Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday Best: Actresses of All Time #20 - Helen Hunt

photo by Greg Rizzo

-As Good As It Gets
-What Women Want
-Cast Away
-Pay It Forward

Helen Hunt is not a chameleon actress. To every role she brings the full range of who she is a Helen Hunt. But with that she brigs forth some wonderful talent and skill. 

She spent much of her career as a supporting actress who did good work in movies like Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Only You, and Mr. Saturday Night. But she rarely had a chance to show her leading actress skills. But then she became the lead in the NBC sitcom Mad About You, and new opportunities arose.

She elevates the material she is in when she is given the right material. In Pay it Forward, she plays a woman out of her depth intellectually and emotionally. She shows the wonderful contradiction of a woman who has a steely exterior but has a beaten down self. And in the final act, she hits some extreme moments of utter heartbreak, even when shot from a distance.

Hunt spent a good deal of her career doing comedy on television. And she brought that star power and technique to What Women Want. Standing toe-to-toe with Mel Gibson at his most charismatic, Hunt was every bit his match. Her Darcy embodies the complexity of the ambitious professional woman without losing any sense of femininity or pathos. In fact her mixture of strength and vulnerability is what acts as the catalyst for growth in Gibson's character. And yet she doesn't come off as an accessory to the story but as a well-rounded and real person. Hunt makes her funny and serious to fantastic effect.

She also became the first woman to star in #1 and #2 box office winner in the same week.  At the same time What Women Want was in the theaters Cast Away was released. Her part is much smaller than in most of her movies, but that does not diminish her power. In the first act, her performance is fine, but there isn't much for her to do.  But the last act allows her to shine. Watching her is heart-wrenching. She perfectly embodies the joy, guilt, and horrible restraint  she imposes. Watch the scene between her and Hanks and you can feel all of emotion bubbling horribly beneath the surface until the cathartic explosion when she flings wide her prison doors. And even there, her sadness mixes oerfectly with her joy.

But her best performance is as Carol in As Good As It Gets. She could have presented as the flat, idealized object of Jack Nicholson's affection. But Hunt gives her a weary edge. She is not a glamour girl Cinderella, whose beauty is hidden beneath the soot. Hunt shows us her beauty in her personality and her virtue. She is not a simply good person. She is a flawed person who has decided to do her best to be good. 

And here she not only layers her performance with some nice charter business. But she is able to express powerful moments with very little. When she feels overwhelming gratitude to a doctor for helping her son. She simply says, "Doc!" and is able convey all of her thanks. And when Nicholson tells her "You make me want to be a better man," the life-changing epiphany of that moment is telegraphed with every subtle expression of her face.

Hunt has done a lot of good work and her career is far from over.

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