Few actresses stay under the radar and still garner as much acclaim as Laura Linney. She hit her hot streak in the 2000’s with rich, respectable roles in small movies. However, she has transcended the “indie darling,” label with struts onto the small screen in John Adams and her new headlining act on Showtime on The Big C. Linney doesn’t just pick movies to make bank. She does projects where the female characters she plays aren’t jokes, even if they tell them. She has a knack for both comedy and drama, but her real gift lies in the middle ground (The Squid and the Whale, The Savages). Few actresses can garner a chuckle and gasp in the same scene, but she does it expertly. Though she often shares the spotlight with gifted male counterparts like Liam Neeson or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, she never lets them steal it. She’s that rare actress that doesn’t try to steal scenes but still ends up doing it quite often.
The Squid and the Whale
Linney’s most potent and abrasive performance comes in Noah Baumbach’s superb divorce dramedy. As Joan Berkman, she inhabits a character both emotionally and physically exhausted with her marriage. Alongside Jeff Daniels, the two tackle the often cliche issue with intensity and laughs so sharp-tongued they’ll draw blood. She begins sleeping with the tennis coach of her sons and branching out on her own as a human being while still being a self-conscious, controlling woman. The scenes where the two sit down their children to explain the divorce and where her success as a writer overshadows that of her pretentious husband are gifts of both comedy and humanity.
In one of her three Oscar nominated performances, Linney plays Wendy Savage, a struggling playwright who must decide what to do with her Alzheimer’s inflicted father along with her brother (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). This is a family that is spread out around the country and has never really gotten along, forced back to each other in a moment nobody wants to deal with. Linney lets us inside Wendy’s resentment of her father and brother, as well as her character’s own insecurities. “I’ve gained weight,” is the first thing she says to Hoffman’s Jon when they see each other, presumably before he can say anything. The air of awkward tension hangs over the rest of the movie, giving in to both comedy and drama. Linney’s brilliant characterization and chemistry with Hoffman are part of the reason why it works.
As the wife of renowned sex doctor Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), Linney garnered another Oscar nomination. A person like Clara McMillin has to be open-minded to married to a man with a job like Kinsey’s. She makes you see the all-important romantic and sexual chemistry shared by the couple, which counters nicely to Kinsey’s clinical studies of human sexuality. She encourages his controversial work, but not without limits of her own. When the line between business and pleasure starts to be crossed, Linney steals the show.
It’s no small accomplishment to steal a scene from Sean Penn, especially in one of his best performances. But Linney, in a role that is already small, manages to do it. At the end of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, she explains to her husband that what he did for his family, murder, was justified. “I told them that their daddy would do whatever he had to for the ones he loved, and that that was never wrong. That could never be wrong,” she whispers to her husband. It’s a haunting scene that releases the disillusion with which these people lead their lives now. Linney captures it effortlessly.
You Can Count on Me
In the role that launched her career with an Oscar nomination, Linney plays a small town woman whose brother comes back into the picture after bumming around the world. She has her affairs (with Matthew Broderick) in order, or so it seems. She captures a modern woman’s sensibility and conflict with ease, and though her career has come to bear much richer fruits, you can’t forget where you started.
Other Notable Performances: The Truman Show, Breach, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Love, Actually.