Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Elijah Wood

Hailed as Hollywood's most gifted child actor of the 1990s, this handsome, dark-haired performer with large protuberant eyes began as a model and moved on to commercials and TV-movies before starting a successful career in features. Elijah Wood entered film with small parts in "Back to the Future II" (1989) and "Internal Affairs" (1990). His talent only began to manifest with a charming turn as the young grandson of immigrants (and alter ego of writer-director Barry Levinson) growing up in Baltimore in the autobiographical family saga "Avalon" (1990). Wood further demonstrated his dramatic chops with a starring role in "Radio Flyer" (1992), a harrowing fantasy-tinged tale of child abuse. He again occupied center stage in Disney's adaptation of the Mark Twain classic "The Adventures of Huck Finn" (1993). Wood also worked in TV, notably in "Witness" (1993), a "Showtime 30-Minute Movie", wherein he played a Jewish boy who haunts a Nazi soldier (Gary Sinise) who takes Jews to the gas chamber.

Wood more than held his own against the once burgeoning boy icon Macauley Culkin in the clever and chilling "The Good Son" (1993). Playing a troubled son who recently lost his mother to illness, Wood gave an impressively nuanced performance encompassing loss, anger, and growing anxiety about the sadistic machinations of his twisted yet outwardly angelic cousin. He shifted gears to outlandish comedy as the star of Rob Reiner's "North" (1994) playing an apparently perfect child who, feeling underappreciated by his distracted parents (Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), becomes a free agent. Young North encountered an all-star supporting cast as he wandered the globe in search of more appropriate parents in this critically lambasted and commercially orphaned feature. The same year, Wood co-starred as Kevin Costner's son in the coming-of-age tale "The War". After a two year absence, he returned to the big screen in "Flipper" (1996), as a troubled youth, sent to live with his bohemian uncle, who encounters a boisterous dolphin. Wood followed with a fine portrayal of a troubled teen coming of age in the 70s in Ang Lee's superior "The Ice Storm" (1997).

Now of an age to play older teen roles, but possessing far more talent and experience than most of his contemporaries, Wood shied away from the high school-set romantic comedies and self-referential horror flicks that were inundating theaters in the late 1990s. When he did appear on the big screen in more exploitative projects, he managed to choose the best of the genres, taking featured roles in Mimi Leder's above-average Armageddon actioner "Deep Impact" and the Robert Rodriguez-directed, Kevin Williamson-scripted sharp and scary sci-fi thriller "The Faculty" (both 1998). A large part in the James Toback misfire "Black and White" (2000) didn't derail Wood, who instead emerged better for the effort, seeming more adult and more versatile after his work in the mostly-improvised, gritty drama. In 2001, he was featured in the Encore-aired independent "Life Without Dick" and followed with Edward Burns' "Ash Wednesday" (lensed 2001), playing the younger brother of the director-actor in this look at the Irish vs. Italian gang wars of the 1980s.

Cast in the long-awaited three-part feature adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings", Wood started a new chapter in his career. Having landed the sought-after part of Frodo Baggins, the actor was now a main player in a trilogy that was swarming with pre-release buzz. With "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001), "The Two Towers" (2002) and "The Return of the King" (2003), Wood would become Frodo for three consecutive years in three blockbuster films. Thanks to his established versatility and remarkable talent, the actor was likely to meet a future career free from typecasting despite this primary role in the legendary fantasy franchise, while reaping the rewards of a starring role in a high-profile film.

Hot on the heels of the trilogy, Wood quickly appeared in his first non-Frodo role in the off-kilter but highly effective "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004), playing an ethically challenged lab technician who helps erase heartbreaking memories but then uses his knowledge of an unknowing former patient's (Kate Winslett) past relationship to woo her. He then had a chillingly silent turn as the cannibalistic, bespectacled serial killer Kevin Roarke in director Robert Rodriguez and writer-artist Frank Miller's visually arresting adaptation of Miller's crime noir comic book series "Sin City" (2005), appearing opposite Mickey Rourke in the segment "The Hard Goodbye."

Wood rounded out 2005 with “Everything is Illuminated,” playing a young man on a funny and rather bizarre journey to the Ukraine in search of what happened to the woman who saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis destroyed the city where he was born during World War II. For the animated “Happy Feet” (2006), Wood provided the voice for Mumble, a vocally-challenged penguin who discovers his only chance at wooing a mate is through his slick dance moves. Then in “Bobby” (2006), first time director Emilio Estevez’s engaging look at the 16 hours prior to Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of several guests and employees. Wood played a young man about to be sent to fight in Vietnam who plans to marry a young woman (Lindsay Lohan) he barely knows.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Will Smith

A charismatic African-American rap star and actor of film and TV, Will Smith began as half of the Grammy-winning duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and later rose to fame making his acting debut starring as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (NBC, 1991-96), a nice, jug-eared, streetwise kid from the Philadelphia 'hood adjusting to culture shock in moneyed Bel Air. The role allowed him to offer a squeaky clean image of hip-hop culture which proved non-threatening to primetime values. With his enhanced image as a role model, Smith became a regular face on TV in youth-oriented specials and public affairs programs and, in the show's final (1995-96) season, became its executive producer. He then parlayed his status as a TV star into a feature acting career, debuting in a drama about teenage runaways entitled "Where the Day Takes You" (1992) and following up with a supporting role in "Made in America" (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson.

