In 1990, she was like the rookie baseball player who hits a home run in his very first at-bat in the big leagues. Harden was 30 when Joel and Ethan Coen cast her as Verna in Miller's Crossing, and she had never before appeared on film. Before then, she'd been a drama student at the University of Texas at Austin and New York University, she appeared in a few plays, and she struggled. When the Coens cast her as the deceptively tranquil woman caught between her gangster boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) and sniveling brother (John Turturro), Harden thought: This is it, and this is how it will always be. For some, it would seem, the first time isthe best time, and Harden spent so much of her career trying to recapture just a bit of that magic.
"I was spoiled on that movie," she says of Miller's Crossing. "I was out of nowhere. I just graduated from school, I was doing theater, and I got this amazing role in this amazing movie with these two really great filmmaking brothers. When USA Todaysaid I'm most remembered for my performance in Flubber, I think that's bullshit. I think that's bullshit." She shouts the last sentence, through a smile. "I think Miller's Crossingwas for a long time the thing I was most remembered for, and I used to think, “It's maddeningthat the thing that asked the most of me and the thing I'm most remembered for is the first movie.' I used to wonder if I would always be yearning for that. Maybe you arealways yearning for your first if it's such a high like that. I mean, why not? It was a great part in a great film, so you yearn for something like that, and I think some of the other stuff I did, I wasn't and maybe I'm still not such a great marketer of my films or my work. I sound like I'm excusing my career, and I don't mean to be doing that. I think that Flubberthing threw me this morning. My deep, dark art film--Flubber."
A Harden to overlook: Marcia Gay Harden portrays Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollocks wife, in director-star Ed Harris biography of the painter.
After this interview, Harden will go back to Los Angeles and audition for another movie. Then, it's off to fittings with designers making her Oscar gown and jewelers hoping to decorate the actress in their shiny finery. For a while, she will revel in the hype and hoopla, even when there's work to be done. Maybe she figures she deserves it--all those years of all those modest to mediocre movies no one's seen, all those years of wondering if she'd ever recapture the joy of the first time.
But at the same time, she also worries about not wasting the opportunities an Oscar nomination brings. She talks of being responsible about her choices from here on in, of putting pressure on herself to select wisely--to work for pleasure, not pay. "You don't want to follow it up with something chintzy," she says, "and some chintzy performance where I'm dancing on a pole in a bar or something." (She's referring to the lead role in last year's dreadful Coyote Ugly--a part she was up for.)
But there remains one last question: Why was Harden nominated as best supporting actress when she has almost as much screen time as Harris? When it's posed to her, she takes a long pause; she doesn't want to answer, to appear the least bit ungrateful. Even if she has the same question.
"When I won best supporting actress from the New York film critics, that tipped off Sony [which is distributing Pollock] that I had any chance--and it's alwaysa campaign, we're not naive about these things, I think--my chances would be stronger in a supporting than in leading," she says, slowly. "And it kind of makes sense: Lee Krasner supported Pollock. And Kate Hudson is not a supporting actress in Almost Famous, but I suppose her publicist and people behind the film felt that's where her chances were. Ultimately, I don't care, to be frank. I think it's a character lead from a show, but I don't even know if I should say that.
"I know some actresses will say, “If it's going to be supporting, I don't want to go. Don't take ads out for me for supporting, don't put me there. Give me a leading.' I know some actresses have maintained a campaign for leading actor. But look, I ain't no spring chicken." She smiles. "I've been in this business for a long time, and at this point, I'd just like to go that party."