Sometimes the key to growing up is staying young at heart. These inventive and touching stories imagine unsuspecting friendships and clever innovations, while capturing the joy and sadness universal to all. Travel with the whole family to Brazil, the moon, and even your own backyard in this lively and heartwarming collection of stories. Works range from new student work to Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated shorts, represented by noted studios like Cartoon Saloon and Google Spotlight Stories. This guide is intended to flexibly support educators in preparing for and following up on a class screening of the Family Films program.
Claude Jarman, Jr,: Boy of Movies, Man of Cinema
By Michael Fox
Claude Jarman, Jr. was an enthusiastic amateur in the Nashville Community Playhouse’s Children’s Theater when MGM scouts flew the fifth-grader to L.A. for a screen test in 1944. He passed, needless to say, and was cast as the lead in Clarence Brown’s hit film of Marjorie Kinnin Rawling’s beloved novel The Yearling (1946). Jarman’s moving performance garnered the Academy Juvenile Award, an honorary Oscar previously given to child stars Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Margaret O’Brien.
Overnight success can be, if not an outright curse, a peak that a performer never achieves again in his or her life. Jarman soon realized that a lot of actors were more gifted than he was, and that his singular talents lay elsewhere. Fortunately for Bay Area film culture, Jarman’s love of movies and moviemakers didn’t wane or waver when he retired from the silver screen. As the leader, executive director, and co-programmer of the San Francisco International Film Festival from 1965 to 1980, he grew the festival into a major cultural event with a global reputation. Claude Jarman, Jr. is the fitting recipient of the 2019 George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, an honor named after his fellow Festival champion and late friend.
Jarman made a fistful of movies during his five-year contract at MGM, highlighted by a still-powerful adaptation of Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) by the director who’d given him his big break, Clarence Brown. Jarman returned to Tennessee when his deal expired, attending high school and making movies like Rio Grande (1950) in the summer. The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), which came out the same year he graduated from Vanderbilt University, marked the end of Jarman’s screen career aside from a couple of late-’50s TV appearances.
“I never had been really satisfied that I did superior work,” Jarman explained to an Associated Press reporter in 1960. He was in the process of joining a Birmingham, Alabama, advertising agency at the time, parlaying the public relations training he received during a three-year stint as a navy officer. Then, in 1963, Jarman was recruited as director of public relations by the John Hancock Insurance Co.’s San Francisco office, where his boss happened to be president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Metro Theater owner Irving M. “Bud” Levin had founded the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957 out of a love of films domestic and foreign. Jarman and others, recognizing the Festival’s growth and potential to be a major civic event and more, encouraged the Chamber of Commerce to form a committee (and commit a budget) to operate and program the annual event. Jarman initially handled PR and sat on the selection committee, while his fellow Hollywood veteran Shirley Temple Black joined the board.
In the mid- and late-’60s, the fall Festival was distinguished by black-tie Opening Nights and marathon tributes to Hollywood greats that film scholar and force of nature Albert Johnson organized and moderated. In 1965 alone, one could attend—at no charge!—all-day retrospectives at the Masonic Temple with onstage interviews of John Ford, Lewis Milestone, King Vidor, Busby Berkeley, Mervyn LeRoy, William Wellman, Gene Kelly, Leo McCarey, Hal Roach, and John Frankenheimer.
“Claude could charm the birds out of the trees,” writer and raconteur Barnaby Conrad recalled in a 2007 interview for the Festival’s oral history project. “And he got whatever he wanted. He was low-key, but in a gentle manner he could convince people of anything. He could get all these people to come out from Hollywood.”
Not everyone, mind you. To this day, Jarman rues the adamant refusals of Orson Welles and Bing Crosby to accept Festival accolades. (Katharine Hepburn never graced the Festival stage either, but the historical record suggests that she was not a Holy Grail for Jarman.)
The SF International Film Festival was the first event of its kind to honor living filmmakers with career salutes. But in the days before rep houses and revivals, before VCRs and film schools, when silent movies were dismissed (if they were even remembered) and Hollywood’s Golden Age of black-and-white dramas was relegated to the dustbin of late-night slots on new-tech color TVs, audiences were often sparse.