Smith's first lead in features was a dramatic stretch for the young performer. In the film version of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993), he played a young gay hustler and con man who ingratiates himself with an affluent white couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) by posing as the son of Sidney Poitier and a friend of their children who are away at college. The demanding role required Smith to work with an acting coach and a dialect coach three times a week for three months prior to rehearsals. The part also called for a homosexual kiss that, even after being paid, he refused to film. Despite some critical carping, Smith garnered largely impressive notices for his portrayal amidst a cast of seasoned acting pros.

After this acclaim, Smith joined fellow sitcom star Martin Lawrence in "Bad Boys" (1995), turning their lot over to the hands of veteran action-comedy producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. In the film, Smith was Mike Lowery, a wild bachelor cop, and Lawrence was his partner, a family man. The comedy of the piece arose from the fact the duo have to switch places to nab a heroin ring. Made for a modest budget, "Bad Boys" grossed $65 million domestically and twice that with foreign distribution included. Smith's quote for work in feature films skyrocketed past $5 million. Although by the time he was 20 he had made and spent more than $1 million and was deeply in debt to the IRS, he had settled down by age 27 and was focused on career goals. After "Bad Boys", his feature film dance card became full. He made a cameo appearance in Lawrence's "A Thin Line Between Love and Hate" and proved modestly revelatory as a military pilot trying to save the USA from an alien invasion in the sci-fi blockbuster "Independence Day" (1996). Smith again tangled with space aliens to box-office success teamed with Tommy Lee Jones as the "Men in Black" (1997), roles they eventually repeated in the inevitable sequel "Men in Black II" (2002).

Based on his back-to-back hits, Smith moved firmly to the A-list and began to be offered a variety of roles. In the 1998 thriller "Enemy of the State", he offered a likable performance as a labor lawyer targeted by the National Security Agency after he accidentally acquires evidence pivotal to a politically-motivated killing. Cast as Civil War-era government agent James West in "Wild Wild West" (1999), loosely based on the popular 1960s TV series, Smith's laid-back charm and charisma were overshadowed by overblown special effects. Similarly, Smith seemed at sea as a mysterious caddy who dispenses inspirational support to a washed-up golf pro (Matt Damon) in the fable "The Legend of Bagger Vance" (2000). Most reviewers agreed, though, that Smith managed to keep the character from devolving completely into cliche -- although the script and direction moved him close to it.

In 2001, Smith realized a long-held dream to portray renowned boxer Muhammad Ali in a biopic. Director Michael Mann decided to concentrate on the tumultuous period in the fighter's life, from his surprise win over Sonny Liston through his difficulties with the draft to his regaining the crown of heavyweight champion defeating George Foreman in the now famous Rumble in the Jungle in "Ali" (2001). Smith bulked up gaining over thirty pounds and followed the same training regimen as Ali as part of his pre-shooting preparation. The onscreen results impressed many critics while others felt that Smith came close but didn't quite capture the boxing champion. The Academy, however, acknowledged Smith's efforts and included him as one of the 2001 nominees for Best Actor.

In 2002, Smith followed up his acclaimed performance with a couple of would-be blockbuster sequels generating solid ticket sales but offering little creative innovation, with the actor reuniting with Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black II" (2002) and reteaming with Martin Lawrence and director Michael Bay for the sequel "Bad Boys 2" (2003). His next role, as a futuristic police detective in the big screen adaptation of Isaac Asimov's sci-fi classic "I, Robot" (2004), cast him in a familiar blockbuster hero vein which was crowd-pleasing if not horizon-expanding, and he lent his distinctive persona to DreamWorks' CGI-animated underwater underworld "Shark Tale" (2004) as Oscar, the mouthy young fish who ends up in hot water after the death of a shark mob boss. Then the actor tried a more straighforward comedy with "Hitch" (2005), playing a smooth professional date doctor whose technique goes awry when he meets his own potential lady love (Eva Mendes)--the film offered a refreshing, non-action role for Smith that fully capitalized on his considerable charisma and romantic appeal.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mel Gibson

