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A Map to Holly Hunter's Hollywood : Her penchant for quirky roles may have paid off with 'The Piano,' but she's realistic: 'My taste is just too odd for me to have a long life on anybody's A-list'

November 14, 1993|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar

What you have to remember in the midst of all the talk about Holly Hunter this year is how she went on "Arsenio" last summer to plug a play . Even Hall seemed a bit nonplussed. He had on his couch the newly crowned best actress from the Cannes Film Festival, a likely Oscar nominee and the star of the Palme d'Or winner "The Piano," directed by Jane Campion, a New Zealander and the first woman to win the festival's top prize.

A lot of movie awards, a lot of movie firsts, but Hunter just goes on about this play, Beth Henley's "Control Freaks," and how she loves playing weird Sister Willard, a schizophrenic housewife who talks in strange voices, rips carrots out of the floor and has vaguely incestuous thoughts toward her brother.

Sooooo, Hall says gamely, all you viewers not living in Los Angeles, save your pennies and fly in to catch it.

Yeah, right.

Except what Hall didn't know was that Hunter's performance was, in fact, a hot ticket and that the entire run of "Control Freaks" at the Met Theatre was sold out, playing to Hollywood types eager to catch Hunter in one of her rare stage appearances. Because as everybody knew, even if she didn't often sell out movie theaters, Hunter was one of the best actresses working, one who might turn up anywhere, even a 99-seat theater, if the part were right.

From her first featured film role, playing the baby-snatching policewoman in "Raising Arizona," the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy, Hunter had established herself as the kind of actress who, as one studio head put it, "you wanted to keep your eye on." She won an Oscar nomination with her second major film, playing Jane Craig, the Southern-fried smarty-pants producer in James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News" later that year.

She also earned an Emmy last season for her performance as the vengeful Wanda Holloway in HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

*

This year, the 35-year-old Hunter is earning some of the best reviews of her career, as well as speculation about her walking off with the Oscar next spring, for her performance in "The Piano" as a mute 19th-Century Scottish woman who communicates with the world largely through her music and her illegitimate daughter.

They are quirky, off-center, to-die-for roles, particularly if you are a stage-trained 5-foot-2 Georgia-born actress with a syrupy drawl and a stubborn streak when it comes to playing by Hollywood rules. Hunter as much as said it herself at the Emmys this year when she thanked HBO Chief Executive Officer Michael Fuchs for making the kind of movies in which actresses could actually play women and not animated Barbie dolls.

And she is saying as much now, munching a bagel in a Beverly Hills hotel dining room, talking about "The Piano," which opens Friday.

"Whatever happens to my career from this is not going to last for long, because I'm just too odd--my taste is just too odd--for me to have a long life on anybody's A-list," she says, sounding grouchy and pleased at the same time. "I will be in too many movies that won't make a lot of money. It's why I do cable and theater and foreign independent (films) and domestic independent (films). I need that much space to search for good stuff."

As the film industry heads into yet another Oscar handicapping season bemoaning the scarcity of female contenders--Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Age of Innocence" and Emma Thompson in "The Remains of the Day" are other likely candidates--Hunter's performance in a dark-horse foreign film is raising questions about how Hollywood perceives, and treats, talent considered outside the mainstream. As Brooks puts it, "Tell me the type you can cast Holly for. You can't."

In person, Hunter does cut a fairly elusive figure. She is tiny and her face pale, finely etched. But with her rough-edged twang, no-nonsense manner and long, dark hair draped about her shoulders like a nun's veil, she creates the impression of tremendous energy flying out from a tightly coiled core. She seems reluctant to be known except on her own terms. And in conversation she veers from combativeness to garrulous honesty to rigid silence with unsettling ease.

She asks her interviewer to sit to her right "because I'm deaf in my left ear." She unabashedly discusses her love of cigarettes, her hatred of raw vegetables and her "terror" at playing the piano on camera.

Ask her about her screen roles, which one reviewer had blithely labeled "crazy women," Hunter bristles:

"Crazy people are my people? Really? I think that's silly. That's another one of those pigeonhole things. Lay somebody on an ironing board and put a scalding hot iron on them, get that going real good: 'Oh, this is who Holly Hunter is.' "

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