Monday, March 2, 2015

In Character: Laura Linney

Laura Linney is one of the best, most dependable performers in the business. Her career has been repeatedly lauded on film, television and the stage, and, thankfully, has no signs of slowing down. Linney is the type of actress you see a movie for. No matter what it is. You may not fully like the final product, but you know that the simple fact of her being in the film will automatically make it worth it.

Five Essential Roles
The Truman Show (1998)
Hannah Gill (as Meryl Burbank)
Hannah Gill is one of the most pleasantly despicable film characters I’ve ever seen. This woman is scum, a literal prostitute who whores herself in front of the entire world. But because Laura Linney plays her with such unapologetic charm, we spend most of The Truman Show ignoring Hannah’s true colors.

Hannah was a child actress who failed to carry her talents over into adulthood in a conventional way. So she took a seemingly lifelong gig as Truman Burbank’s “wife” on The Truman Show, a universally-consumed reality television show in which its principal character is unaware he’s being filmed 24/7. This means that Hannah’s life is a complete lie. Hell, we don’t even know her name is Hannah until halfway through the damn movie. Mostly, she’s Meryl Burbank, the Leave it to Beaver-type housewife who amusingly pitches product placement ads on The Truman Show, and gets $10,000 every time she has sex with Truman. I’d love to see a movie just about Meryl. What caused her to be here, and, more tellingly, what the hell is she doing now?

P.S. (2004)
Louise Harrington
P.S. is a tiny indie film that, despite its stellar cast and solid script, has never been able to find an audience. This is a shame, as it contains one of Linney’s most endearing performances. In the film, Linney plays an admin official at Columbia who receives a student application that floors her. The name of the applicant, along with his painting style, physical movements and general appearance, are nearly identical to those of Louise’s first true love, who died in a car accident decades ago. P.S. stays away from supernatural romantic thriller territory, instead grounding itself in an honest look at the May/December romance, while boasting incredible performances from everyone (including Topher Grace, Paul Rudd, Gabriel Byrne and Marcia Gay Harden) involved.

Kinsey (2004)
Clara McMillen
Linney really goes through the motions as Clara McMillen in Kinsey. It’s a damn tough role, one that covers decades of a single life, and is taken on many different character arcs. We meet Clara as a bright eyed college student, one who falls in love with her professor and happily marries him. But Alfred Kinsey is a radical man with radical ideas, and Clara spends her entire life trying to manage them.

There are so many single scenes to highlight from this performance. The sadness in Clara when she finds out her husband has slept with another man (Peter Sarsgaard), the ecstasy in her voice when she herself ends up sleeping with that same man, her dinner table anger at her husband’s demands over their children – it’s really never ending. I’m so pleased that Linney was nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Joan Berkman
One of the reasons I love The Squid and the Whale so much is that writer/director Noah Baumbach never gives you a character to root for. Bernard (Jeff Daniels), his wife Joan (Linney), and their sons, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline), are all despicable people in their own way. But they’re also capable of great (if ever-fleeting) kindness. Having met Bernard, it’s easy to see why Joan is the way she is. Bernard is a tough sell of a husband – impatient, elitist, a real prick. So, yeah, Joan cheated on him occasionally, she lied to him and the kids… but can you blame her? One of Linney’s strengths is playing such strong but appropriately vulnerable women. In that regard, Joan Berkman is certainly one of her best roles yet.

The Savages (2007)
Wendy Savage
Wendy (Linney) and Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are siblings who have drifted apart. Despite (or because of) how similar they are, the two clearly do not get along. But once their father falls ill, they’re forced to be in each other’s lives again, which disrupts their quiet, miserable senses of self. The Savages is a very well written and expertly acted film, and even though Linney and Jenkins’ script earned Oscar nominations, the film is rarely discussed today. When you make a movie that’s as real to life as The Savages, it risks being ignored. Nothing sensational happens in the film. Wendy and Jon didn’t stop talking because of a singular traumatic event, nor is there some grand catharsis that brings them back together. Instead, the film is an honest portrayal of sibling rivalry and adult incompetence. I adore the film for its honesty.