Though introduced to American audiences as Australian, the strikingly handsome, blue-eyed Mel Gibson actually hailed from Peekskill, New York. (He and his family had emigrated Down Under in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.) After a season onstage with Sydney's South Australian Theatre Company where he portrayed both Oedipus and Henry IV, he made his name as the leather-clad, post-apocalyptic action hero of George Miller's "Mad Max" and in the radically different "Tim" (both 1979), for which he picked up his first of two Australian Film Institute Awards as Best Actor, playing a retarded handyman in love with Piper Laurie. Peter Weir's World War I drama "Gallipoli" and "Mad Max 2" (both 1981), Miller's transcendent follow-up to "Mad Max" (released in the USA as "The Road Warrior" since American audiences knew nothing of the barely-released earlier movie), established Gibson as an international star. "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982), Weir's film about the political upheavals of 1960s Indonesia, gave him his first romantic lead opposite Sigourney Weaver and launched him as a sex symbol.

After a turn as a reluctantly mutinous Fletcher Christian opposite Anthony Hopkins' Captain Bligh in "The Bounty", Gibson made an inauspicious American debut in "The River" (both 1984), playing a character so coldly stubborn that few could empathize. The well-made but gloomy "Mrs. Soffel" (also 1984) followed quickly before he returned to Australia to wrap up the "Mad Max" series with "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985), a cumbersome satire with less action, a bigger budget, Tina Turner and Max, mostly on foot, looking like a wandering prophet. Gibson then took two years off to concentrate on his family, returning to the screen in "Lethal Weapon" (1987), for which he created perhaps his most popular character, Martin Riggs, an explosive homicide cop paired with the long-suffering Danny Glover. The film propelled Gibson to superstardom, spawned three sequels (to date) and allowed him to incorporate his innate playfulness as part of an unusually rich characterization for a modern action hero. Called at various times "practical joker", "eternal adolescent" and "fun-loving fourth Stooge", Gibson has remained a "regular guy" who doesn't take himself or his work too seriously and consistently comes across as relaxed and natural.

Gibson sandwiched the meandering "Tequila Sunrise" (1988) and even more disappointing "Bird on a Wire" (1990) around a blockbuster "Lethal Weapon 2" (1989), and his patented swagger could not save the alleged action-comedy "Air America" (1990) from the inadequacy of its script. Next, in a surprising career move, he opted to take his shot at Shakespeare's Melancholy Dane in Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" (1990). While the film was problematic, Gibson turned in a finely rendered portrait of the famed prince in the first project produced by his Icon Productions. He continued in a more sentimental vein with the sudsy "Forever Young" (1992), scored another huge hit with "Lethal Weapon 3" (1993), then made his directorial debut with "The Man Without a Face" (1993), a drama in which he hid his good looks behind the heavy makeup of a burn victim. After this mildly popular effort, Gibson returned to rowdy commercial fare with "Maverick" (1994), teaming for a fourth time with "Lethal Weapon" director Richard Donner for a 90s adaptation of the 60s TV Western-comedy series, which shrewdly parlayed his dashing rogue qualities into more box-office bliss.

Gibson returned to the director's chair for "Braveheart" (1995), a project far bigger than any with which he had been previously involved in any capacity. Clad in a kilt, sporting blue war paint and wielding a big sword, Gibson starred as Sir William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish nobleman persecuted for his efforts to free Scotland from English rule. Wags dubbed the film "Mad Mac", but the Academy deemed it worthy, voting it five awards including Best Picture and honoring Gibson as Best Director. Later that same year, in addition to providing the speaking voice for John Smith in Disney's "Pocahontas", Gibson made his screen singing debut. His collaboration with Ron Howard, "Ransom" (1996), another box-office hit that earned $35 million its first week, preceded "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), his fifth film with Donner and a surprising commercial dud compared to their previous work, especially with Julia Roberts starring opposite Gibson. The actor-director pair rebounded with "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998), its healthy box office reaffirming Riggs-Murtaugh (in reportedly their last outing) as a bankable team.

Gibson next starred as a murderous thief bent on getting his "Payback" (1999), a loose reworking of the same Donald Westlake novel that had inspired John Boorman's 1967 classic thriller "Point Blank". Playing to Gibson's strengths, the urban Western veered problematically from dark and sinister to comic and whimsical but still managed a respectable box office. His star power could not make Wim Wenders' "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000) a mainstream success, and though the director's visual skills were on display, the underdeveloped, not very interesting story made it a tough sell at the art-houses. Gibson then joined "popcorn" specialists Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich for Emmerich's Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot" (also 2000), scripted by Robert Rodat. Essentially a Western, "The Patriot" cast him as a retired "gunslinger", still spooked by his memories of the French and Indian War, who clings fast to his pacifism until his son falls into enemy hands, triggering his course of revenge. After voicing Rocky the Rooster in the animated "Chicken Run", a sort of feathered "Great Escape", he rounded out the busy year as star of Nancy Meyers' romantic comedy "What Women Want" (both 2000).

