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International Year of the Woman

From the U.S., France and Australia, actresses made 2001 theirs with memorable performances that dug deep.

January 13, 2002|EMANUEL LEVY

It's time to acknowledge publicly what some critics have been quietly observing: 2001 may have been a weak year for mainstream Hollywood fare, but it was a spectacular year for female performers. Indeed, it's hard to recall a year in which actresses have made such a splash on the big screen, in lead and supporting roles, American and foreign films, comedy as well as drama.

Women delivered the kind of performances that helped make 2001 a more exciting year than it had the right to be. Here are some reasons why.

Stunning Performances by Newcomers

No movie year is truly complete if it doesn't feature a stunning debut or breakthrough performance. Undoubtedly this year the title belongs to Naomi Watts, heroine of David Lynch's psycho-erotic noir thriller, "Mulholland Dr." As Betty, the bright-eyed, bisexual waitress-actress, Watts commands attention from her very first scene at LAX through the film's spooky and bewildering ending. Watts is not exactly a newcomer. She's been acting for a decade in TV movies and modest indies such as "Flirting" (1992), which co-starred fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman.

Actresses Coming of Age

It's one of Hollywood's long-held truisms that few actors are able to make a smooth transition from child to adult roles. Yet three of the year's best performances were given by former child actresses.

Thora Birch has been acting since the age of 4 in commercials, TV series and movies. In 1999, she garnered critical praise as Kevin Spacey's rebellious daughter in the Oscar-winning "American Beauty." As the star of Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World," she plays a teenage outsider par excellence, a misfit who's totally out of sync with the world around her. Investing every gesture, word and thought with a specificity that makes for a fascinating performance, Birch shines as a girl whose uncensored commentary spares no one--including herself.

Birch's "Ghost World" co-star, Scarlett Johansson, first attracted attention in the indie "Manny & Lo" (1996) and in "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), in which she played a traumatized teen. In Eva Gardos' autobiographical "American Rhapsody" last year, Johansson played a bright Hungarian American adolescent who insists on determining her fate. Johansson conveys in a painfully sensitive way the psyche of a girl torn between two sets of parents, biological versus sociological, and two disparate value systems, West versus East.

Best known as the child vampire in "Interview With the Vampire" and for her roles in lightweight teen movies, Kirsten Dunst made a successful leap into a more adult role in "Crazy/Beautiful." Although basically a contemporary variation of "Rebel Without a Cause," "Crazy/Beautiful" benefits immensely from Dunst's stirring performance as a wealthy liberal politician's messed-up daughter who falls for a Latino schoolmate (Jay Hernandez). Dunst is a revelation as a sympathetic loser, drifting along in a sensual haze, pulled this way and that by desire and need.

Reclaiming the Comedy Genre

Most American comedies of the past two decades have revolved around men and catapulted their leads into stardom--Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Mike Myers, to name a few. In 2001, however, for the first time in years, the genre was defined by female-centered comedies: the British-made "Bridget Jones's Diary" with Renee Zellweger as its single, neurotic heroine, and "Legally Blonde," which reaffirmed Reese Witherspoon's status as a first-rate comedian.

Zellweger didn't rely on a fat suit to play the chubby protagonist of "Bridget Jones's Diary," a gimmick that Julia Roberts ("America's Sweethearts") and Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shallow Hal") opted for. Like her male peers (Russell Crowe in "The Insider," for example), Zellweger went the old-fashioned way, gaining 20 pounds by eating pizza. Much publicity was accorded the fact that an American--and a Texan at that--was chosen to portray the popular English heroine, but Zellweger proved she was perfectly cast as the awkward yet endearing "singleton" who goes from one humiliating experience to another. Drawing on her reserves of humility and vulnerability, Zellweger played a real woman with real flaws.

Slick and winsome, "Legally Blonde" was a logical follow-up to Witherspoon's previous vehicle, "Election" (1999), in which she played an obnoxiously ambitious high schooler. In "Legally Blonde" she's a smart but ditzy blond who goes to Harvard Law School to win back her snobbish boyfriend and, in the process, gains a new identity. Witherspoon's high comic style harks back to Hollywood of yesteryear: With the right roles, Witherspoon could become the Carole Lombard or Judy Holliday of her generation.

Range and Versatility

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