When Jane Campion's The Piano premiered in U.S. theaters in November of 1993, not only was it riding a wave of acclaim that began at that year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or, but also a wave of hype for the performance of the film's lead actress. Holly Hunter's role as Ada McGrath was the stuff that Oscarbait dreams are made of. Mute. A single mother in an unforgiving time. Profoundly talented but misunderstood. Not only did Hunter play the piano herself, but she also signed and reportedly taught her onscreen daughter (Anna Paquin) to sign as well. Somewhat rare (or at least rarer than it should be) is when all those Oscarbait ingredients actually add up to something special, and that's what Hunter managed to bring to the table, and likely why she was practically unbeatable throughout the 1993 awards season. For as much as Campion made headlines as only the second woman ever to receive a Best Director nomination (the first to have done so for a film also nominated for Best Picture), it was Hunter who was taking all the trophies home. She even managed to get a bonus "thanks for being you" nomination that same year for The Firm. The Firm! As a sparkplug comic-relief secretary! They loved her that year.
So. An actress arguably at the top of her game, and only in her mid-30s. So why is it that in the 20 years that followed, Holly Hunter has only top-lined three theatrical motion pictures, and none since 1998? Horror stories about what happens to actresses in Hollywood once they turn 40 are myriad, but how we managed to lose Holly Hunter feels more pointed and less fair. In 1995, she headlined two films that debuted in consecutive weeks. The first was Copycat, a psychological thriller with Sigourney Weaver that had the misfortune of coming out in the same fall as Seven. The next week, she starred in director Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays. Copycat did okay business. Home for the Holidays did a good deal worse. Three years later, Hunter would star in the Richard LaGravanese film Living Out Loud, a romantic dramedy that fairly well bombed. And that was it. No matter that all three films were fairly well-reviewed – and in fact, the latter two have since earned rather passionate bases of support. Three mid-budget "failures" and suddenly the woman who'd given us Broadcast News and Raising Arizona was out of the club.
It's important to note that this career downswing wasn't the result of some nefarious plot. Like any career trajectory, it's the result of some combination of circumstance, luck, the moviegoing habits of an often fickle populace, and the reactions that executive types have to those habits. Do things turn out differently if Hunter is able to nail down the lead role in James L. Brooks's As Good As It Gets, providing her with another Oscar-caliber role with her Broadcast News director? With a few marketing tweaks, might larger audiences have found their way to the dark-but-funny charms of Home for the Holidays? It's impossible to say. Certainly, it's easier to contend that studio executives could have been a bit more courageous in their casting mandates, but nobody in Hollywood is looking to lose money, and there were surer bets around. It's the fact that Hunter never stopped delivering good performances in interesting films that stings.
Hunter didn't stop working, of course. She was a steady presence in supporting roles – even getting another Oscar nomination for her stellar work in Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen – and she eventually made the move to television, where, like many of her leading-lady contemporaries, she found better and steadier work than she'd been getting offered elsewhere. Nothing against Saving Grace or Harlan County War or even this year's Top of the Lake, a miniseries that reunited Hunter and Campion, but doesn't Holly Hunter deserve better? Don't we?
In an Oscar column last month, Grantland's Mark Harris echoed the observation of Indiewire's Peter Knegt that one fairly plausible scenario for this year's Best Actress race is that all five nominated women may well end up being over 40 years old. Harris's contention was that such a lineup, consisting of five former winners (in this hypothetical case, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson), would be "dispiriting" and "a field of the usual suspects." But while Harris seems to be on the right track when it comes to prognostication – our Best Actress picks looks to be about the same – I can't imagine what would be the problem with five veteran, venerable actresses getting a stamp of approval from the industry that says "Yes. Let these women headline more films. See their movies." Certainly, an environment where actresses who have proved that they can deliver the goods, even while staring back at us from across the chasm of age 40, would be one that might welcome women like Holly Hunter back to where she belongs.