Aside from making Gibson vehicles, his Icon Productions has produced projects like the Beethoven biopic "Immortal Beloved" (1994, directed by Bernard Rose), the remake of "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina" (1997, also helmed by Rose), the black comedy "Ordinary Decent Criminals" (a fictionalized version of the life of Irish thief Martin Cahill) and the above average ABC biopic "The Three Stooges" (both 2000).

In 2002, Gibson appeared in the war film "We Were Soldiers," directed by Gibson's "Braveheart" scribe Randall Wallace and in "Signs," the much anticipated M. Night Shyamalan movie about crop circles. The actor was almost unrecognizable behind wig of thinning hair and bulbous prosthetics in the 2003 film adaptation of Dennis Potter's acclaimed "The Singing Detective," and while the film did not burn up the box office reports Gibson, who also produced, earned personal kudos for employing his old "Air America" co-star Robert Downey, Jr., to play the lead, despite Downey's prior difficulties with drug arrests. Gibson next ignited a wildfire of controversy with his third directoral effort "The Passion of the Christ" (2004), a hard-hitting, highly bloody depiction of the Gospels in which Gibson, a devout Catholic who was inspired to make the film after struggling with his own personal demons, wanted to illustrate the severe suffering and selfless sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Long before the film was released, it came under intense scrutiny from religious groups and was criticized early on for intimations of anti-Semitism in the way Jews were shown to contribute to Jesus' persecution--an element that was not aided by some injudicious, intolerant-sounding comments made by Gibson's father, Hutton. Critics were polarized by the film, many citing the violence and gore as excessive, while others praised Gibson's unflinching portrayal--With interest in the controversial film at a fever pitch when in opened, "The Passion of the Christ" debuted to box office blockbuster-sized grosses.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jake Gyllenhaal

Brown-haired with fresh-faced good looks, thoughtful young actor Jake Gyllenhaal made an impressive mark with a starring role in the 1999 feel-good favorite "October Sky". While this marked his starring debut, he had appeared in prior films in small supporting roles, debuting in 1991's "City Slickers" with a brief turn that earned acclaim from screen dad Billy Crystal, if not public notice. Forbidden by his parents to take a role in Disney's successful hockey comedy "The Mighty Ducks" (1992) as it was a two-month long location shoot, Gyllenhaal next appeared in the little-seen children's adventure "Josh and S.A.M." (1993), playing a mean stepbrother to the title characters. The son of director Stephen Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner, the actor was also featured in two of his father's films, "A Dangerous Woman" (1993, also scripted by his mom) and "Homegrown" (1998).

The following year Gyllenhaal made his starring debut in "October Sky", a film based on the real life story of NASA engineer Homer Hickham Jr. The young actor played Hickham, a boy interested in rocket science whose brilliant mind and staunch dedication, even in the face of a discouraging father, wrote him a ticket out of his dead-end mining town. Although he had relatively little film experience, his performance in "October Sky" proved Gyllenhaal an actor on the ascent. Featured in nearly every scene, he emerged as a highly watchable screen presence, giving a most compelling and sincere performance. While his unassuming good looks and scholarly lifestyle didn't grab many headlines, his talent and respect for his craft would promise the likable new arrival a bright future in film.

It wasn't long before Gyllenhaal got a chance to shine again, when he starred in the haunting fantasy film "Donnie Darko" in 2001. Also that year, he starred in the offbeat comedy "Bubble Boy" as well as the drama "Highway" with Jared Leto and Selma Blair. In addition, Gyllenhaal starred opposite Jennifer Aniston in "The Good Girl" (2002) as well as having appearing in the Nicole Holofcener directed independent film "Lovely and Amazing."

Gyllenhaal's most high profile role would come in "Moonlight Mile"(2002) where he starred with Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter and Susan Sarandon. He played a young man whose fiancé is accidentally killed and who finds himself spending a great deal of time grieving with her family. Gyllenhaal was nearly cast as the superhero Spider-Man for the sequel "Spider-Man 2" (2004) when a dispute between the role's originator, Tobey Maguire, and the studio almost resulted in recasting (Gyllenhaal was also romantically involved with the franchise's female lead, Kirsten Dunst). Instead, he was cast in another big-budget summer film that went head-to-head against the "Spider-Man" sequel: in director Roland Emmerich's disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow" (2004) Gyllenhaal played the son of a climatologist (Dennis Quaid) who is trapped in New York City as a new ice age descends on the planet.

