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LAURA LINNEYYou Can Count On MeBy JESS CAGLE 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 backlashthough 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 candlesa 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. TIM BLAKE NELSONO Brother, Where Art THOU?By RICHARD SCHICKEL 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. With reporting by Amy Lennard Goehner/New YorkMARCIA GAY HARDENPollockBy R.S.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. With reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New YorkBRUCE GREENWOODThirteen DaysBy RICHARD CORLISSFor actors, playing John F. Kennedy must seem a challenge as frustrating as it is irresistible. Impersonating America's dishiest Presidentsatyr and martyrdid 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 extremisa 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 longinterviews 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. With reporting by Benjamin Nugent/New YorkZHANG ZIYICrouching Tiger, Hidden DragonBy R.C.Last may, at a Cannes film festival dinner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Ziyi was surrounded by glamorous colleaguesco-star Michelle Yeoh, director Ang Leewho 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. 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 a promising ballet student and had won an award in China's National Young Dancer competition. But at 15 she gave up. I didn't like dancing, she says insouciantly. The girl knew what she didn't wantand 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 yearsand a steely determination. You only get a chance like this once. Now it's about seizing that opportunity to create new ones and make myself a better actress, says this star pupil who is ready to become an international star. With reporting by Stephen Short/Hong KongBENICIO DEL TOROTrafficBy R.C.He has the sleepy sensuality of the young Robert Mitchuma narcoleptic dreamboat quality that suggests a sleek predator roused from slumber by a poke through his cage. So when Benicio Del Toro got a call around noon Los Angeles time a few weeks ago to be told that he'd won the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Supporting Actor prize for his performance as a Mexican narc in Traffic, the 33-year-old emitted something like a growl. The new lion of Hollywood is a late sleeper and, he says, I'm not a happy camper when I get woken up.Luckily for him, the Oscar ceremony doesn't start till late afternoon; Del Toro could fall out of bed and into the glare of an Oscar. He already is due to show up later this month at the Golden Globes (another Traffic nomination). If he wins, he can put that gewgaw next to his older Independent Spirit Awards for his turns in The Usual Suspects, as a crook with a bad attitude and a chronic case of the mumbles, and Basquiat, where he uttered the immortal threat, What would you do if I kissed ya? Swoon, maybe, since Del Toro has a sexy smile, when he can summon the energy to flash it. To research his role in Traffic, he spent time with Mexican policemen. To be a cop in Mexico is very difficult, he says. They have to pay for their own equipment, their bullets and handcuffs. The system doesn't provide money for uniforms, for shoes. They get peanuts for a paycheck. Del Toro, who lived in Puerto Rico until he was 12, also studied with a dialect coach to master the rural Mexican accent. I wanted it to be country, like mountain Mexico, he says, instead of like Taco Bell or Speedy Gonzales. Del Toro appreciates the shadings of ethical ambiguity in his Traffic cop. You don't know if he's going to be good or bad. But you understand he has to survive. I always looked at the guy as a good guy. I do that for every character I play, even a psychopath.Often, that is what he plays; Hollywood has been slow to exploit Del Toro's sultry good looks. His one leading-man role was in the instantly forgettablewhat was it called? oh, yesExcess Baggage, which cooled off Alicia Silverstone's career in no time flat. Mostly he has ornamented indie films (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Funeral, Way of the Gun) with his loping unpredictability; he built a solidly quirky rep, like Nicolas Cage before he went dolefully mainstream. Should he become a star, Del Toro will face the challenge Cage did: to focus his danger, his eye-catching weirdness, without losing it. Or he might follow his instincts and go even wilderbecome the first leading madman. Hopefully I'll get more opportunity to do things that will challenge me, says the young lion. Hopefully I'm getting my freedom, coming out of the cage.With reporting by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles