Laura Linney is the perfect amount of famous. Consider the case of Kinsey, the 2004 biopic of controversial sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, for which Linney received her second Academy Award nomination. She gained 25 pounds to play the doctor’s wife. When Renee Zellweger ate herself to a healthy weight for both Bridget Jones films, the ensuing media blitz was concerned with how she got fat for the sake of art, never mind that the sequel was terrible. But Linney’s craft devotion went mostly unmentioned in the face of praise for her typically solid, affecting performance.
At a conference for Kinsey at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, a journalist asked the cast where each of them fell on the Kinsey scale of sexuality, which measures hetero to homo from 0 to 6. Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard ignored the question. Linney, after some consideration, slowly announced that she was a 2—predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual, one number away from bisexuality. If it had been Zellweger, Hilary Swank or Charlize Theron in front of a passel of international reporters announcing, essentially, she could go gay for the right girl, it would’ve fuelled the internet for weeks. By the time another question came Linney’s way, she was fairly mortified—“I’m still stunned, I shouldn’t have answered”—but she needn’t have worried. Her comment didn’t even make the wires.
Good enough to warrant a respectful profile but not publicly interesting enough for tabloid fodder, Linney—whose The Exorcism of Emily Rose opens Friday—would probably also hit 2 on a scale of fame. This is a victory—her below-radar status has allowed for a diverse, flexible, Streepian career that’s included Tony-nominated Broadway performances, television appearances (she was awarded an Emmy for her guest arc on Frasier’s final season) and more than 30 films since 1992.
Like Catherine Keener, Jeff Bridges and Joan Cusack, she’s the kind of actor whose appearance is both a rubber stamp of worth on a production and a sigh of relief for the audience, a complex utility player who brings her A-game to everything: the mighty (You Can Count on Me), the messy (Love Actually) and the abysmal (The Life of David Gale).
The Juilliard-trained Linney, 41, had small parts in early ’90s movies like Dave, Congo and Lorenzo’s Oil, as well as Armistead Maupin’s miniseries Tales of the City. Her first substantial film role was as a prosecutor in Primal Fear, though any thunder she might have drummed up was soundly stolen by the debut of Edward Norton. It wasn’t until Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful You Can Count on Me (2000) that Linney’s talents were properly set free.
The story of two siblings orphaned as children who have drifted apart as adults gives Mark Ruffalo’s Terry all the meat—as the fuck-up vagabond returning to his hometown looking for a handout, he gets the mood swings, the sobbing breakdown, the violent outburst. Linney, as Sammy, the responsible single mother who stayed, gets the arduous task of keeping her character respectable as she continuously falls victim to Terry’s transparent charms, sleeps with a married man—whose wife is pregnant—while mulling over her boyfriend’s proposal and lying to her young son about his father’s whereabouts.
Sammy and Terry are equally flawed, but Terry’s actions are clearly instinctive—he yells at his nephew, invents lies on the spot, throws punches when he gets pissed. Sammy, a banker, has been unexpectedly shaken out of her years-long routine, and Linney, with her stage-honed enunciation and open face, must control that slow boil throughout the film. Her Oscar sits on Julia Roberts’ mantle, but the oversight does nothing to diminish the intricacy, and joy, of the performance.
Other Linney must-sees are PS, shot like a love letter to the actress, dousing her in soft light and fawning close-ups (watch her face, emotions swirling like a kaleidoscope as she waits, breathless, for Topher Grace to put on a condom); Love Actually, the rom-com clusterfuck in which she plays a woman with an institutionalized brother and a crush on a co-worker (the scene where she nervously invites him in, leaves the room and does a spazzy victory dance on the other side of the wall is a perfect encapsulation of her appeal); Kinsey, in which she is one of the most supportive wives imaginable; and über-bitch Bertha Dorset in Terence Davies’ underseen adaptation of The House of Mirth.
After Emily Rose, Linney appears in nostalgia jag The Squid and the Whale as a newly divorced mother whose writing career is eclipsing that of her famous ex. Playing against three male leads, her role is the least written and the least complex—it’s the 80s, she’s finding herself, she loves her two boys, she’s navigating her suddenly broken family as best she can. But Linney infuses her often unlikable role with charm and grace, making a plain woman remarkable, without any Hollywood bullshit. As always.
The Exorcism of Emily Rose is now playing.