The actor then had his most creatively productive year to date in 2005, appearing in no less than four features. First up was "Proof," director John Madden's film adaptation of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize winning play, in which the actor played a self-effacing math student who idolizes his brilliant but schizophrenic teacher (Anthony Hopkins) and forms a tenuous bond with his troubled daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). The film featured Gyllenhaal's most mature work to date, and positioned him well for future roles as a romantic leading man who could hold his own among acting heavyweights. If "Proof" was confirmation of his talent, his next feature that year was a revelation: "Jarhead" (2005) was director Sam Mendes' insightful, psychological adaptation of former U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford's bestselling memoir of his service during the 1990 Gulf War in Iraq, and Gyllenhaal turned in a startlingly deep and effective portrayal a Swoff, a naive, callow youth who enlists in the Marine Corp and is highly trained to be a sniper, but finds himself mired in paranoia, boredom and existential angst when he is stationed in Iraq but not allowed to put his skills to use as nations stood on the brink of war. Gyllenhaal was thoroughly convincing and took his performance to dark, probing places that had not seemed likely earlier in his career, appearing to mature on screen as the film unfolds.

Even better was Gyllenhaal's turn in director Ang Lee's haunting and heartbreaking drama "Brokeback Mountain" (2005), an adaptation and expansion of E. Annie Proulx's renowned story which cast the actor as Jack Twist, who on a 1960s sheep drive across a mountain range enters into a homosexual relationship with his closeted fellow ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), an agonizing romance that continues sporadically over several decades. Gyllenhaal's character is far more open and expressive than his partner, and the actor convincingly portrayed the enduring emotions—as well as aging convincingly—in a performance that showed even more depth and sensitivity than any he'd attempted previously. After a high-profile no-show at the Golden Globes (he was not nominated), Gyllenhaal earned an Oscar nod for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal spent the remainder of 2005 filming “Zodiac,” a crime thriller about the famed serial killer who may have been responsible for 37 murders around San Francisco from 1966 to 1978.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Robert Downey Jr.

This gifted but troubled actor made his first screen appearance at age five, playing a puppy in "Pound" (1970), directed by father Robert Downey. After dropping out of high school, Robert Downey Jr began working odd jobs, including being a piece of living art in a SoHo nightclub in NYC. He received his initial break from his father with a small part in "America" (filmed in 1982, but released in 1986), but did not appear in a credited screen role until 1983's "Baby, It's You", directed by John Sayles. After a series of small roles in slight teen films, ("Weird Science" 1985, "Back to School" 1986), Downey landed his breakthrough role as the tragic, cocaine-addicted Julian in "Less Than Zero" (1987).

The actor went on to give mature performances as the idealistic lawyer opposite James Woods in "True Believer" and as the confused romantic hero of "Chances Are" (both 1989). Downey delivered a tour-de-force as the title character in Richard Attenborough's biopic "Chaplin" (1992). Though the film wasn't well received at the box-office, the leading player was universally praised for his ability to capture the essence of the world's favorite little tramp and earned a deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination. He followed up with "Heart and Souls", a light comedy, co-starring Charles Grodin and Kyra Sedgwick and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (both 1993), in which he was a quirky make-up artist. The following year, Downey received critical praise as an Australian talk-show host broadcasting during a prison riot in Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and offered a deft comic turn as Marisa Tomei's would-be lover in "Only You". In 1995, he had three high profile roles: as Holly Hunter's manic gay brother in Jodie Foster's "Home for the Holidays"; as a 17th-century court physician who falls out of favor with the King and seeks redemption in a Quaker hospital in the lavish "Restoration"; and as Annette Bening's brother in Richard Loncraine's "Richard III", starring Ian McKellen.

Downey's erratic off-screen behavior had often proved fodder for the tabloids but it was a June 1996 arrest that was the beginning of the actor's troubles with the law. When the police stopped Downey for speeding, they discovered drugs and an unloaded firearm in his car. The actor went in and out of rehab (and miraculously continued to work in films) as part of a sentence of three years' probation. In December 1997, however, after missing mandatory drug tests, he was re-arrested and jailed. Two years later, after repeated offenses, Downey was sentenced to a prison term, despite outcries and pleas that the actor be placed in rehab.

While his legal troubles were brewing and despite struggling with his addictions, Downey remained focused on his career and delivered a handful of memorable performances. In 1997's "One Night Stand", he was moving as a gay man stricken with AIDS and he proved effective as an associate of Kenneth Branagh's Southern lawyer in "The Gingerbread Man" (1998), directed by Robert Altman. Long-time friend James Toback offered the actor a pair of challenging roles: a womanizer confronted by a pair of his lovers in "Two Girls and a Guy" (1998) and a documentary filmmaker's homosexual husband who makes a pass at Mike Tyson in "Black & White" (1999). Downey also offered a slyly comic supporting turn as Michael Douglas' gay editor in the grossly overlooked "Wonder Boys" (2000).

