Supporting actress / how we got here

Clarkson's dual buzzed-about roles garner a nom

There were two actresses who appeared to have Oscar chances for two separate movies: Scarlett Johansson, who came up empty, and Patricia Clarkson, who didn’t.

Clarkson’s turns in “Pieces of April” and “The Station Agent” kept her in the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ focus and she was cited for the former.

Shot on low budgets and under fast-paced conditions, both productions provided Clarkson with particularly difficult hurdles — like how to portray genuine sorrow under the gun. “It’s always challenging to take on grief-stricken or deeply dramatic parts, especially when you’re doing a small film, but I do like the challenge because you have to rise to it,” she says.

Acad voters went with the tried and true by giving Renee Zellweger her third nom in as many years for “Cold Mountain.”

Remember when . . . 1971
Two of Oscar’s previous nominees made comebacks in 1971 after lengthy absences.

Helen Hayes won for her role in “Airport,” her second Oscar on her second nom, the first being 39 years earlier for a leading role in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet.”

Hayes’ “Airport” co-star Maureen Stapleton had one previous nom at the 1959 Oscars, and went on win more than 10 years after this for “Reds” (1981).

Lee Grant returned after a 20-year absence for “The Landlord.” She was previously nommed in 1952 and won the award in 1976 for “Shampoo.” She was nommed one more time in 1977 for “Voyage of the Damned.”

And then there were the two Oscar newcomers, Karen Black for “Five Easy Pieces” and Sally Kellerman for “MASH.” Neither has been nominated since.

Zellweger’s relationship with “Cold Mountain” was a journey all its own. Years ago, she attempted to option the Charles Frazier novel. When she later learned the book had landed in Anthony Minghella’s lap, she was keen to play a part.

“I was drawn to Ruby’s spirit,” she says. “She’s able and had a tenacious will to just survive. Ruby never questioned if she could do something; she just did it. The comedic part of her stems from her determination and optimism about just getting through the day when the odds seemed insurmountable.”

A first-time nominee, Shohreh Aghdashloo benefited from a request from “House of Sand and Fog” writer Andre Dubus III’s requirement that any film version of his novel pitting an Iranian family against lifelong Northern Californians be cast with at least one Iranian actor.

Although Aghdashloo began as a theater actor in Tehran in the early ’70s, she wasn’t associated with Iran’s major filmmakers of that pre-revolution decade. But she did act for the then-unknown Abbas Kiarostami in his first feature, “Report” (1977), and gained crucial insight into acting for the camera.

Even though she had no chance to seek out the role — the first one expressly for an Iranian actor in any major Hollywood film — she was sought out without her knowing it. “The casting office at DreamWorks sent word out seeking actors in the local Iranian community in Los Angeles,” Aghdashloo says, “and out of the blue, I got a call.”

Previous Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden apparently likes working with director Clint Eastwood, having appeared in his “Space Cowboys.”

Harden says an easy set didn’t necessarily lessen the enormous challenge of playing Celeste Boyle, the sad, confused wife of a man who was abused as a boy. Portraying such visceral tragedy creates “a strange inverse kind of energy … because you are actually getting to do your work as an actor, you are being used as an actor, you are being allowed to create.”

Holly Hunter says the short shoot on “Thirteen” was in some ways a benefit to the film even though there was only a week of rehearsal with co-star Evan Rachel Wood.

“There’s an undeniable momentum the day can take on, a great rhythm where you get into an unselfconscious groove,” says the Acad favorite, who admits that on big, slow, expensive shoots sustaining a performance in one scene over several days can be difficult. “We did not have that challenge on ‘Thirteen.’ We were going to do that scene for two hours and move on.”

“Thirteen” may not be a conventional role for thesp of Hunter’s stature but it meets her criteria as time passes: A great supporting part is better than the lead in a bad movie. She adds: “That’s one of the challenges of getting older in the movie business.”

Oscar pedigree

After two previous noms in the actress category, Renee Zellweger will try her luck in the supporting field. That she was an obvious bright spot in “Cold Mountain” and wasn’t playing a comedic role as in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” should lift her in the voters’ eyes.

Holly Hunter has won a lead actress Oscar on two noms, and this is her second supporting actress nom. She was an Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences favorite in 1994, when she was nommed in both categories and won for “The Piano.” That the Acad chose her role as the struggling mother in “Thirteen” over Evan Rachel Wood’s lead indicates the Acad appreciates that it was a tough performance regardless of screen time.

Patricia Clarkson was nommed for playing the acerbic mother in “Pieces of April,” but also has the trump card of a well-received role in “The Station Agent” to further remind voters of her talents.

Marcia Gay Harden won on her first nom in this category three years ago for “Pollack.” Her role in “Mystic River” was deservedly recognized, being the most visibly emotional of any of her cohorts in a very emotional film.

Shohreh Aghdashloo (“House of Sand and Fog”) finds herself in the same boat as supporting actor nom Ken Watanabe: a foreign actor with a long career enjoying her first role in a major American film. Giving her the trophy would not only recognize her performance, but her career and the global nature of the film biz.

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