“If you went back and did these today, you would have people standing on their heads to get in,” Jarman reminisced in 2006. “We had to practically shout, ‘Come on out, come up and see King Vidor,” or “Come in the afternoon and I’ll give you a ticket.’ We were just embarrassed about not getting enough people in there. It was a Wednesday afternoon, one o’clock. Who can take the time to do that?”
The Chamber was involved for three years before stepping away, by which time Jarman had moved into the executive director’s chair. His first year at the helm, 1967, included a seemingly unmemorable meeting that proved decisive in the Festival’s success going forward and up to the present.
As Jarman recalled, “George Gund came into the office one day and said, ‘I’m interested in the Film Festival. I’d like to make a $1,000 contribution.’ And I said, ‘That’s great. What can we do for you?’ ‘Nothing. I just believe in the Festival.’”
Gund, an unprepossessing adventurer whose admiration for Eastern European films dovetailed with his love of travel, befriended countless filmmakers in Hungary, Czechoslavakia, and elsewhere. He and Jarman shared the same favorite film, Franticek Vlacil’s Marketa Lazarova (1967), and their scouting trips to Berlin and Cannes—Gund became chairman of the Festival in 1973—were a perfect blend of business and pleasure. The Festival developed a stellar reputation abroad, and international directors and stars gravitated to San Francisco.
The Festival comprised approximately 20 curated films in those years, ranging from Eastern European slogs to Nouvelle Vague treats to William Shatner’s Esperanto saga Incubus (1966).
“There was a lot of criticism that the Festival was too commercial, that we didn’t show enough experimental films, but we could never survive by doing that .…The city could not support it. So I think we put together an event where every evening was an event, and not just spread out all over the city. We tried to not be more ambitious than we could handle.”
At the same time, the Festival navigated the generation gap that defined America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s by introducing midnight movies that attracted the younger moviegoers thronging the Haight and Berkeley. A pie fight—guerilla warfare, San Francisco-style—disrupted the 1969 Opening Night gala before Mayor Alioto, master of ceremonies Victor Borge and star Anthony Quinn could arrive for the screening of The Secret of Santa Vittoria. (Jarman’s executive producer credit on the 1972 Bill Graham concert documentary Fillmore illustrates his ability to connect with the youth movement as well as the business establishment.)
“If you . . . think about ’67, ’68, it just seemed that everything was controversy. You were going to find people on both sides of the fence. So anything you did was controversy. If you had Henry Fonda, ‘Well, why do you have some old actor? Why don’t you have somebody like Jack Nicholson?’ So we always tried to have a certain mixture of people that managed to provoke and antagonize everyone.”
The Palace of Fine Arts was constructed as the Festival’s new home in 1970, though Jarman found himself mopping up overflowed toilets on Opening Night when the new venue was flooded by a rainstorm. The tributes became ticketed events—with a token payment—to improve crowd control, and the honorees expanded to non-directors like cinematographer James Wong Howe and writer Truman Capote, and New Hollywood stars like Paul Newman. (Oh, to have been in the house the year Fred Astaire did an impromptu dance with Albert Johnson, or for the tributes to an ebullient Jeanne Moreau and Jane Fonda, stalwart and even receptive to hecklers.)
Jarman added the Castro Theatre to the mix in 1977 with a second, neighborhood Opening Night that was a good deal more casual than the Palace of Fine Arts affair. Alec Guinness was in the house to open Jarman’s last, triumphant Festival, in 1979, before handing the reins to Albert Johnson, Tom Luddy, and Peter Buchanan.
“I think what I accomplished was being a part of something that added a whole new dimension to the city,” Jarman said. “There was the opera, the symphony, and the ballet, but film became an integral part of the city. I don’t think we set out to achieve that, but when you sit back and look at it and reflect, I think you see that’s what [we] did achieve.”
A member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist (KQED Arts, among other outlets) and instructor, and a proud inductee of Essential SF.
