Jess Cagle
December 24, 1993 AT 05:00 AM EST

It was a bad-hair era, the 1850s. But there’s Holly Hunter, inthis year’s critical darling The Piano, brave and daring in hergoofy braids. Lesser actresses might have insisted on a moreflattering coif. Not Hunter. She does it right, or not at all. Andshe’s so very right as the mute 19th-century Scotswoman who entersinto a mail-order marriage that takes her to New Zealand with herpiano — a big, hulking, hand-carved metaphor that leads to allkinds of trouble. Hunter won the best actress honor at this year’sCannes Film Festival for her performance — sweet, sad, hard, andmaddeningly ambiguous. Not since Carrie Fisher lasered hearts inStar Wars has an actress in a dual-honeybun hairdo inspired suchapprobation. Only Hunter does it without saying a word.

And The Piano is only part of the story. Hunter rang loud andclear in her speaking parts this year, winning an Emmy for herrazor-edged comic turn as Wanda Holloway, the real-life Texaswoman who was accused of trying to kill another mom in order toget her girl on the cheerleading squad, in HBO’s The PositivelyTrue Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.She purloined The Firm from Tom cruise, in the bit part of agutsy, gum-smacking secretary.

In fact, Hunter is almost always the best thing in whatever she’sdoing. The perfect little face. The eyes that blaze like amber.The clipped Southern twang of her voice, like a banjo strung tootight. If the stars of old Hollywood cloaked themselves inglamour, Hunter, 35, works magic by stripping herself of it. Whitetrash is her specialty. A native of Conyers, Ga., and to this daya pickup truck devotee, she got her start on Broadway in BethHenley’s neo-Southern gothic Crimes of the Heart, and broke intoHollywood as a baby-stealing mama in 1987’s Raising Arizona (”Iwont me a toddler!”).

Hunter’s first star-making performance came in 1987’s BroadcastNews, as a tough Washington, D.C., television news producer whoscheduled her breakdowns and steered taxis from the backseat bysheer force of will. Although she subsequently managed to avoidbeing typecast in hardened-career-woman roles, the movies she gotin-stead — Miss Firecracker, Always, Once Around — were, more oftenthan not, forgettable.

But come next March, Oscar just might remember her virtuosoperformance in The Piano. For the Academy loves a comeback and agood cry, and The Piano delivers both. And, as Hunter herselfsays halfway through the film: ” .”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

— Jess Cagle

She muted her famous twang for ‘The Piano’ — and her silence wasgolden


She muted her famous twang for ‘The Piano’ — and her silence wasgolden

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