Top performers

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For actors, playing John F. Kennedy must seem a challenge as frustrating as it is irresistible. Impersonating America's dishiest President--satyr and martyr--did not bring lasting luster to the careers of Stephen Collins, William Devane, James Franciscus or Cliff Robertson, let alone Vaughn Meader.

Yet Bruce Greenwood, a little-known Canadian actor, has made something remarkable out of this poisoned plum. His J.F.K., in the Cuban Missile Crisis docudrama Thirteen Days, quickly moves beyond physical and vocal impersonation to find a harried man in extremis--a young man surrounded by "knowledgeable" cold warriors who have little faith in him. His only rudder is a root belief that America ought not to stumble into an annihilating war with the Soviet Union. From this belief, and Greenwood's craft, a hero emerges.

Raised in the U.S. and Canada, Greenwood, 44, was a professional skier before acting bit him. He did TV (St. Elsewhere), had meaty roles in Double Jeopardy and The Sweet Hereafter. But he lacked both the star power of Kevin Costner (who plays political adviser Ken O'Donnell) and the Kennedy bones of Steven Culp (who plays Jack's brother Bobby, as he did in an earlier TV movie). So when director Roger Donaldson chose him, Greenwood was as surprised as the rest of Hollywood. "I spent a week or so lying in bed thinking, 'Oh, God, this is way too big a mountain,'" he says. "And then I started to study."

Studying meant poring over accounts of the crisis and examining hours of J.F.K. file footage. "I ended up having a 'reference tape' about an hour and a half long--interviews and candid footage of him, playing with his kids and talking to his wife. From this I had favorite moments, things I would go back to. A few months into the movie, I knew twice as much about him as I did going in. And there are things I would have done differently."

Surely there are things Kennedy would have done differently in those tense days of 1962. But a good man can grow in adversity. So can a good actor. In this engrossing film, you see Greenwood being measured by the many wily veterans in the cast, and see that he measures up. It's a performance that begins as a test and ends as a presidential triumph.

--By Richard Corliss, with reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New York

Last may, at a Cannes Film Festival dinner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi was surrounded by glamorous colleagues--co-star Michelle Yeoh, director Ang Lee--who had lived in the spotlight for ages. Yet in her delicate gown, the 20-year-old stood out like a princess, chatting with animated poise, at ease in her radiance. Her performance as Jen, a willful girl who upends the lives of Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat, and possesses such magic that she literally sails over rooftops and treetops, had put her instantly on the worldwide celebrity map.

A year ago, Zhang, the daughter of a Beijing economist and a kindergarten teacher, was a sophomore at China Central Drama College. Then the stampede began. The Berlin Film Festival welcomed her debut feature, The Road Home, a visual love letter to the young actress from top Mainland director Zhang Yimou, who had earlier wrapped Gong Li in his stardust (and who is said to be romantically involved with his new protege). Then Crouching Tiger triumphed at Cannes, and with critics and the discerning public. By year's end she had become one of Esquire's Women We Love and had earned a featured role in Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 2.

Zhang was trained in dance and won an award in China's National Young Dancer competition. But at 15 she gave it up. "I didn't like dancing," she says insouciantly. The girl knew what she didn't want--and what she did. Snagging the crucial role in Crouching Tiger, she had to win over her stern director. At first disappointed in Zhang's performance, Lee was soon inspired. "We veered the film toward her," he says. "She is very sexy, so we used that. It made things happen. She is the most marvelous thing I've found."

Zhang's fine features and delicate voice should not be mistaken for frailty. She has a maturity, a sense of purpose, beyond her years--and a steely determination. "The first thing I have to do is learn English," says this star pupil who is ready to become an international star.

--R.C., with reporting by Stephen Short/Hong Kong

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