Oscar 2004: Linney, Laura

September 2004–The strongest performances have been in independent, not mainstream, films. Over the past few weeks, a number of performers have begun to generate Oscar buzz after their films premiered at high-profile festivals like Telluride and Toronto: Johnny Depp (“Finding Neverland”), Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”), Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”). Both Staunton and Barden won the Venice festival’s acting accolades.

The two terrifically gifted Lauras: Dern in “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” (a movie that opened in July) and Linney in “P.S.” should get serious consideration for the Best Actress nomination.

Both actresses serve notice as soon as they appear, and are very much missed when theyre not onscreen. Both women dominate their films, imbuing their parts with great depth, albeit in different ways. Laura Dern shines in a film that’s an ensemble piece, with good work from Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts but a disappointing turn from Peter Krause.

In contrast, Linney is the center of a narrative that’s handicapped by weak secondary characters. Linney also stands a chance to be nominated for Supporting Oscar in the biopic “Kinsey.”

The two Lauras share other similarities in common. Both Dern and Linney are in their late thirties and both have done good work that’s been recognized by the Academy. Dern received Best Actress nomination for “Rambling Rose” (1991), which made Oscar history as the first time that a real-life mother and daughter receive nominations for the same film. Linney was singled out by the Acting Branch for her breakthrough film, the Sundance festival hit, “You Can Count on Me” (2000).

The major weight of “P.S.” falls upon Linney, and she carries it splendidly, driving the narrative forward while juggling certainties and doubts, hopes and apprehensions. Linney plays person who’s her own worst enemy, or as her friend says, “Some people just refuse to let anything good happen to them.”

At 39, Louise Harrington works as admission officer for Columbia Univertsity’s School of the Art. She seems to maintain a warm relationship with her former husband, Peter, a Columbia professor popular with his female students. But something basic is missing from her life–she yearns for real love and attention.

Opportunity knocks when she examines the application of F. Scott Feinstadt (Topher Grace), who bears the exact name as her high school boyfriend, who was killed in a car accident two decades earlier. F. Scott also looks like Louise’s boyfriend, sounds like him, and is a painter like him.

Louise is a woman prone to repeating mistakes and falling into predictable patterns of emotional behavior. When her husband confesses to infidelities during their marriage, Louise makes the mistake and asks how many. In the hundreds, he says. The love affair with F. Scott, who’s half her age, forces Louise to confront her past, raising issues with her harsh, critical mom and her brother, a recovering drug addict, both of whom have the talent to drag down her self-esteem.

Louise spends most of her time alone examining applications. She observes from her office window overlooking the campus young students socializing and making out. Pushing 40, she is still attractive, but feels that life is passing her by. Still sensitive over her failed marriage, Louise is carrying around too much emotional baggage. In a precise, calibrated performance, Linney illuminates what it takes for a smart, proper woman to take a bold action and assume greater control over her life.

Though Linney’s film resume is short, she has already achieved the stillness of a great movie actress. Linney is wonderful at portraying the confusions and longings of a woman who needs to get a grip over her emotional life so she can enjoy the new affair. It’s a quiet, effective performance that shows volumes of unspoken, hidden feelings. She gives her lines a personal rhythm that makes them both candid and credible. Her vulnerable performance so dominates the picture that, when she’s absent from the screen, it triggers flatness and boredom.

Linney disappears into Louise so totally that her performance becomes pure, unadorned by any actorish tricks. She gives herself over to the role and yet she is not lost in it. Deploying extraordinarily economic means, Linney possesses the fascinating quality of all great actors: She shows openness to all experience while at the same time maintaining a certain reserve.

Linney may be lucky this season and score another, supporting Oscar nomination for Richard Condon’s bio, “Kinsey,” in which she’s rumored to excel as Kinsey’s wife.