Looker Zeta-Jones seeing critical kudos

Sure, Catherine Zeta-Jones is drop-dead gorgeous, but that’s not the reason she’s ShoWest’s Supporting Actress of the Year or why she’s in the running for an Oscar for her turn as cabaret murderess Velma Kelly in “Chicago.”

It’s about talent.

Zeta-Jones’ skills as a thesp weren’t immediately apparent in 1998, when she first stepped off the boat, literally, in “The Mask of Zorro.”

“The first thing people noticed was her looks,” says Craig Outhier, film critic at the Orange County Register, “but recently other roles — the mother under the gun in ‘Traffic,’ a kind of spurned woman in ‘Chicago’ — give her more substance as opposed to just stunning beauty.”

But often in a dark theater, it’s an actress’s good looks that will first catch the eyes of auds.

“It never hurts to be beautiful,” says Daniel Swee, casting director of “The Hours,” which received nine Oscar mentions. “Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Zeta-Jones are such good actors, they’re not going to be limited by their beauty.”

Much has been made of Kidman masking her attractiveness, partially with the use of a prosthetic nose, to play Virginia Woolf in “The Hours.”

Beyond pretty woman

“If someone is that talented, they can act outside of their looks,” says Swee, who believes that Zeta-Jones also is up to that task, but she hasn’t been called on yet to play those sorts of transformative roles.

Instead, many of the parts she’s been asked to do have embraced her Welsh-born beauty: the playfully sexy Elena in “Zorro,” a lithe leather-wearing insurance investigator in “Entrapment” and a bisexual bombshell in “The Haunting.” She even looked good ordering an execution in “Traffic.” And, of course, there’s plenty of song-and-dance sensuality in “Chicago.”

“Beauty and looks are part of acting. I don’t really think you can separate the two,” Outhier says. “Her sexiness isn’t really mutually exclusive from her power as a performer any more than Meryl Streep’s kind of vaguely awkward shyness is in every role she does.”

“Chicago” nonetheless stretched Zeta-Jones’ musical theater talents after going legit as an up-and-comer on London’s West End in “42nd Street.”

“She’s incredibly poised and talented and she’s always had that star factor in her,” says casting director Heidi Levitt, who auditioned Zeta-Jones for the title role in “Evita” nearly a decade ago when Oliver Stone was attached to direct. (The part went to Madonna, and Alan Parker helmed.)

“The Hollywood community has believed that she’s a leading lady,” adds Levitt. “Whether you’ll see a movie around her, where she’s the lead, maybe that’ll happen more quickly. Sometimes that (follows) as a result of winning an Oscar.”

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