The Dazzling Distinction of Laura Dern
By Pam Grady
In a career that began before she was old enough to drive, Laura Dern has played a dazzling array of women. The first impression she made, not quite even an ingenue, was in a party scene in Foxes (1980) as a girl in thick glasses trying to appear worldly as she discusses birth control. Over the next three decades, she would play radically different young women in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990), a drug-addled wastrel in Citizen Ruth (1996), a lethal dental hygienist in the blackly comedic film noir Novocaine (2001), and the deeply flawed heroine trying to take her life back in her series Enlightened (2011-2013).
Two recent roles, one for which she was nominated for an Oscar and another for which she won a Prime-Time Emmy and a Golden Globe, demonstrate Dern’s extraordinary range. In both Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild (2014) and the TV show Big Little Lies (2017), Dern plays a mom, but the difference between these two women could fill an ocean. Dern nails the particular shadings of both perfectly: Bobbi, the cheerfully supportive earth mother living under the shadow of her former marriage to an abusive man and coping with cancer in Wild, in contrast to Big Little Lies’ Renata, a Type-A business executive whose maternal instincts are far more ferocious. Taken together, the roles are master classes in acting.
In his memoir, Things I’ve Said, But Probably Shouldn’t Have (2007), Dern’s father, actor Bruce Dern recalls that he was making the Western Will Penny (1967) when his wife, actress Diane Ladd, gave birth to their daughter. Within days, the infant was ensconced in a motel room’s bureau drawer, a makeshift crib, in Bishop, CA, where her father was working on the movie.
With those parents and that introduction to location moviemaking, it was perhaps inevitable that Laura Dern would follow her parents into acting. In fact, her first credits are uncredited roles in two of her mother’s movies. At seven, she was directed by Martin Scorsese’s in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) in a scene where she had to polish off an ice cream cone. Impressed that she had the fortitude to withstand 19 takes and 19 ice cream cones (without throwing up), the director told Ladd that her daughter was meant to be an actress. By her early teens, she was fulfilling that promise with her role in Foxes and another small role in rock impresario Lou Adler’s cult musical Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982).
Dern worked steadily through the early 1980s, making TV movies and films like Teachers (1984) and Mask (1985), where she played the blind girlfriend of the deformed Rocky (Eric Stoltz). Then in 1985, she got her big break in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk. Shot largely in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the drama starred Dern as a 15-year-old yearning for something more than her dissatisfying home life and hanging out at the mall, and thinking she’s found it in an older guy (Treat Williams) whose seductive manner blinds her to the danger he represents. Roger Ebert praised Dern as a chameleon who appeared a child one moment and an adult the next. The role earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
Blue Velvet marked the beginning of Dern’s collaboration with Lynch, one that has yielded three films and a TV series to date. As Sandy in that first film, she is a ray of sunshine cutting through the darkness that envelops clean-cut college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachan) as the mystery of a severed ear leads him into a criminal and sadomasochistic underworld.
Four years later, in Wild at Heart, Lynch’s loose adaptation of Berkeley writer Barry Gifford’s novel, she played the frankly erotic Lula Fortune, a damaged woman in thrall to her lover Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and on the run from her angry, demented mother (Dern’s own mom Diane Ladd). “Nothing she has done before prepares us for the lusty vividness she brings to Lula. Dern is a raunchy, radiant wonder,” observed Peter Travers in Rolling Stone.
Dern herself agreed in an interview in the New York Times. “[Lula’s] incredible. For me, she was the first opportunity I’d had to play not only a very sexual person, but also someone who also was, in her own way, incredibly comfortable with herself. She has no fear of anyone else’s judgment. It’s just wonderful to be inside someone like that.”
As the titular character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose (1991), Dern would once again play another young woman in thrall to her sexuality. Rose’s free and easy way with men creates chaos wherever she goes, but that doesn’t stop the Hillyers (Robert Duvall, Diane Ladd) from taking her in in this Depression-era comedy drama. A little dim and seeming younger than her 19 years, Rose is a child in a sensual woman’s body. The role earned Dern her first Oscar nomination. Ladd was also nominated for her supporting role, the first time a mother and daughter were nominated for the same film.