The Best of the Best
You Can Count on Me (2000)
Sammy Prescott
I had seen Laura Linney in a handful of films before You Can Count on Me, but I never really noticed her until I watched her explore Sammy Prescott. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is one of my favorite films released so far this century. Early in the movie, when Sammy and her brother, Terry, are still kids, their parents are killed in a car accident. We meet them years later, with Sammy as a somewhat content loan officer at a bank, and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) as a loser drifter barely scraping by. When Terry rolls through town one day, it disrupts Sammy’s idea of who she is, and the life she wants for her precious young son.

Had I never seen Linney and Ruffalo in a film before You Can Count on Me, I would’ve bet that they were related in real life. Rarely has the brother/sister dynamic been captured as well as it is in this film. Instead of letting Sammy slide with her mistakes, Terry repeatedly calls her out on them (which she always reciprocates). You Can Count on Me is a very good film with two very fine, star making central performances. I’ll never tire of falling under its subtle spell.

Other Notable Roles
in Mystic River
Dave (1993)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Congo (1995)
Primal Fear (1996)
Absolute Power (1997)
The House of Mirth (2000)
Wild Iris (2001)
The Laramie Project (2002)
The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Mystic River (2003)
The Life of David Gale (2003)
Love Actually (2003)
Frasier (2003-2004)
The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
Jindabyne (2006)
Breach (2007)
John Adams (2008)
The Big C (2010-2013)
The Fifth Estate (2013)

46 comments:

  1. Linney is one of those actresses I've seen a lot of her work, but I've also missed a lot of it. Of what I've seen, her performance in The Truman Show stands out most. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Dell! She's so good in The Truman Show. But if you haven't seen You Can Count on Me, definitely try and track it down.

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  2. I'm glad I'm not the only person that thinks P.S. was one of her finest performances. The sex scene she had with Topher Grace was quite hot even though neither of them revealed anything.

    I love her in The Squid & the Whale as you are right as there is no one to root for. They're all quite despicable which makes it more real.

    I too would want to know what happened to Meryl from The Truman Show.

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    1. Another P.S. fan! Such a shame that film has all but disappeared. I put it on last night to grab a screencap for this post, and I ended up watching the whole thing. It's such a damn fine film, with such strong performances.

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  3. Linney is awesome. I really loved her i Primal Fear and Exorcism of Emily Rose. I don't know why but she does those courtroom scenes remarkably well.

    Haha I had chosen Linney's character in Truman Show for Margaret's Spin-off blogathon. This was my pitch-
    "The film is set after The Truman Show has come to an end and Hannah is without a job. She is addicted to being on TV and has problems connecting with people because she has relied on scripts for so long. The only acting jobs she gets are those in which she plays characters just like Meryl. People all around her treat her differently. In flashbacks we find out how she started working in The Truman Show and how she fell in love with a woman during its shooting but she had to give her up to become Truman's wife. I can imagine the film having elements of To Die For and Young Adult."

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    1. You're so right, she really has the confident courtroom vernacular down pat. I love her in both of those movies, especially her cross examination of Edward Norton in Primal Fear.

      Okay, you need to draft up a one page description of your Hannah spin-off (we call that a 'treatment' in the biz haha), and shop it around. Because it's brilliant. I'd see it in a second.

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  4. I love Laura Linney! She's tremendous and always elevates all the films she's in. I was just thinking about The Savages the other day. I think I need to re-watch that one.

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    1. So good! I had only seen that film once, when it first came out, but it was so much better this time. Maybe it's because I'm older or because Hoffman has passed... whatever it is, that's a really solid film.

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  5. Laura Linney is one of the best and most criminally underused actresses working today. I hope she gets a plum lead role sometime soon, she really deserves it. I think my favourite performance of hers is in You Can Count On Me, but honestly, her Clara, Joan or Wendy are just as good. And shoutout to her Lady Macbeth in Mystic River, I feel like I'm the only one who likes that performance.

