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Critic's Notebook

Stepping into the spotlight

In 'The Big C,' Laura Linney finally has a role that makes her the indisputable star

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 15, 2010

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Back in 2004, in the wake of “Mystic River,’’ I interviewed Laura Linney for an article in this newspaper. At that moment, she was in a curious position for a working American actress: career at last on the rise, respect from audiences and the industry, not yet a front-rank star — and entering her 40s, an age to make the average Hollywood executive’s eyes flicker and go dead. We talked about the pleasures and absurdities of fame, her unpedantic focus on the work, and I asked her to look forward a decade or two. Whose career would she like to have in the coming years? She paused, then replied with quiet firmness, “Mine.’’

She has gotten her wish. In the six years since we spoke, Linney has become one of the best-known and best-loved actresses in the business. She has done so entirely on her own terms, choosing roles in films, on TV, and in the theater that allow her to explore strong, often troubled women with nerve and intelligence. She has prospered without once playing the star game and, ironically, has now arrived at a point and in a project where she is indisputably the star. “The Big C,’’ a half-hour series that begins airing on Showtime tomorrow night, puts Linney front and center of a large ensemble as Cathy Jamison, a tightly wound Minneapolis teacher, wife, and mother with Stage IV cancer.

Shockingly, it’s a comedy, if a dark one. The news of her fairly imminent demise causes this suburban control freak to throw caution and her super-ego to the winds and finally do and say exactly what she wants. Cathy keeps her diagnosis to herself, kicks her big baby of a husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house, burns her Crate & Barrel sofa in the backyard, and generally behaves in ways mortifying to her teenage son (Gabriel Basso). “You’re getting your weird back, sis,’’ says her brother, the homeless vegan (John Benjamin Hickey), approvingly.

It’s a showpiece role that demands as much of the audience as of the actress, but if anyone can negotiate the nuances of our sympathies, keeping us in Cathy’s corner while laying bare her denial and dysfunctions, it’s Linney. What’s striking is how much fun the actress is clearly having as she steps fully and finally into the spotlight. Linney is an executive producer on “The Big C,’’ and while the show is the creation of writer Darlene Hunt, the star is its beating tragicomic heart, vibrantly present in almost every frame.

In fact, the show makes you realize with a start just how few movies have truly starred her. Of the 30-odd feature films and TV miniseries in which Linney has appeared, arguably only two have centered on the character she plays. Both are minor but worthy: 2004’s “P.S.,’’ in which she’s a college administrator undone by the appearance of a young man (Topher Grace) who may be the reincarnation of a long-ago love, and “Jindabyne’’ (2006), which casts her as the moral conscience of a small Australian town.

“P.S.’’ gives Linney the space to show sides of her art we don’t normally see — emotional vulnerability and a raw, touching sexual exuberance. In most movies, by contrast, she’s either part of an ensemble (“Love Actually,’’ “Breach,’’ “The Nanny Diaries,’’ “The Squid and the Whale’’), or partnered with an equally strong actor: Sean Penn as Jimmy Markum to her ambitious Annabeth in “Mystic River,’’ Liam Neeson as sex-researcher Alfred Kinsey to her supportive, challenging Clara in “Kinsey’’. (Earlier, she and Neeson had costarred in a revival of “The Crucible’’ on Broadway.) For many of us, Linney came to our attention as Jim Carrey’s crisply duplicitous wife in 1998’s “The Truman Show,’’ losing her grip as he joyously gains his.

Uniquely, Linney has played sisters. The film that established her as an acting force to be reckoned with was “You Can Count on Me’’ (2000), in which she was a weary good-girl sibling to raffish bad boy Mark Ruffalo — two orphans still struggling to grow up. It earned her the first of three Oscar nominations; the third was for “The Savages’’ (2007), in which Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman do a dance of exasperation and love around their dying jerk of a father (Philip Bosco). (The middle nomination was for “Kinsey.’’) And let’s not forget what Sarah in “Love Actually’’ does for her brother (Michael Fitzgerald). Even “The Big C’’ taps this aspect with its spiky comic portrait of the relationship between Cathy and Hickey’s Sean, a raucous, dumpster-diving activist. No other actress has explored the frustrations and exhilarations of the brother-sister bond with as much dedication and insight. In a way, it’s as if she’s making up for being raised an only child.

Interestingly, the mothers Linney has played have tended toward darker stuff: The self-absorbed writer of “The Squid and the Whale’’ (2005), the lethally cold Park Avenue mommy of 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries,’’ the lovesick hero’s embittered mother in Ethan Hawke’s “The Hottest State’’ (2008), and the hateful control-freak of the 2006 Rupert Grint comedy “Driving Lessons.’’ They’re there to explain the main characters’ dysfunctions or provide them with a wall to kick against.

And of course there are the wives, who run both dark and light. In one corner is Annabeth Markum, the Lady Macbeth of Dennis Lehane’s mythical Flats. In the other corner — the role that truly introduced Linney to middle America — is Abigail Adams in the 2008 HBO miniseries “John Adams.’’ Here the actress took a starched historical figure and imbued her with the strength and tenderness of an actual woman. Others might spin entire careers off the part, but though Linney did period pieces prior to “John Adams’’ — 2000’s “The House of Mirth,’’ “The Crucible’’ — she hasn’t gone back since.

She’d rather specialize in prickly, difficult women, especially onstage, to which she returns time and again, as if refreshing her batteries. (Most recently, Linney picked up her third Tony nomination for her role in Broadway’s “Time Stands Still’’ as a scarred photojournalist coming to terms with her significant other, played by Bryan d’Arcy James.) For all the kudos, though, there’s an underlying modesty to these performances — a self-effacing grace that serves the character at the expense of the woman playing her. That is how it should be, we say — that is what acting is about. Yet part of us craves the juice of the big star turn as well.

“The Big C’’ is evidence that Linney craves it as well. There’s even a parallel, perhaps, between the show’s Cathy Jamison and the actress playing her: Two lifelong nice girls suddenly insisting that they’re complicated, immodest women — divas, even — and that attention must be paid. Cathy starts treating herself as the star of the shrinking remainder of her life. Linney is at last playing the star too, and the treat is ours.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/tyburr.

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