Dern took a deep dive into the world of the Hollywood blockbuster with the role of Ellie in Jurassic Park (1993), a character she would reprise in the franchise’s 2001 second sequel Jurassic Park III, but more often her projects were independent and she became more active on television. She won a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for an Emmy for her role as an Air Force widow determined to discover the truth behind her husband’s fatal plane crash in Afterburn (1992). She also took part in one of television’s historical moments when she played the woman who lures Ellen DeGeneres’s character out of the closet on a 1997 episode of Ellen (1994-1998), a performance for which Dern received another Emmy nomination.
A starring role in Alexander Payne’s debut feature, the satiric Citizen Ruth, further burnished Dern’s reputation as she nailed the portrait of a drug-addled pregnant woman who finds herself caught between warring sides of the abortion debate. “Dern is a revelation: Desperate, kooky, as devious as a pack rat, her Ruth grows likable, and even heroic, by remaining too pure a scoundrel to be taken in by the phonies around her,” wrote Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly.
Twenty years after her first collaboration with David Lynch, Dern once more became the director’s muse in Inland Empire (2006), playing a movie star who finds herself starring in a project that seems cursed. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian praised Dern’s performance for its “indestructible poise and intelligence.” That intelligence would be key to Dern’s latest project with Lynch, Twin Peaks (2017). In Lynch’s original 1990-1991 series, FBI agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) assistant Diane was a little bit like Charlie Brown’s red-haired girl, never seen. But in this last chapter, she finds an embodiment in Dern, smart, enigmatic, and sporting a flamboyant manicure that suggests a woman not to be toyed with lest her claws come out.
With Enlightened, Dern created her own opportunity, co-creating and executive producing the HBO series with its writer, Mike White, and winning accolades as Amy, a former corporate executive trying to claw her way back after a demotion-induced nervous breakdown and rehab. Dern earned a Golden Globe Award and an Emmy nomination for her performance, along with critical hosannas. “I was blown away by how Dern is able to keep Amy on this knife’s edge between maniacal optimism and seething anger, and there’s no telling which direction she might go at any moment,” read one such review by Meredith Blake in The AV Club. “It’s exhilarating to watch.”
Dern continues to stretch herself in her roles. She reveals an adventurous spirit that encompasses the mothers in Wild and Big Little Lies, the lavender-haired resistance leader Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in The Last Jedi (2017), a woman confronting childhood abuse in The Tale (2018), literary trickster Laura Albert in Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy (2018), and Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman trying to clear a man on death row in Edward Zwick’s Trial by Fire (2018), the film that SFFILM Festival is screening as part of its tribute to Dern. Forty-five years after Martin Scorsese took notice of the then seven-year-old’s acumen and devotion to craft, she continues to make quite the impression.
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance film writer.
John C. Reilly: An Actor’s Actor
By Pam Grady
John C. Reilly’s storied career as one of the great actors of the 21st century might not exist were it not for a fellow Chicagoan, Kevin J. O’Connor. Reilly discovered acting through an extracurricular program at a local park. He did it all: plays, musicals, and improv, and absolutely loved it. But he was the fifth of six children in a tight-knit, middle-class Roman Catholic family. Acting was all well and good, but his parents wanted to know what young John—whose first job as a 12-year-old was washing dishes at a restaurant—intended to do to make a living. Reilly resigned himself to the idea that he would have to find a “real” job someday. Then O’Connor, a friend from his South Side neighborhood who was a couple of years older, was cast in a small role in an Al Franken movie, One More Saturday Night (1986).
“I thought, ‘Huh! Someone from my neighborhood can be in a movie?’ That was a real revelation,” Reilly recalled in a recent interview.
“It just seemed like a pipe dream before that. Actors in movies seemed so removed from my reality that I didn’t dare to dream that. Then when Kevin got that part, I thought, ‘Maybe this could be the job. Wouldn’t that be great?’”