After being incarcerated for a year, Downey was released from prison in August 2000 when an appeals court ruled that he had had served more than enough time to fulfill his sentence. While continuing to struggle with his addictions (upon his release from prison, he immediately entered a drug treatment facility), the actor also fielded offers for work. The first job he accepted was playing a recurring role as a love interest to Calista Flockhart's titular "Ally McBeal" on that Fox TV series. Downey debuted in the role in the fall of 2000 and quickly won over viewers and critics. But his personal troubles persisted. During the Thanksgiving holidays in 2000, the actor was arrested on weapons and drug possession charges but cooperated with police. Two months later, he picked up a Golden Globe Award for his work on the Fox show and his future appeared to be bright, but in April 2001, just prior to the end of the filming season, Downey was once again arrested for being under the influence of a controlled substance. Producer David E. Kelley summarily fired him and re-wrote the series' last episode (in which his character was supposed to marry Ally). Despite earning an Emmy nomination for his work on the show, there was little chance of his ever returning to reprise the part. In July 2001, Downey was sentenced to three years probation, including one-year in a drug rehab center.

Despite his many problems with sobriety and the criminal justice system, Downey found many potential collaborators but it proved difficult to find bond companies to insure him while working on the set. His old friend and co-star Mel Gibson helped re-launch Downey's career by casting the actor in the Gibson-produced screen adaptation of authot Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" (2003), a disjointed hodge-podge of a film in which Downey was no less than superb as the titular hero Dan Dark, lost in a musical noir fantasy. He was also nicely cast opposite Halle Berry in the otherwise preposterous horror thriller "Gothika" (2003), playing Berry's colleague, a sympathetic psychologist who tries to determine if she's crazy or possessed by an evil spirt. He next appeared in the Steven Soderbergh-directed segment of the anthology film "Eros" (2005) titled "Equilibrium," playing a 1950s advertising executive under enormous pressure at work, who, during visits to his psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), explores reasons why his stress manifest itself in a recurring erotic dream. He then teamed with Soderbergh's producing partner George Clooney to appear in a supporting role in Clooney's second directiral effort, "Good Night and Good Luck" (2005). In the film Downey evidinced his considerable charm as Joe Wershba, part of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow's news team, who tries to hide his secret marriage with a co-worker (Patricia Clarkson) as they take on Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

That same year, Downey sparkled when headlined screenwriter-director Shane Black's pastiche/tribute to the hard-boiled action genre "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (205), playing a less-than-bright petty thief who is brought to Los Angeles for an unlikely audition and finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation, along with his high school dream girl (Michelle Monaghan) and a gay but tough-as-nails detective (Val Kilmer) who has been training him for his upcoming role. Coming into 2006, Downey--who due to his drug troubles had resoterd to paying for his completion bond insurance himself or through friends in order to work--had no less than four films due and several on his slate, including Disney's remake of "The Shaggy Dog," the sci-fi thriller "Scanner Darkly" and a reteaming with Curtis Hanson, "Lucky You."

Monday, November 13, 2006

Scarlett Johansson

A pouty and pretty strawberry blonde New Yorker who commenced her career a child actor with instincts, skills and a streetwise grace that far outpaced her age, Scarlett Johansson first came to attention playing the daughter of Sean Connery and Kate Capshaw terrorized by Blair Underwood in "Just Cause" (1995). Having made her stage debut at age eight in 1993's "Sophistry" at Playwrights Horizons Theatre, the young player also studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute. Her screen debut in Rob Reiner's disastrous "North" (1994) was less than memorable, but Johansson has maintained an even career, impressing with her fully-realized characterizations in nearly every showing.

She got noticed as one of Eric Schaeffer's wise charges in "If Lucy Fell" and took a co-starring role in the understated independent "Manny & Lo" (both 1996), a perfect vehicle for the actress to prove her talents. Johansson's finely crafted portrayal of Amanda (Manny), a rather sensible 11-year-old who escapes from a foster home and runs away with her 16-year old sister Laurel (Lo) earned her critical praise and led directly to her casting in the high profile but disappointing 1997 release "Home Alone 3" and the highly-anticipated romance "The Horse Whisperer" (1998). In the latter, Johansson landed the coveted role of Grace, a youngster who suffers a physically and emotionally debilitating riding accident. When her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) turns to a horse trainer (Robert Redford) for assistance, romance blooms, and as Johansson turned what could have been little more than a two-dimensional plot device into a full-fledged character, an actress bloomed.