    I love discovering new indie gems, so I'll check out P.S. soon. You should do an In Character post on Marcia Gay Harden, who, like Linney, is a fantastic actress, but terribly underused.

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    1. She should be given all the roles, as far as I'm concerned. I never saw The Big C, but I love that she headed a show for a while there.

      It's funny, while I was watching P.S., I went to look up my Harden In Character piece and I was stunned that I hadn't written one yet! She'll definitely be up there soon.

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  6. One the of the most dependable actresses out there...she's always welcome in my book. SHE NEEDS AN OSCAR!!!

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    1. For reals! Seriously, what's it gonna take for her to get that gold?

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  7. Oh, I love her work in You Can Count on Me. Why can't we have more roles like that for other actresses?

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    1. (sigh) I fully agree. It's a shame that movies like You Can Count On Me don't really exist in this culture anymore. Damn shame.

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  8. Such a great actress. I love her in 'The Truman Show' in 'Mystic River' especially.

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    1. Hell yeah man. I love finding other people who are a fan of her Mystic work.

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  9. I first saw her in a small role as a teacher in Searching for Bobby Fischer, but it wasn't until the much maligned Congo that I remembered her. I got a kick out of the character she played, especially when she got to be badass at the end. "Those apes are one of a kind!" 'Well they're about to go on the endangered species list!"

    I'm in the minority on You Can Count On Me. I don't dislike the movie, but when it got done I had a "that's it?" reaction because it had been praised so much. I don't have any issue with the performances; it's the plot. At the end of the film none of the three is any different for any of the events in the film. I felt as if something should at least have happened for everything they went through. Anyway, I'm not trying to trash the film and as I wrote, I didn't dislike it.

    I might pick the Truman Show as my favorite of her performances.

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    1. I LOVE her scene in Bobby Fischer. Mantegna really bitches her out there.

      Your point about You Can Count On Me is fair, and that's actually one of the reasons I like the film. There's no grand catharsis, life just, you know... goes on. Kind of how it does in real life. But I hear you, for sure.

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    1. Thanks so much! I haven't seen The Big C or The Nanny Diaries, but you definitely have me interested in checking them out. Happy to hear you're a fan!

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  11. I love Laura Linney! love your choices here, though I still haven't seen YCCOM and PS sounds great! She should be in more movies nowadays, seems like Fifth Estate was ages ago. i love how much she can do with a little screen time - she was so surprising in Mystic River and heartbreaking and funny in Love Actually. I also love her work in The Life of David Gale which I think it's a really underrated flick.

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    1. You gotta see YCCOM! It's young, adorable, tough Mark. I really think you'd like that movie. I need to watch David Gale again, only seen it once when it first came out.

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  12. Oh, The Truman Show.. what a nice little meaningful film.. that needs to get more recognition for sure! I always think about that movie for some odd reason. Maybe I feel like I'm living in a show or something. :P

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    1. Ha, me too! Funny how that works. I wonder what a shrink would think about that.

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  13. Seriously one of the finest actresses working of her generation. She has been absolutely incredible throughout her entire career so I'm sure it must have been quite difficult to make an In Character post about a character actress as powerful as she is. I love Laura Linney since the very first years I started watching movies. The Truman Show, The Life Od David Gale, where could I start really? For me, her best work can be found in The Savages. There's something almost painfully honest in the way she portrays Wendy, something quite simply effortless. I have seen so many films with her and I really didn't see her there at all, you know what I mean? That's acting of true mastery. Love it how you say that she's the type of actress you see a movie for. So true.

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    1. I LOVE your praise for her Wendy in The Savages. You're so right, that's Linney in there, but you can't tell it's her at all. It's vicious, painful, and honest. Absolutely love her work in that film.

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  14. I know you've been having a busy schedule with Wait. So why don't you let me fix you some of this new Mococoa drink. All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.