Reilly’s own first break came soon after his 1987 graduation from DePaul University’s Theater School. There were a number of firsts involved with his role in Brian De Palma’s Vietnam War drama Casualties of War (1989) about a group of soldiers who kidnap, rape, and murder a young woman. It was his first job in a movie. He took his first airplane ride to De Palma’s Thailand location. It was also his first experience in realizing just how fast things could change on a film set as De Palma decided Stephen Baldwin wasn’t right for the major supporting role of dim-bulb conspirator PFC Herbert Hatcher and Reilly, hired as a day player, quickly got a promotion.
“On Casualties of War I ended up changing roles twice because of that rearranging, so it gave me a sense of ‘nothing is set in stone’ because anything can change at any moment,” Reilly told GamesRadar.com. “Even to this day… I just feel like ‘Don’t take this for granted, they can change their minds tomorrow.’”
That the film industry was not going to change its mind about Reilly was evident in the first blossoming of his career as he could count among his first directors Neil Jordan (We’re No Angels, 1989), Tony Scott (Days of Thunder, 1990), Woody Allen (Shadows and Fog, 1991), and Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, 1993). Among his first costars were Sean Penn (Casualties of War, We’re No Angels, and State of Grace, 1990), Jack Nicholson (Hoffa, 1992), and Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne, 1995).
In 1996, Reilly began one of his most fruitful collaborations when he starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature Hard Eight, playing a man who needs money to bury his mother who comes under the tutelage of a professional gambler played by Philip Baker Hall. Critic Richard T. Jameson writing in Film Comment called Reilly’s performance, “Superb at catching the precise blend of naïveté and fecklessness in [his] character.”
From that auspicious beginning, Reilly would work with Anderson twice more, as a porn actor in Boogie Nights (1997) and then as a cop—a character with roots in drives that the director and Reilly took together while Boogie Nights was still in pre-production where the actor pretended to be police while Anderson videotaped him—in the panoramic Magnolia (1999). The latter was a character and a performance that Peter Travers singled out in Rolling Stone, “Reilly is the heart of the film; you don’t just feel him ache to make a human connection, you ache with him.”
As the century turned, Reilly’s career was beginning to take shape. On Broadway, he and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternated in the lead roles of dysfunctional brothers Hollywood screenwriter Austin and larcenous Lee in a 2000 revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winner True West, and captured a Tony nomination. In the movies, Reilly was a reliable presence in big-budget commercial fare like The Perfect Storm (2000), where he played a doomed sailor, and Chicago (2002), where his performance as Roxie Hart’s humiliated husband and his show-stopping rendition of the Kander-Ebb song “Mr. Cellophane” earned him a Best Supporting Oscar nomination.
At the same time, Reilly continued to find opportunities to work with some of filmdom’s most storied directors, part of the ensemble of soldiers in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), playing a corrupt 19th-century cop for Martin Scorsese in Gangs of New York (2002) and Howard Hughes’ right-hand man Noah Dietrich for the director in The Aviator (2004), and seizing another chance to display his musical gifts as a singing cowboy on a radio show in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006).
Those were big films, but Reilly has found some of his greatest success in independent cinema. He has been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, for playing a film director in Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party (2001), Jennifer Aniston’s pothead husband in The Good Girl (2002), a man frustrated by his new girlfriend’s possessive adult son in Cyrus (2010), and an insurance agent in Cedar Rapids (2011). Among his other indie film appearances are as the cousin of a flailing stand-up comic in Rick Alverson’s discomfiting comedy Entertainment (2015) and as a lisping man desperate to find a mate before he is turned into an animal in Yorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist black comedy The Lobster (2015).
Perhaps what is most striking about Reilly’s career is that after establishing himself as a serious dramatic actor, he took a left turn into wild slapstick comedy. His role as a dimwit NASCAR driver in the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006) forged a new path in his career.
“[Reilly’s] been funny before, I’ve never hurt laughing at him as I did here,” Wesley Morris wrote of his performance in the Boston Globe.
