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Jane Lynch, long on talent and short on significant roles, is having a breakthrough year

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

She shines in 'Glee' and holds her own with Meryl Streep in 'Julie & Julia.' It's nice to see hard work rewarded.

October 14, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Jane Lynch is having a very big year, and it's tempting to believe that this is a sign, perhaps from God, and that things will soon be turning around for the rest of us. The Dow will regain its previous high, the ozone layer will close, Congress will pass healthcare legislation of which everyone approves, the entire population of the United States will learn how to pronounce "nuclear" -- all will be right with the world. Because many of us have doted on Lynch for years, it's about time she hit the mainstream.

First there was the gig in "Glee," Fox's much buzzed about musical comedy that sent its well-received test episode to TV screens this summer and officially premiered last month. As Sue Sylvester, the Amazon queen of McKinley High's cheerleading squad, Lynch managed to steal the show without singing a note. Journey? Who needs your stinkin' Journey?

Then she went toe to toe with Meryl Streep as Julia Child's sister in "Julie & Julia." Watching the two of them prepare for a party by regarding their substantial reflections with a mixture of fond optimism and rue was one of film's perfect moments.

In between, Lynch showed up in "Party Down" and "Two and a Half Men," had small roles in "Spring Breakdown" and "Weather Girl," did voice work in the third "Ice Age" and even "Handy Manny," for heaven's sake. She's the quintessential working actor, and that is why her good year is cause for general celebration. It's proof that hard work pays off, that talent will win out, that there is justice in a business that often seems on the verge of suicide-by-trendiness. There is hope, then, for us all.

For years, Lynch has been the kind of performer critics mention by name, even if she's on-screen for three seconds, just to show how savvy we are, how attuned to talent. She's like that certain downtown bistro that makes the best chicken curry or stuffed grape leaves or cinnamon rolls you've ever tasted but where you can still get a table on Saturday night.

No matter how small her role or how bad the project, you know that while Lynch is occupying the screen, you will enjoy what you are watching and inevitably wish she had more lines. She is funny, she is fearless and she works with what she's got. All the time.

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Comic talent

Tall, vivid, broad of hip and smile, Lynch was never ingenue material; her face is too mobile, her frame too lanky, her voice too unpredictable. A Second City alum, she probably looked like a middle manager or an older married sister or a field hockey coach when she was 20. She came to most of our attentions as butch to Jennifer Coolidge's femme in Christopher Guest's mockumentary "Best in Show," followed by her porn actress turned Christian singer in "A Mighty Wind." (Guest knows a good thing when he sees it.)

She's the kind of comedian who makes you laugh so hard you cry, even when you're thinking of a scene months later. In a recent episode of "Glee," she said a line so perfectly I laughed until I choked. I had to put my head between my knees and breathe carefully.

I have no idea what sort of a person Lynch is. She's an out lesbian who supports gay marriage, a fact I know only from a Funny or Die video that made the rounds and some interview clips on YouTube. I did see her recently at a Television Critics Assn. panel during which she appeared to be chewing gum. Not noisily or rudely, but in a way that would have made Eve Arden or Rosalind Russell proud.

Lynch got the most questions; she was funny, she seemed nice, but maybe she's a diva, maybe she poisoned her best friend to get that role in "Julie & Julia," maybe she is the scourge of the "Glee" writers room. Who knows? And who cares? To me, she represents something bigger than herself -- all the very talented folks who keep plugging away in the art or industry of their choice until one day, miraculously, longevity actually pays off. For once.

I don't know Jane Lynch, Jane Lynch is not a friend of mine, but I am ridiculously happy that she got her scenes with Streep, that she's landed a perfect and hilarious role in a show that promises to be a huge hit, that after years of being a successful and respected performer, she is now, officially, a big star.

Because Lynch got famous the old-fashioned way: She earned it.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A versatile role player

In addition to her turn as Sue Sylvester, above, the trash-talking, power-mad cheerleading coach on "Glee," Jane Lynch made an impression on audiences in the following movie roles:

'JULIE & JULIA'

(2009)

On the side. She cooks opposite Meryl Streep as the eccentric, awkward, funny sister.

'THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN'

(2005)

Step into my office. She's a lecherous supervisor and sexually harasses an innocent Steve Carell.

'A MIGHTY WIND'

(2003)

Is that a dulcimer or are you just . . . ? She's an actress who leaves porn for a soulless commercialized folk group called the New Main Street Singers.

'BEST IN SHOW'

(2000)

Don't touch her hair! She's the ultra-competitive butch handler of two-time best-in-show standard poodle Rhapsody in White.

'THE FUGITIVE'

(1993)

A serious part in a lab coat. She's a colleague of Richard Kimble's and swears the good doctor didn't do it.

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'Glee'

Where: Fox

When: 9 p.m. Wednesdays

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children.)

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