All but disappearing after this film-saving turn, the performer resurfaced three years later in the independent favorite "Ghost World" (2001), starring alongside Thora Birch as the more pragmatic of two best friends who have just graduated from high school and are making plans for the future amidst their own adventures, both real and invented. Snarky but somehow sweet, her Rebecca didn't get the screen time and controversial storyline of compatriot Enid (Birch) but nonetheless impressed in her smaller role. Later that year, she played a young Hungarian girl left behind when her refugee family flees their homeland in a Cold War political climate in "An American Rhapsody" and earned even more indie credentials as a piano-playing teenager who catches the attention of a crafty barber (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Coen brothers' acclaimed period noir "The Man Who Wasn't There". Taking a break from this more heady material, Johansson would next battle giant spiders in the surprisingly fun sci-fi comedy "Eight-Legged Freaks" (2002).

Johansson's true breakout performance would come--like gangbusters--in "Lost in Translation" (2003), writer-director Sophia Coppola's wonderfully romantic film about Charlotte, an emotionally adrift young married tourist in her 20s, left to her own devices in Tokyo while her self-involved photographer husband is on a shoot, who meets and forms a deep, complex relationship with Bob Harris (Bill Murray) an equally disaffected 50-something Hollywood actor. The actress—only 18 during filming—is a revelation in the picture, displaying a rare, multilayered chemistry with Murray despite their age difference. Their rapport, a first tentative, then confident and cozy and then suddenly awkward and sexual, fuels the movie and carries many scenes completely without dialogue. Her subtle yet knockout performance, wildly praised by critics, was poised to rocket Johansson to new career heights. Hot on the heels of that role, Johansson also dazzled audiences in the indie "Girl With a Pearl Earring" (2003), a speculative account of the life of Griet, a 16-year-old girl who appears in Johannes Vermeer's (Colin Firth's) most famous painting. As a result of her two strong 2003 performances, at age 19 Johansson received a pair Golden Globe nominations--one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama (for "Girl With a Pearl Earring") and another for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy (for "Lost In Translation").

Johansson's next vehicle, made before her big breakout, was the limp teen caper movie "The Perfect Score" (2004) in which she played the thrill-seeking, daddy-loathing member of a gang of high school students plotting an ambitious scheme to swipe the key to the SAT exam, and she voiced Mindy in the animated "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" (2004). She was better served with a pair of challenging roles released simultaneously at the end of 2004: first, she added depth to her supporting role as the daughter of a middle-aged ad salesman (Dennis Quaid) who becomes involved with her father's new young boss (Topher Grace) in writer-director Paul Weitz's adult comedy "In Good Company"; next, she played the headstrong teen Pursy Will, who returns to her late mother's home to unexpectedly share it with a pair of booze-soaked intellectual boarders (John Travolta and Gabriel Macht) for the Southern-influenced character drama "A Love Song for Bobby Long." In both films Johansson's potent combination of adolescent freshness and wise-beyond-her-years maturity helped breath a compelling realism into her roles.

Johansson next tried the sci-fi action genre with director Michael Bay's misfire "The Island" (2005), playing a woman living in an orderly environment in a post-Apocalyptic world hoping to win relocation to the only remaining pure bio-zone on the planet, only to discover her world is a facade for a more sinister scenario. The actress fared better with a more accomplished auteur when she appeared in Woody Allen's serious-minded film "Match Point" (2005) playing Nola, a sensual but struggling American actress in London who takes up an affair with her ex-beau's brother-in-law (Jonathan Rhys-Myers), and her demanding nature soon forces the man to chose between her and his comfortable, status-granting marriage. The result was one of Allen's best works in years, and the writer-director quickly drafter Johansson to star in his next project "Scoop" (lensed 2005), a romantic comedy that cast her as an American student in London who becomes involved with an aristocrat.

After “Scoop” came and went without much fanfare, Johansson costarred in “The Black Dahlia” (2006), Brian De Palma’s take on James Ellroy’s complicated and richly-textured noir thriller about two hard-edged cops (Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart) who descend into obsession, corruption and sexual degeneracy as they investigate the brutal murder of would-be actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), who was found tortured and vivisected in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. Johansson played the girlfriend of Detective Leland Blanchard (Eckhart), a relationship that threatens the two detectives from finding the murderer because of her growing attraction to his partner, Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Hartnett). She next appeared in “The Prestige” (2006), a supernatural thriller set in 1878 about two stage magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale) who clash in a saloon during a fraudulent séance and maintain an ongoing feud that takes both to the top of their careers, but results in terrible consequences.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Jennifer Aniston

Thanks to a rare combiniation of winsome girl-next-door charm and vulnerability, wholesome sex appeal and whip-smart comic timing, Jennifer Aniston found TV stardom playing Rachel Green, the spoiled rich girl making her way in life as a waitress and fashion buyer who relies on her "Friends" in the hit NBC sitcom, becoming one of the most popular actresses of her era. The petite, attractive actress grew up around show business; her godfather was actor Telly Savalas, her mother was a model and actress and her father had a career as a soap opera player. After graduating from NYC's famed High School for the Performing Arts in 1987, Aniston embarked on her career which consisted of TV commercials and a handful of Off-Broadway productions.

