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.