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    1. Wha-- what the hell are you talking about?! What the hell has that got to do with anything?

      ;)

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  15. Ooh, I've always hoped you'd do an In Character post on her. :-) I haven't seen The Squid and the Whale and Kinsey yet, but I pretty much agree with your comments on all the others.

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    1. Nice! You'd really like both of those films, by the way. And I'd love to hear your perspective on them.

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  16. I love Laura Linney! She is always fantastic, as you said so. I totally agree on your top choice, Linney is just a knockout in that film (in every possible way). Just a stunner of a performance if I ever saw one. I think it's a real shame that she really hasn't had another great LEAD role recently and it seems like she's been relegated to more meh/mediocre supporting ones in recent years.
    I would have to disagree with you in your statement about her cheating on Bernard in TSaTW - even if he is a huge douche of a man I don't think that gives her an excuse to cheat on him (imo).

    As a sidenote, I always thought it would be interesting if she and Laura Dern played sisters in a film or something. Maybe it's just me but I feel like that could be a really strong pairing right there (and some one should do that).

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    1. Oh, I don't think Bernard being a douche gives Joan a free pass to cheat on him (multiple times with multiple men, no less), but I do understand why she did it.

      Would LOVE a Linney/Dern sibling flick. That would be incredible to watch. Great call!

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  17. It feels like Linney is a bit underrated (?). But whenever I saw her on a film I watched, I know she's going to give a fine performance.

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    1. Totally agree. An underrated but consistently reliable actor.

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  18. One of my favourites! I hope she has a good 2015!
    I love her in The Big C, The Truman Show, You Can Count on Me and The Savages.

    AS great as she is in Mystic River. Her big scene at the end really comes out of nowhere and feels like a completely different film all together. Annabeth is a fascinating character, and I think its a real shame the film didn’t explore her more.

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    1. Glad you like her! I hear you on Mystic River. It's a fair point, but that's exactly why I love that scene. Lady Macbeth emerges. You never know what people are capable of until you trap them into a corner, you know?

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  19. I can't believe i missed this article when you wrote it. Laura Linney is one of my all time favorite actresses and every time she pops up on screen, that movie or TV-show just get's a little bit better because of it. I always felt she was snubbed for an Oscar nomination for The Truman Show . She was so great and convincing in that movie. I actually haven't seen You Can Count on Me yet, but i will definitely seek that one out now.

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    1. Ohhh man, you will LOVE YCCoM if you're a Linney fan. She is so priceless in that movie. I absolutely adore her!

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  20. I just watched "You Can Count on Me" on your recommendation, and (if it's possible) I now love Laura Linney more than I did before :)

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    1. Love hearing that! So happy I was able to recommend that movie to you.

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  21. This is one of my favorite In Character posts. I couldn't agree more on her best performances, especially your #1 choice. Love it!

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    1. Thanks man! Gotta love Linney, she's perfect.

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  22. Love her and her work is always superior. I know you focused on her film work but to me she will always be Mary Ann Singleton from the mini-series Tales of the City. It was the first time I saw her and she, and the whole cast, was so great. Even now when I see her the first thought that comes to mind is "Oh good it's Mary Ann!"

    She should really have an Oscar by now, but how many wonderful performers that could be said about. At least she's had several nominations which is more then poor Donald Sutherland can say.

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    1. Ohh I've never seen Tales of the City, I'll have to get on that right away, thanks for the recco!

      It's crazy that she doesn't have an Oscar, but you're so right, she's done better than ol' Donald. Poor guy.

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    2. Tales is great, particularly the first mini that covers the initial book. Besides Miss Linney the other major player in the show is Olympia Dukakis as Mrs. Madrigal. She's AMAZING in it as well. The book series, there are nine volumes, is terrific too. Laura and Armistead Maupin, the author of the books, are very close...to the point that when her son was born last year she gave him the middle name Armistead.

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    3. Good stuff, thanks again for the recommendation!

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