By Thane Peterson Here's a typical moment in the movie Bridget Jones's Diary. Renee Zellweger, playing Bridget, a mopey, 32-year-single professional woman in London, is in bed with Daniel Cleaver, her rakishly handsome boss played by Hugh Grant. The phone rings.
A scantily clad Bridget, looking a little fat and blowsy, crawls over her lover and picks up the phone. "This is the incredibly seductive Bridget Jones speaking and I've got a very bad man between my thighs," she says.
"Oh, hi Mom."
It's a funny scene in which Zellweger's brilliant character acting shines. It works because of Zellweger's willingness to immerse herself in the role of a loser who always looks blowsy and is always saying the wrong thing. Big stars like, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, are too afraid of damaging their images to take that kind of risk.
TOP-NOTCH TRIO. The movie critics are all griping about the poor quality of the movies coming out this year. And things are probably only going to get worse because the studios rushed so many ill-considered projects into production when it was feared Hollywood might be crippled by a strike on the part of writers, actors, or both. But, in addition to Zellweger, I can think of two other actresses -- both lesser-known than Zwelleger -- who delivered stunning performances, seemingly out of nowhere. One is Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Pollock. And the other is Laura Linney, who was in last year's You Can Count on Me and The House of Mirth. In a weak season like this one, stumbling on performances like these can make going to the movies a pleasure again.
Take Bridget Jones's Diary. Zellweger, 32, has had some big roles before, notably as Tom Cruse's girlfriend in Jerry Maguire, but I still thought of her as the bimbo bit player who poured beer down Parker Posey's throat in the high school graduation farce Dazed and Confused. Bridget Jones is her big break, and she makes the most of it.
Zellweger takes a gamble in this movie. To play a schlub who's always fretting that she'll never find a good man, the normally buffed and beautiful actress transformed herself by gaining some 17 pounds, chain-smoking cigarettes, and perpetually screwing up her face into dopey expressions.
A WINNING GAMBLE. What's really astonishing is that Zellweger, who grew up in Katy, Tex., does all this while pulling off an English accent well enough to play opposite two English leading men and not sound stupid. To get the accent and English mannerisms down, Zellweger lived in London for three months before filming started, working with a vocal coach and even going incognito for a couple of weeks in a publishing house.
The movie would be a disaster if Zellweger were bad, but she easily rises above a conventional plot. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary is a standard-issue love story variant in which the woman has to choose between a dashing Mr. Wrong (Grant) and a wooden Mr. Not-So-Bad-After-All (Colin Firth). Her performance is less a characterization than a series of brilliantly acted, unforgettable moments.
It's worth the ticket price just to see the wave of emotions that wash over her face when Bridget has to explain to a room full of smug married couples why there seem to be so many unmarried thirtysomething women. Or to see her face go childish and damaged when she discovers that Cleaver is dumping her in favor of his beautiful American colleague. "I thought you said she was thin," her cruel, rail-thin rival snipes as Bridget runs off in tears. Zellweger may deserve an Oscar nomination for this role.
VOICE OF AUTHENTICITY. Another actress who rises above her material is Marcia Gay Harden. She was my choice for Best Supporting Actress this year for her performance in Pollock -- and, defying the oddsmakers, she won. Pollock is one of those movies you really want to like for sentimental reasons: Ed Harris, who directs and won a Best Actor nomination for playing the painter Jackson Pollock, is a wonderful actor who poured his heart and soul into the project. But to my mind, he really didn't succeed. Pollock has its moments, but in the end, it's a cliched story of a tortured, alcoholic artist who self-destructs.
Harden's performance as Lee Krasner, Pollock's wife, is so good, however, that you come away wishing Harris had made a movie called Krasner. Harden plays Krasner, who was also a gifted artist, as a tough, blunt-talking bohemian who thinks her husband is a genius and downplays her own career to manage his.
Harden, who is 41, succeeds in the role largely because she gets Krasner's flat, deadpan manner and nasal Brooklyn accent down so perfectly. Like Zellweger, she studied with a voice coach, working from a version of the script they made in which each line is scored for intonation. "Pollock, I want to get married," she says at one point, in a voice another person might use to ask someone to mow the lawn. "Either that or we should split up." They're improbably harsh words, but it's a measure of Harden's strength as an actress that they're entirely believable when she says them.
MIDWESTERN SMARTS. The other recent revelation has been Laura Linney. People tend to remember her as Jim Carrey's wife in 1998's The Truman Show. At 37, she has one of those shrewdly intelligent, pretty faces you see a lot in the Midwestern suburbs. She's absolutely brilliant in You Can Count on Me, in which she plays a small-town single mother whose life gets turned upside down when her wayward brother comes home for a visit (and to hit her up for a loan). Her performance is full of wonderful touches, such as her odd, embarrassed laughter as she's driving home after sleeping with her married boss (seems to be a pattern developing here).
You might think she's just playing a version of herself until you see her in The House of Mirth, an adaptation of the Edith Wharton novel. In it, she's just as convincing playing a society woman so heartless that, for amusement's sake, she helps engineer the downfall and destruction of Lily Bart, the movie's protagonist.
I think most movie lovers keep mental lists of their favorite actresses and actors. Right now, the ladies leading my list are Linney, Harden, and Zellweger. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online