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No one with access to Netflix and an iota of sense would argue that Holly Hunter isn’t one of the most mesmerizing, versatile and instinctual actors to come along in the last three decades. But her work (and the acclaim that’s come along with it) has somehow never made her a Movie Star. That’s usually reserved for actors we can label, understand and consume, confident in exactly what we’ll get. And that’s fine – sometimes you buy a jelly donut because you want a jelly donut – but Hunter’s CV is a reminder of how much we stand to lose if an actor buys into any one idea of her abilities or niche as an artist.
Born on a farm in Conyers, Georgia (which might partially account for the voice we’d listen to even if the screen went blank), Hunter earned a drama degree at Carnegie Mellon before moving to New York, and later to Los Angeles. That voice made an off-screen, uncredited debut in the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, after which they wrote a breakout part specifically for her in Raising Arizona. The Coens don’t pick actors lightly; few (Hunter and her former roommate Frances McDormand come to mind) can play farce with such sincerity. The same year, her fiery, vulnerable Jane Craig in Broadcast News stripped any vestige of cliché from the driven career woman archetype and earned her an Oscar nod.
A few years later she stunned viewers and critics alike in Jane Campion’s The Piano. The Los Angeles Times wrote that her unnerving performance as a mute woman sold into marriage in mid-19th century New Zealand reached a once-in-a-lifetime level of intensity. “Hunter, celebrated for her fast-talking firecracker roles, is mesmerizing as the silent Ada, doing her own playing of Michael Nyman’s expressive period score, her face a compendium of flinty looks that could bend steel.” And the will of anyone with an award to hand out in 1993. She won the Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Cannes awards for Best Actress, and then turned right around for a screwy character role in The Firm. “[Hunter] doesn’t appear for about 40 minutes and it’s a long wait,” ran The Guardian’s review, “But once she does, naturally, her cockeyed nonchalance steals the film – so innocently even Cruise didn’t seem to mind – and converts what was looking like a thriller dirge into a vaudevillian romp.” She simultaneously won an Emmy for The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader, and we’re still in 1993 here. And should you need any further proof of what Hunter can do with a role, go back and watch Crash, Thirteen, Roe vs. Wade, When Billie Beat Bobby and Top of the Lake.
Does she play strong, fragile, erotic, stone-faced funny, quirky or intense? Yes. It’s hard to categorize someone who’s taken lead and character parts, dramas, comedies and biopics – often concurrently – and jumped into TV long before all the kids were doing it. You could call it a career strategy if Hunter acted on anything other than impulse, but she rarely does. “I tend to act on desire, so my career was always about, ‘Do I want to do this or not?’” In that sense, she’s ambitious, telling an interviewer in 2013, “I feel a great entitlement to get cast in something if I’m dying to do it.”
But those parts have become more scarce over time, partly because Hollywood still hasn’t learned how to do much of interest with mature actresses; in 2013 The Atlantic ran an article titled “20 Years After The Piano: We’ve All Failed Holly Hunter.” Probably so. But hunting for roles she likes (“I go all over the place to find them: cable TV, network movies of the week, foreign films, independent American films, studio films, the stage”) has served her well. In 2016’s Strange Weather, Variety wrote that Hunter “has just delivered one of her richest, most lived-in performances, playing a mother struggling to come to terms with her son’s suicide…She’s sexy, willful, and admirably, at times, infuriatingly self-possessed. It was a part she jumped at and one that will hopefully remind casting agents and directors of her prodigious talents.” The Hollywood Reporter was equally smitten with her work in this year’s buzzed-about indie The Big Sick, which it said she threatened very seriously to steal. Its improvisational comedic ethos was new turf for Hunter, but as The Hollywood Reporter noted, “Hunter commits with hilarious ferocity.” And Collider called her “the most stunning addition” to this year’s star-packed Terrence Malick ensemble Song to Song.
Rather than asking herself what kind of roles she wants, Hunter asks herself a more important question: “’‘Do I still want to act? Do I still want to reveal?’ And I do.” Thank god.
And speaking of… When she took the role of a hard-drinking, promiscuous detective dogged by a Heaven-sent emissary in TNT’s Saving Grace, it prompted lot of press questions about Hunter’s own spirituality. “I feel like telling stories is a spiritual exercise and I think that it’s something that we need as a culture and as humans,” she told the news service Digital Journal. “You put your nightmares up there, you put your dreams up there and people can see them better because they can stand outside of it and recognize themselves inside it. I feel that in and of itself is a spiritual thing.” To which we say, amen.