Museum Piece 

The enduring virtues of Jennifer Connelly

Wednesday, Mar 20 2002

Somewhere on the Sony lot, in an executive office suite, or so rumor has it, there is a production still, blown up to poster size, of Jennifer Connelly. She stands in a glittering ballroom gown atop a sweeping staircase on the set of Mulholland Falls, preparing to make an entrance to some grand Hollywood soiree. A single word has been added as a caption at the bottom: ”Perfection.“

And so, on the occasion of her first Academy Award nomination -- for Best Supporting Actress in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, a role she was a long shot to even read for, much less win the Golden Globe -- perhaps it would not be too much of an imposition to collect here a fan‘s notes on her enduring virtues.

In 21 films now, Connelly has consistently been better than her material, and almost always emerges as starkly memorable from films that often don’t register past their closing credits. A teen model at 10 (she was pictured on the package for Danskin tights), she made her film debut -- termed ”miraculously vivid“ by no less an authority than Pauline Kael -- in Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in America, in 1984 at the age of 14. In little more than a single indelible scene, as she executed a brief ballet routine with sidelong glances toward Robert De Niro’s childhood correlate, unseen but noticed in his voyeuristic perch, she established a template for her long career to come: the luminescent beauty whose mere presence demands a degree of attention that seems almost a violation, yet whose control of her circumstances is no less certain for going, at first blush, undetected.

This remained true up to and including early dues-paying roles in movies like Dario Argento‘s Phenomena and its sequel, in which unspeakable horrors were visited upon her as a young actress. It was true through obligatory teen comedies like Seven Minutes in Heaven, and John Hughes’ Career Opportunities, in which she and Frank Whaley are trapped after-hours in a department store. (A lit major at Yale and, later, Stanford, Connelly once confessed that she had initially envisioned the Hughes film as a kind of ”Pinter play -- two people trapped in a confined place, like The Dumb Waiter.“) And it is indubitably true of her roles as virginal-woman-in-jeopardy or beacon-of-angelic-innocence in Labyrinth, The Rocketeer, The Hot Spot, Mulholland Falls and Dark City.

Supporting roles in Higher Learning and Inventing the Abbotts (produced by Ron Howard) allowed her to break the stranglehold of her girl-next-door persona. And then there was Requiem for a Dream, in which she finally broke a sweat: The pristine beauty that had made her a museum piece elsewhere now became a curse that condemned socialite junkie Marion Silver to a whole new range of unspeakable horrors. For once, Connelly‘s patented somnambulant, wide-eyed delivery, in which each impending word glistens with controlled urgency, was married to the dream state of the waking heroin addict, and the brief flashes of anger, sorrow and degradation now foregrounded the chops that had always been evident to all but secular observers. Even a bit part in Pollock, where her shimmering schoolgirl coquette, Ruth Klingman, is only around long enough to distract Ed Harris during his final artistic act -- a spray of metal and human wreckage across a roadside copse of birches -- manages to eclipse everything around it.

So that now, even as A Beautiful Mind suffers the strategic fallout of its revisionist license and co-star Russell Crowe outruns his reputation as an ill-tempered bully, Connelly stands poised once again to emerge unscathed from her material. In this oddest of all Oscar years, cursed by the actual millennium, where the Best Actress nominees are among the finite excitements in a torpid Oscar field, we salute someone who certainly -- and despite Universal and DreamWorks’ choice to pursue the lesser nomination -- deserves a place among them.

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