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.