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Laura Linney has been down this road before. It was 1998, and The Truman Show was being heaped with critical praise. By the time Oscar season rolled around, however, the film had lost much of its heat. Truman received a handful of nominations, but Linney was denied a nod for her creepy, hilarious turn as Jim Carrey's wife, an overly cheerful actress who periodically turns to hidden cameras in their home to plug household products, and the film itself was absent from the Best Picture category. "You call something the movie of the decade and you're asking for it," says Linney. "There was a backlash, which I don't think this movie will get."

This movie is You Can Count on Me, a lovely independent drama that's way too unassuming to warrant a backlash--though it is a major breakthrough for Linney, 36, whose Best Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle and Golden Globe nomination have propelled her into this year's Oscar race. Is Linney seeing gold? She stammers, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't aware of it. People are excited for me and the prospect that I might be...oh, it's so awkward I can't spit it out."

Linney's not the type to brag. Although she was raised in Manhattan (her father is playwright Romulus Linney) and trained at the Juilliard School, she retains a soft Southern drawl and kind manners acquired during childhood summers spent with relatives in Georgia. Still, this non-diva is a prized commodity in the New York City theater, where she's starred in Uncle Vanya. Indie filmmakers love her too; she can currently be seen in Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. And she has a nice little cult following owing to her role as sexual-revolution poster girl Mary Ann Singleton in two Tales of the City miniseries (a third will air this year on Showtime). But in her major movies, she's been upstaged by her male co-stars: Truman's Carrey, Absolute Power's Clint Eastwood, Primal Fear's Richard Gere and Congo's primal brutes.

In You Can Count on Me, Linney takes the lead as Sammy, a small-town bank manager who was orphaned as a girl and who's still experiencing growing pains as a single mom with a little boy (Rory Culkin), a wayward younger brother (Mark Ruffalo) and a frustrating new boss (Matthew Broderick). In the process, Linney produces some of the year's most indelible acting moments. Watch her drive alone from an ill-advised rendezvous with her boss and see the emotions illuminate Linney's face like flickering candles--a smile, a jolt of sadness, a surge of joy. "She made a little play out of that," says the film's writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan. "Laughing and feeling guilty and laughing again."

At the moment, Linney's in a very happy place. This month she'll begin shooting The Mothman Prophecies, a thriller that will reunite her with Gere, and she's considered the most worthy Oscar competition for Erin Brockovich's Julia Roberts. But knowing how fortunes can turn, Linney isn't waiting until the nominations are announced next month to enjoy the ride. "Awards or no," she says, "it feels pretty damn good."

For a smart guy like Tim Blake Nelson (a classics major at Brown who is also a screenwriter and director), playing dim-witted Delmar in the Coen brothers' sly and shaggy saga of redemption on the run posed certain problems. None was more daunting than authentically conveying Delmar's belief that one of his fellow escapees from a 1930s Mississippi chain gang had been turned into a toad by backwoods sirens.

Nelson didn't want to patronize Delmar or turn him into a farcical fool. One day actress Frances McDormand (director Joel Coen's wife) observed that Nelson looked just like his one-year-old son. It was the revelation Nelson required. Instead of thinking "in all those pejoratives" such as "dumb" or "stupid," he began perceiving Delmar as "innocent of knowledge, seeing the world without context."

Animated by innocence (and helped by his God-given gangling, goggling looks), Nelson, 35, gives an artless, winning performance that doesn't betray his tough tastes. "I have a cold aesthetic," he says. "I don't like schmaltz." Busy and brainy (Laura Linney was a fellow student at Brown and Juilliard), he was editing his soon-to-be released Othello adaptation, OH, while on the O Brother location. The down-home authenticity of his performance remains a mystery to producer and co-writer Ethan Coen. "He's a Jewish guy from Oklahoma, so go figure," Coen says bemusedly.

--By Richard Schickel. With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New York

There's this really fearless quality to her, this dark side," says Ed Harris, who directed and played opposite Harden in the brutally honest biography of the self-absorbed, self-destructive and sullenly inarticulate genius of American action painting. "She's not afraid to be ugly." Or, as it turns out, to admit even at this late date that she doesn't fully understand her character, Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, who pretty much abandoned her painting career to support his. She guesses Krasner "sacrificed what she sacrificed" because "she loved him first and foremost." But she also shrewdly discerns that "she certainly vicariously lived through his genius, and through him she was able to keep herself well placed in the art world."

The ferocity of Harden's performance derives from this mixture of motives. You never quite know where Harden, 41, is coming from, but you do get the sense that the first person she's surprising is herself. Maybe the last to be surprised are her fellow performers, who have been appreciating her onscreen (Miller's Crossing) and onstage (Angels in America) for a decade. Now, following her humorous turn in Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys with this display of devastated loyalty, we can all join in celebrating a wonderful actress.

--R.S., with reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New York

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