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For a smart guy like Tim Blake Nelson (a classics major at Brown who is also a screenwriter and director), playing dim-witted Delmar in the Coen brothers' sly and shaggy saga of redemption on the run posed certain problems. None was more daunting than authentically conveying Delmar's belief that one of his fellow escapees from a 1930s Mississippi chain gang had been turned into a toad by backwoods sirens.
Nelson didn't want to patronize Delmar or turn him into a farcical fool. One day actress Frances McDormand (director Joel Coen's wife) observed that Nelson looked just like his one-year-old son. It was the revelation Nelson required. Instead of thinking "in all those pejoratives" such as "dumb" or "stupid," he began perceiving Delmar as "innocent of knowledge, seeing the world without context."
Animated by innocence (and helped by his God-given gangling, goggling looks), Nelson, 35, gives an artless, winning performance that doesn't betray his tough tastes. "I have a cold aesthetic," he says. "I don't like schmaltz." Busy and brainy (Laura Linney was a fellow student at Brown and Juilliard), he was editing his soon-to-be released Othello adaptation, OH, while on the O Brother location. The down-home authenticity of his performance remains a mystery to producer and co-writer Ethan Coen. "He's a Jewish guy from Oklahoma, so go figure," Coen says bemusedly.
--By Richard Schickel. With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York
MARCIA GAY HARDEN POLLOCK
There's this really fearless quality to her, this dark side," says Ed Harris, who directed and played opposite Harden in the brutally honest biography of the self-absorbed, self-destructive and sullenly inarticulate genius of American action painting. "She's not afraid to be ugly." Or, as it turns out, to admit even at this late date that she doesn't fully understand her character, Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, who pretty much abandoned her painting career to support his. She guesses Krasner "sacrificed what she sacrificed" because "she loved him first and foremost." But she also shrewdly discerns that "she certainly vicariously lived through his genius, and through him she was able to keep herself well placed in the art world."
The ferocity of Harden's performance derives from this mixture of motives. You never quite know where Harden, 41, is coming from, but you do get the sense that the first person she's surprising is herself. Maybe the last to be surprised are her fellow performers, who have been appreciating her onscreen (Miller's Crossing) and onstage (Angels in America) for a decade. Now, following her humorous turn in Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys with this display of devastated loyalty, we can all join in celebrating a wonderful actress.
--R.S., with reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New York
BRUCE GREENWOOD THIRTEEN DAYS
For actors, playing John F. Kennedy must seem a challenge as frustrating as it is irresistible. Impersonating America's dishiest President--satyr and martyr--did not bring lasting luster to the careers of Stephen Collins, William Devane, James Franciscus or Cliff Robertson, let alone Vaughn Meader.