At age 20, she headed west and soon landed roles in a string of short-lived sitcoms, generally cast as spoiled or bratty siblings as in "Molloy" (Fox, 1989) and "Ferris Bueller" (NBC, 1990-91). A stint on the Fox variety sketch series "The Edge" (1992-93) further honed her comedic skills; she is perhaps best-recalled as a member of the paranoid, weapons-toting 'Armed Family'. After an agent suggested she lose weight, Aniston shed 30 pounds and won the role of Rachel on "Friends" (1994-2004). Although her shag hairdo got a lot of attention, she proved to be a gifted light comedienne, skillfully moving her character from a pampered girl to a self-reliant woman, along the way, engaging in a romance with the divorced Ross Geller (played by David Schwimmer), and later with the thick but loveable Joey (Matt LeBlanc). The role made Aniston a superstar and earned her four successive Emmy nominations (2000-2003), twice as Best Supporting Actress and twice as Best Lead Actress--she would take home the Lead Actress Emmy in 2002, as well as a Golden Globe in 2003.

While Aniston had appeared in the low-budget schlocky horror outing "Leprechaun" (1993), her small screen success led to feature offers. She tried to move slowly away from her TV image with supporting turns as the unhappily married wife of a womanizing stockbroker in Edward Burns' "She's the One" (1996) and an acerbic cameo as an overwhelmed young woman juggling career and motherhood in the otherwise forgettable "'Til There Was You" (1997). Her first lead, as an ambitious advertising executive who creates a fake boyfriend to insure her climb up the corporate ladder, in "Picture Perfect" (1997) proved both a critical and box-office disappointment but Aniston bounced back in the more serious role of a pregnant woman who forms a bond with her gay roommate in "The Object of My Affection" (1998). She had what was essentially a supporting role in "Office Space" (1999) and voiced the mother of the boy who discovers "The Iron Giant" (also 1999) in that underrated animated feature.

In 1997 Aniston became romantically to the handsome movie actor Brad Pitt, placing them on magazine covers as Hollywood's reigning "It" Couple for years to come. They married in July 2000 in a storybook Malibu wedding illuminated by fireworks. The couple worked together professionally only once, when Pitt appeared on a 2001 episode of "Friends" as a formerly fat high school class mate and onetime pal of Courteney Cox's Monica with a long-simmering resentment of Aniston's Rachel.

Aniston next appeared as the love interest to a salesman (Mark Wahlberg) who joins a heavy metal band in "Rock Star" (2001), anchoring the lightweight, high-concept film with its most convincing and emotional presence. In 2002, Aniston made an impressive debut on the indie-film scene as a conflicted housewife/retail worker in "The Good Girl," playing a bored and forlorn Midwestern housewife who discovers that throwing caution to the wind and bucking her staid life is not everthing she imagined it would. The following year, Aniston paired with Jim Carrey for the hit comedy feature "Bruce Almighty" (2003) as the girlfriend of a man gifted with God's powers. She fared even better in her follow-up "Along Came Polly" (2004), playing against type as a free spirit who teaches her risk-fearing new beau (Ben Stiller) how to take chances. The role cemented Aniston's status as a potential A-list movie star just as "Friends" drew to an end in May 2004.

As she moved on to her next projects, Aniston found herself in the center of a media tempest when she announced her split from Pitt, who subsequently appeared to responsible for the breakup when it appeared he began a romance with actress Angelina Jolie on the set of their film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (2005). The drama played out in the entertainment media for several months, with Aniston finally giving a teary-eyed interview to Vanity Fair that, while taking some pains to play fair and amicable, decidely cast her as the unsuspecting victim and Pitt as the cad. Ironically, during the media firestorm Aniston was shooting "The Break-Up" (lensed 2005) in Chicago with actor Vince Vaughn, playing a divorcing couple struggling to continue to cohabitate. Rumors swirled of a budding relationship between the two stars, and despite denials they did appear to be a couple by fall of 2005 when Aniston had two films hitting theaters: the first, "Derailed," cast the actress and Clive Owen as two married business executives having an affair who are blackmailed by a violent criminal and must turn the tables to save their families; the second, director Rob Reiner's "Rumor Has It," saw Aniston playing Sarah Huttinger, who learns that her family was the inspiration for the book and film "The Graduate" -- and that she just might be the offspring of the notorious storyline.