Witherspoon Walks Line, Huffman Hits Road Toward Oscar Duel
3/1/2006 4:28 PM PT
By DAVID GERMAIN, AP MOVIE WRITER
What a classic showdown of opposites for the best-actress Academy Award: Reese Witherspoon as country singer June Carter in "Walk the Line" against Felicity Huffman as a man undergoing a sex change in "Transamerica."
The two have dominated Hollywood's awards season over their fellow nominees, Judi Dench in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice" and Charlize Theron in "North Country."
At the Golden Globes, Witherspoon took best actress in a musical or comedy and Huffman won for dramatic actress.
Witherspoon's win over Huffman at the Screen Actors Guild Awards seems to give her the Oscar edge. And it doesn't hurt Witherspoon's chances that "Walk the Line" is a $100 million hit, while "Transamerica" is a modest arthouse success.
But the Oscars have a history of honoring the little-seen gender-bending flick over the big, splashy hit. Just ask Annette Bening and Hilary Swank.
Six years ago, Bening was the favorite as a caustic suburban wife in the wildly popular "American Beauty." Like Witherspoon, Bening had won the Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy and the SAG prize. Like Huffman, Swank had earned the Golden Globe for dramatic actress as a woman impersonating a man in the small art-house hit "Boys Don't Cry."
On Oscar night, Swank won.
This year's nominations were the first for both Witherspoon, a Hollywood marquee name whose hits include "Legally Blonde" and "Sweet Home Alabama," and Huffman, a respected stage performer who was largely a bit player on screen until her TV success with "Desperate Housewives."
Like "Walk the Line" co-star Joaquin Phoenix -- nominated for best actor as the love of Carter's life, Johnny Cash -- Witherspoon did her own singing and learned to strum the autoharp, the instrument that Carter played.
Witherspoon is an absolute spitfire in "Walk the Line," beautifully capturing the gabby humor of Carter's stage persona and the serious demeanor of a woman holding her passion for Cash in check until he cleans up his act in his private life.
In show business since age 12, Witherspoon's connection to Carter, part of the legendary country-music clan, goes back even further.
"I was 9 years old when I first heard the Carter family. I actually played her mother in the fourth-grade play, so I had to practice over and over again, 'I Saw the Light,' and play the autoharp," Witherspoon said. "So I had a little practice with the autoharp."
As gender-bending performances go, Huffman's is up there with Swank's, Dustin Hoffman's in "Tootsie" or Julie Andrews' in "Victor/Victoria."
In the road-trip tale "Transamerica," Huffman is a marvel of tics, shy glances, awkward posture and heartbreaking melancholy that underlies the sunny surface disposition of a man on the verge of becoming the woman she always wanted to be.
It was the first film lead Huffman had ever been offered, and she has worked tirelessly to get "Transamerica," shot on a tiny $1 million budget, seen as widely as possible.
"What I've actually decided is, I'm building a sandwich board, so I'm going to be going around ringing the bell," Huffman said. "The reason I would like people to see this film, aside from the fact that I actually am proud of it, is because I think it uplifts and I think it unifies. And I don't mean to be on a soapbox, but it's lovely to have stories that break down the walls of, 'You're different from me."'
Two nominees already have Oscars, Theron as best actress for "Monster" and Dench as supporting actress for "Shakespeare in Love."
Theron is an iron-willed tiger in "North Country" as a single mom who fights back against sexual harassment by male co-workers at a Minnesota mining company.
Before her remarkable transformation in "Monster," Theron was known more as a gorgeous face than a serious actress, despite a solid performance in "The Cider House Rules" and twice co-starring in Woody Allen films.
With her second nomination in three years, Theron has established herself as a Hollywood heavyweight.
A five-time nominee, Dench is a perpetual heavyweight whether in Oscar-nominated roles for "Mrs. Brown," "Iris" and "Chocolat" or playing spymaster "M" in the James Bond movies.
In "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Dench is a delightful mix of dictatorial derision and fickle fancy, playing a society widow who launches a nude stage revue in prudish 1930s London.
Dench had a scene-stealing role opposite first-time nominee Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice," the Jane Austen adaptation that was a throwback to old-fashioned period romances without a trace of modern cynicism.
A rising star best known for the British hit "Bend It Like Beckham" and the blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," Knightley was luminous as Austen's heroine, a sly, wry, ahead-of-her-time woman who bucks her mother's efforts to marry her off for money instead of love.