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Linda Hunt

The Year of Living Dangerously

(Peter Weir, 1983)

So your agent tells you about this role where you get to play a Chinese/Australian dwarf of all things; it’s probably not what an aspiring actress would have dreamt of doing, though Hunt is far from your average actress, as anyone who has seen this film can attest to. Aiding an Australian wire journalist during political turmoil in 1965 Indonesia, her pivotal supporting character, Billy Kwan, is the connection between the lead stars, Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. But this role for Hunt wasn’t limited to the dependable friend; Kwan, enraptured by Sukarno as puppet-master, tries to be the ultimate manipulator himself: he tries to arrange romances for everyone, and he longs for true romance of his own. Ultimately, he fails, but the beautiful journey is displayed with such passion by Hunt, with the backdrop of political revolt and tradition adding depth and reality to her performance. This quintessential character work aptly resulted in her winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, one of the best wins ever in the category. KL

 

Anjelica Huston

Enemies: A Love Story

(Paul Mazursky, 1989)

“You both knew me when I was alive,” wisecracks Huston’s Nazi death camp survivor to her husband and his new wife (who happens to be her former maid), upon her reemergence into the States after being missing for years. Her character hides under this armor of wit to mask the horror that she faced in the concentration camps, as many survivors have been documented as doing to cope. Mixing humor with the Holocaust, the actress has to walk a very fine line between being a comedienne and a tragedienne, but the always-skillful daughter of director John is in possession of such a fine-tuned instrument that she can, in the span of seconds, wryly crack you up and then turn around and bring you to tears. MM

 

Lisa Kudrow

The Opposite of Sex

(Don Roos, 1998)

Kudrow casts aside her airhead antics which brought her into fame on the series Friends and opts to play Lucia with an edge of severity that most spinster types sorely lack. Luckily, her innate talent as a comedienne makes this decision just as hilarious as when she expertly plays it dumb. Lucia is far from clueless; in fact, she is on to everyone and is a kind of busy-bodied snoop. She proclaims to want to help, but often times, she is just in the way. In many ways, she mirrors the lead character drawn by Christina Ricci except she turns her sharp criticisms mostly towards herself. We laugh at Lucia and anticipate what she will say or do next but also, remarkably, relate to her due to Kudrow's decision to play it real. TD

 

Debbi Morgan

Eve's Bayou

(Kasi Lemmons, 1997)

Midway through the picture, Morgan, playing Aunt Mozelle Batiste Delacroix (a white magic voodoo priestess), reaches a sort of transcendence as an actress as she has a vision that we feel we can believe and trust in since she relays it to us in such a powerfully intoxicating way. She travels effortlessly between the world of the dead and the world of the living. As she passionately recounts her legend of being a “black widow” to her young niece, years of heartache play out on her face, and Morgan uses her vocal inflections in a magisterially sardonic way to punctuate this lesson to a young girl who is grappling with her own mysterious abilities. Tinged with the supernatural, this monologue brings to mind Tennessee Williams crossed with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and the scene plays well with our own preconceptions of what a psychic's power can actually accomplish; it also shows the downside to being so gifted. Yet this scene is almost too beautiful to watch because it completely exposes emotional environment Mozelle tragically inhabits -- she is a walking contradiction. Gifted, yes, but tortured. TD

 

Thandie Newton

Beloved

(Jonathan Demme, 1998)

The thing that makes Newton’s role in Demme’s so tough to play is that there really was no reference point for her from which to begin constructing her title character. This was a creation that was one hundred percent original, born of an alchemy between author Toni Morrison’s words, Demme’s atmospheric direction and Newton’s imagination. As a mystery woman who rises from a primordial swamp and wreaks havoc as she seeps into the lives of freed former slaves, Newton had to play a newborn baby’s ghost trapped in a fully-grown woman’s body, a toddler, a pregnant woman, and a demon. In a role that depends on full control of her physicality, the actress showed that she was one of few women working who could not only manipulate her limbs, face and body in an appropriately ghoulish manor, but one who could also manage to cast aside her own great beauty for the sake of being true to what the author first conceived. There is no vanity in Newton’s shocking, original portrayal. MM

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