The actor continued to mine the wilder side of movie comedy in such films as Adam McKay’s Step Brothers (2008) and Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), a musical mockumentary that starred Reilly as the titular character, a thick-headed but talented rock ‘n’ roll star. The character’s many changes as he morphs from a Johnny Cash-like figure to a Dylanesque troubadour to a Beatle-like icon, and a soundtrack that allowed the musically gifted Reilly (who fronts his own band, John Reilly & Friends, as a side gig) to sample a variety of styles, provided a showcase for the actor’s colossal talent.
“[The movie] is richly blessed by the presence of John C. Reilly in the title role. There’s an almost pre-moral innocence about his soft and squishy mug, a heedless exuberance in his playing. He’s happy to play dumb — allowing Dewey to live profitably within the unexamined premises, the mythic fatuity, of his media-driven myth,” raved Richard Schickel in Time.
Thirty years after his debut in Casualties of War, Reilly’s decision to go all in with this acting thing continues to pay huge dividends as he remains an actor in high demand. In 2018 alone, he starred in four films, including Stan & Ollie, for which his big-hearted and precise performance as his childhood idol, comic legend Oliver Hardy, earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
Also among Reilly’s 2018 projects was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, the film SFFILM is screening as part of his tribute. It is Reilly’s first Western and it marks his debut as a feature-film producer. It is also a film that continued to burnish Reilly’s reputation as an actor’s actor in playing Eli Sisters, the softer, gentler half of a pair of assassin siblings, who is growing weary of his unpredictable brother Charlie’s (Joaquin Phoenix) antics.
Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter singled out the actor’s performance, “Reilly has the most expansive character here and he makes it his own, breathing deep stores of boisterous life into him.”
RogerEbert.com’s Glenn Kenny was even more effusive with a comment that ends with what could serve as a summation of Reilly’s career, “This is really Reilly’s show; in this role he showcases genial goofiness but also genuinely stalwart heart. I never say this or even think this, but I’ll break precedent: give the man his Oscar already.”
Pam Grady is a San Francisco freelance film writer.
Raising the Game of Everyone Around Her: Laura Linney
By Dennis Harvey
Laura Linney has said she doesn’t consider herself a celebrity or a star. Indeed, those glamorous terms seem trivializing when applied to someone who’s excelled in so many performance media—it’s like calling Meryl Streep a showgirl.
She’s one of those actors who raises the game of everyone else around her and can make even a misfire seem vividly interesting at least for the moments that she’s onscreen. Though she played a few ingenue-type roles early on, it was immediately apparent she would be in it for the long haul. Few players have projected such intelligence, craft, authority, and range from the start. Linney continues to surprise us, but in a sense that’s unsurprising: For a considerable span of time now, whether encountered at the movies, on TV or the stage, it’s been clear that she can do practically anything.
She was raised in Manhattan by her nurse mother Miriam Perse, but after her parents’ divorce remained close to her father, the prolific late playwright Romulus Linney. That no doubt factored into a youth already steeped in theater, including a teenage stint in summer stock. After graduating from Brown University, then Juilliard, her professional rise was swift. Within two years she’d appeared in new plays by John Patrick Shanley, Donald Marguiles, and John Guare. (Twenty-two years later, in 2004, she’d return to Marguiles’ Sight Unseen on Broadway, this time playing her original character’s mother.)
Small parts in movies soon ensued, as well as a plum role as a cocaine addict in the 1993 telefilm Blind Spot. But most people first became aware of her as wide-eyed but open-hearted San Francisco newbie Mary Ann Singleton in Tales of the City (1993), the first of what would be four miniseries (so far) derived from Armistead Maupin’s beloved stories—the most recent installment’s opening episode being this year’s opening-night curtain raiser for SFFILM.
Tales permitted her to be blonde, charming, funny, and touching, qualities always useful for the ingenue parts that generally fall to “hot” young actresses. But even in the short run of big-budget, big-screen thrillers that then ensued, Linney was never just “The Girl,” but an expedition leader or prosecuting attorney. The flintier edge to her appeal became clearer in 1998’s The Truman Show, where irritation simmered below the sitcom smile of her role-playing wife to Jim Carrey’s unwitting national stooge.
