Today was to have been one of those days: Marcia Gay Harden's in town, pushing director-star Ed Harris' Pollock, a biography of painter Jackson Pollock over which Harris obsessed for a decade. In it, Harden plays Pollock's supportive but ultimately, if not tragically, put-upon wife, artist Lee Krasner, a woman who sacrificed her own gift to make sure the world knew of her husband's. If the film is flawed -- the worst that can be said of it is that it leaves too many blanks, presenting Pollock as a narcissistic, drunk, slightly mad genius -- the performances are startling, upsetting, riveting. Harden is proud to be part of the traveling sales presentation; she wants -- no, let's say needs -- you to know how good she is in Pollock. Harden and Harris don't just act; they spar and tangle, like Ali and Foreman reinterpreting Astaire and Rogers.
But this morning, newspapers across the country are filled with the story of how Marcia Gay Harden had been in the shower in a Denver hotel the previous day when the phone rang. It was her lawyer, calling to notify her she'd been nominated for a best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in Pollock. Journalists reveled in recounting how a soaking-wet Harden hugged the man delivering her morning breakfast; she was overjoyed at the news, and her elation has become contagious. After all, she no more expected the nomination on February 13 than she expected to wake up with a third eye. Pollock had been overlooked by the Golden Globes, the so-called forecaster for the Oscars, and despite Harden's being feted by the New York Society of Film Critics, self-proclaimed insiders figured Catherine Zeta-Jones would get the nod for Traffic or Michelle Yeoh would garner the bid for her work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Besides, until last Friday, Pollock wasn't even in theaters; it showed in New York for one week in December, for Oscar consideration, but only now does it slowly make its way into theaters across the country.
At this moment, Harden sits in the dim corner of an empty bar attached to one of those very theaters and wonders just what her shot at the Academy Award really means. Wearing a pale pink suit, she looks at once businesslike and glamorous -- like Sandra Bullock making a presentation to stockholders. She knows the nomination, much less the golden doorstop itself, is no ticket to the chocolate factory; she mentions the names of past Oscar winners -- Marisa Tomei, Geena Davis, Mira Sorvino -- and says, simply, the award "didn't help them."
So she tempers her joy with the knowledge that after 11 years in the film business, she's made only a handful of films of which she's truly proud, among them 1990's Miller's Crossing, her first movie; 1992's Used People, in which she appeared with Shirley MacLaine and Marcello Mastroianni; and 1996's The Spitfire Grill, which she chose for the chance to work with Ellen Burstyn. But even her best films remain little-seen; she's done astonishing work -- Harden plays complex without having to open her mouth -- but in front of the cameras, rarely in front of audiences. Little wonder, then, she's upset that this very morning, USA Today insisted she's best known for her role as Robin Williams' wife in the 1997 remake of Flubber.
"One of my managers said, 'This nomination is so good, because finally people will know who you are. There are so many big directors who have no idea who you are,'" Harden says. "And I was like, 'Oh, uh, good.' I don't give a shit what it does, as long as it helps. It would be dishonest for me to be so polished and so composed and forget the yippee. But at the same time, of course, you have to keep these things in perspective. Had it not occurred, does that say anything about the performance? Does it denigrate the performance? Do you stop believing the performance? You really have to have those thoughts beforehand. I did, because I wasn't expecting a nomination, and so I was prepared to be all stiff upper lip: 'No, it's fine, really.'
"It's interesting, because so many of the questions that Pollock asks are similar things: the relationship between the critic and the artist, the relationship between the audience and the artist, the need for approval by the artist. This is the season where there's an award given out every four minutes from December 'til March, and you had to start thinking -- I had to -- about those things, because Pollock had been overlooked for almost everything."