it excuse her behaviours. Grace always has to come to grips with her actions, which gives Hunter much to play in compelling fashion.
3. The Piano
Holly did nab the Academy Award in 1993, the year she was nominated in two categories. She got a supporting nod after stealing scenes in The Firm, but later admitted it was much more important for her to be recognised for the lead role of Ada, a mute woman sent to New Zealand in the 1800s with her daughter and a piano. She doesn’t speak a word on screen and learned how to play piano just so she could film those sequences. It really tested the stage veteran’s experience and talent for physicality when her character can’t partake in verbal dialogue with the other characters in the piece – not her husband (Sam Neill), not the man who barters affection for pieces of her piano (Harvey Keitel) and not her daughter (Anna Paquin). Yet she still speaks volumes.
4. Raising Arizona
The first time most of the world got to know Hunter was as a crucial part of a top-notch ensemble in the Coen Brothers’ madcap 1987 film. Upon first view, police officer Ed looks every bit the tiny flower that Nicolas Cage’s convict H.I. deems her to be. Unable to conceive, they wind up nabbing a baby, and Holly’s able to bloom. That’s no small feat in the Coen world. With Cage about as reined in as he probably ever will be and the likes of John Goodman and William Forsythe serving as foils, she shows off her own clutch penchant for comic timing. So by the time she’s tangling with the personification of the devil, literally tossing away her badge and bellowing “Give me that baby, you warthog from hell,” she has stolen the limelight.
5. Home for the Holidays
One spot left and so many possible candidates – The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom and Roe vs. Wade (both of which earned Holly Emmy Awards), Copycat, Always, Thirteen, The Big Sick and the three movies in the next category – but I’ll go with Home for the Holidays. Even with a stellar supporting cast and major scene stealing by Robert Downey Jr. as her brother, Hunter keeps the focus as Claudia Larson in this 1995 film. She’s an artist who just lost her job, found out her daughter (Claire Danes) is planning to sleep with her boyfriend and looks utterly petrified at the thought of being back home with family members (Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, Cynthia Stevenson) who still treat her like a teenager. Her subtle reactions — especially during Downey Jr.’s flights of fancy — are priceless and oh-so-real. That’s why it’s become a modern-day Thanksgiving tradition. Her battles are so familiar, and if she can survive her own wacky holiday, we know we can surely do the same.
Three lesser-known gems:
1. Miss Firecracker – We can’t go back and see Hunter performing this off-Broadway, but it’s not so bad to have the 1989 film adaptation at our disposal. Beth Henley, who penned both the stage play and the screenplay, knows how to write “The South” and how to write women, so the movie starts from a place of strength with their respective presences. Hunter plays Carnelle Scott, a small-town Mississippi woman who wants nothing more in the world than to win a beauty contest title, just like her cousin (Mary Steenburgen) did years prior. Carnelle probably is a little too old to be a serious contender, and even if she wasn’t, she doesn’t quite possess the grace of her kin. What she does have — and this is where the casting comes across as pitch-perfect — is an unconventional beauty and off-kilter charisma that makes you believe that she might be able to win the competition after all with her patriotic marching tap-dance routine.
2. Living Out Loud – Traditionally, Holly finds a way to show some strength in her characters. Even the ones having a tough time at the beginning of the films show enough pluck that we expect her to come out of it. As Judith Moore in this 1998 movie, we’re not so sure that’ll happen. The platinum-haired wife of a physician who left her in an upscale New York City apartment is searching for meaning in anything. It’s tough to feel sorry for a woman who has everything that money can buy, especially when she’s kissing strangers and ordering “happy endings” massages. But her building’s doorman (Danny DeVito) and a jazz singer (Queen Latifah) help her rediscover her mojo and we see that come to fruition during a dance dream sequence at an all-women’s club. Sounds completely bizarre when spelled out like that, but it works. Half the audience will want to join her … and the other half probably would like a crack at giving her a happy ending.
3. The Big White – If there’s one Hunter part that seems to encapsulate all the others on this list, it’s in this 2005 film starring Robin Williams. I didn’t know it existed before running across it on Amazon Prime. Sort of a combination of Raising Arizona and Fargo, Williams plays a down-and-out Alaska travel agent in Alaska who finds the solution to his financial problems in a corpse found outside his office. His wife displays characteristics of Tourette syndrome and probably some other mental issues. Who do you think plays that part? Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown, Alison Lohman and Woody Harrelson fill out the top-notch cast. I’m hoping more movie buffs discover this quirky gem, because they’ll fall for it like a ton of bricks. It’s high praise, but the movie as a whole and Hunter’s performance in particular sure live up to that.