Then at the millennium’s turn came two remarkable performances: The wealthy matron who casually destroys another’s life to hide her own infidelity in The House of Mirth (2000), Terence Davies’ superb Edith Wharton adaptation; and the sister who can’t forgive her errant brother’s faults while expecting a free pass for her own in Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me (2000). Linney was paid a purported $10,000 for the latter, and admitted clashing with her perfectionist writer-director. But that humble independent enterprise became a universally acclaimed triumph, winning her the first of three Oscar nominations so far. (Along with numerous other prizes, she has won two Golden Globes and four Emmys to date, as well as four Tony noms.)
Since then, she’s appeared in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and prestige films, supernatural thrillers, indie ensemble dramas, comedies, and romances (including the Big Kahuna of both, Love Actually, 2003); done animation voice work; and lectured Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In addition to working repeatedly with directors as estimable as Bill Condon and Clint Eastwood, she’s acted for talents as disparate as James Ivory and Noah Baumbach, You Can Count on Me costar Mark Ruffalo, and Sally Potter (in the forthcoming Molly).
Her equally prodigious television credits have encompassed all those Tales of the City episodes, as well as a guest stint on Frasier (1993-2004), plus of course starring stints on the acclaimed John Adams (2008); gallows-humorous The Big C (2010-2013), which she executive-produced; and current crime drama Ozark (2017- ). Meanwhile, she has somehow found occasional time for Broadway, essaying Arthur Miller, Chekhov, and Christopher Hampton. Most recently, she appeared in a 2017 revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, as ruthless Regina Giddens—being one of precious few actresses one can imagine stepping into the erstwhile shoes of Bette Davis and Tallullah Bankhead without stubbing a toe.
Indeed, it is to Linney’s great credit that she is able to play villainous roles unforgettably, yet without getting herself typecast. The dimensionality she brings to partly or largely unsympathetic characters is also present in the very human fallibility of the figures we empathize with, be they Mary Ann, Sean Penn’s resiliently tough wife in Mystic River (2003), or even the domestic “boss from hell” in The Nanny Diaries (2007)—she can encourage us to laugh at a person’s foibles, yet leave their essential dignity intact.
The meticulous care with which she illuminates complicated dramatic personae is ideally illustrated in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), which will be shown as part of her SFFILM tribute on April 11. In its way a barbed companion piece to You Can Count on Me, this more acerbic yet bittersweet sibling saga co-stars the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as brother Jon to her sister Wendy, two Savages approaching middle age, both working (more or less) in theater—though in that, as in most things, they’ve fallen considerably short of their own expectations.
They’re brought together by the news that their father Lenny (Philip Bosco) has lost a partner, is losing his home, and may have dementia. This is even more of a problem than it sounds, because Lenny abandoned his children long ago. Forced to take on care of a parent they were estranged from, the younger Savages react in different ways: Jon with droll but pitiless pragmatism, Wendy with a not-necessarily-helpful mix of guilt and neediness.
She is the kind of deeply flawed character at which Linney so often excels, bringing warmth and humor to a figure whose actions are sometimes indefensible. (Not only does Wendy steal pharmaceuticals from a dead woman and sleep with a married man, she fibs about both a cancer diagnosis and a Guggenheim fellowship.) The performer has inhabited a great diversity of parts, personalities and periods. Yet no matter who she’s playing—whether flaky Wendy, near-saintly Abigail Adams, or even the homophobic housewife who suggests Matthew Shepard got what he deserved in The Laramie Project (2002)—we always grasp exactly where that person is coming from.
Like the very best actors, she seems to define each role from within, providing not just surface strokes but a sense of palpable individual psychology. We may not always like her characters, but we truly understand them…nearly as much as she does. If the difference between an entertainer and an artist lies in the degree (if any) of insight their work provides, there is no question which title best suits Laura Linney.
Dennis Harvey is the longtime Bay Area correspondent for Variety, and has written for numerous other local and national publications.