Holly Hunter is in two movies this summer, so I don’t suppose we have much to complain about. The first was last month’s The Big Sick, in which Hunter and Ray Romano charge in at the hour mark and immediately convey a rich history, a troubled present, and an uncertain future. This week, she stars in Strange Weather, a very different performance as a character with some of the same characteristics. But that’s the thing about Holly Hunter – like many of our best actors, she manages to avoid repetition while maintaining a specialty, a specific quality that tends to come across in all her work, and that we thus assume is part of her own personality. And she’s a good enough actor that we could also be completely incorrect.
The constant among Hunter’s characters is their strength and scrappiness, and how it often reads as stubbornness. Her character, Darcy, is accused of being as much, in Strange Weather, by Clay Watson (Kim Coates), her sometimes-lover, once on a live-in basis – but it didn’t take. “It made me crazy,” she explains, with that very specific side-of-her-mouth Holly Hunter spin. “Never put anything back in the right place.” His take is more pointed: “You couldn’t commit to a man who loves you… You’re stuck and you’re so goddamn stubborn you can’t even see it.”
We know right away that she harbors grief; it’s there in her very first scene, in the little beat before her “no” when she’s asked, “You don’t have any dependents, correct?” She did have one, a son, and he killed himself – some time back. Long enough that, as she puts it, that “some days, he keeps surfacing; some days, not at all.” But it’s always there, and Strange Weather’s early scenes are an evocative portrait of long-term grief, and the inevitable blame, regrets, and second-guessing that just become part of one’s day-to-day.
Then, a thunderbolt. She discovers that one of her son’s classmates in business school has stolen his idea for a fast food chain and made his name with it, and she decides to confront him with proof. But in the process of dramatizing that journey, the film becomes a mystery – she finally has a reason to obsess over her son’s final hours, to try to piece them together and make some sense of them, even if it takes her to a point of discovery where she can’t (and won’t) trust anyone.
In the process, Hunter finds countless key changes for what could’ve easily been a one-note character. Some of them are set up for her, a bit too nakedly; she delivers a monologue to her near-comatose ex-husband that’s too phony by half, an audition monologue in scene’s clothing. The moments that sting are the quiet ones, and the physical ones. The way she calms herself down by laying her arms and hands flat on the table at her moment of discovery; how she peels an orange as an old friend (the late Glenne Headly, who also rarely got the right roles) is telling her secrets; the things she does with her body when her best friend (Carrie Coon, wonderful again) is telling her things she doesn’t want to hear, but knows she has to face.
It’s hard to imagine another actor in the world who could elicit those particular responses to those moments, or who could make the wild narrative swing of the climactic encounter not only play, but play credibly. It does, though, because she (the actor and the character) seems capable of absolutely anything. And yet it feels – in spite of an Oscar win, several nominations, and roles in plenty of beloved films and television shows – like Hollywood never really figured out what to do with Holly Hunter. She had a handful of ingénue roles (Always, Once Around, even Broadcast News) but she challenged our perceptions of a leading lady, what with the big personality (and distinctive accent) that was bursting from her diminutive frame. When an actor, or especially an actress, doesn’t fit into an easy box, they end up doing character roles and TV movies and the like, which Hunter did, and she flourished.
But watching how she takes over her scenes in The Big Sick, or how she runs the table in Strange Weather, leaves you wondering how many great roles she didn’t get because she didn’t fit some bland, bullshit notion of how a “movie star” looks, or acts, or sounds. Whatever the case may be, we have these performances, and we should cherish them. In The Big Sick, she’s tough and funny, warm and kind. In Strange Weather, she’s both maddening and sympathetic, a complicated and recognizably real person in a tough situation. In other words, she’s a Holly Hunter character.
“Strange Weather” is out Friday in limited release. “The Big Sick” is out now everywhere.