The Return Of Holly's Comet

ALL RIGHT, CELEBRITY-PROFILE class, what word must appear in any piece on Holly Hunter? Right, all its permutations--intensity, tense, tension. So let's get it out of the way: they don't come any intenser than Holly Hunter. Pfeiffer embraces a role, Streep inhabits it, Hunter consumes it. The results can be electrifying, as they were in 1987, when she played a babynapping cop in "Raising Arizona" and a TV hotshot in "Broadcast News," the James Brooks film that won her an Oscar nomination. Then someone seemed to turn down the dimmer on her career with sputtering vehicles like "Miss Firecracker," "Always" and "Once Around." But in 1993 her star has returned like Holly's Comet. She stole the screen from Tom Cruise with her performance as the Harlow-headed secretary in "The Firm," won an Emmy for her hilarious and scary portrayal in HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," won the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival as a mute Scotswoman transplanted to New Zealand in Jane Campion's "The Piano." And she stunned Los Angeles theatergoers as a schizzy, incestuous killer in Beth Henley's play "Control Freaks."

It's hard to recall the last time an American actress had a year like that. But why the detour after her starburst as on-the-make Jane Craig in "Broadcast News"? Because, true to form, Hollywood got out the cloning kit. "A lot of the stuff I got after that was for upwardly mobile executive types under heavy stress," says Hunter. She's sitting in a tony Beverly Hills Chinese restaurant, having driven there in her Ford pickup truck, as befits a good ole girl from Conyers, Ga. In her hush-puppy twang, she recalls that after "Broadcast News" she "kinda ignored" the pressures to have another big commercial hit. What she looks for are roles that move her, challenge her, even frighten her.

Michael Ritchie, who directed "Texas Cheerleader," says that "she is, of all the actresses in America, the one most willing to take the most chances." Sam Neill, her costar in "The Piano," talks fondly of her "anarchic, wacky streak." James Brooks recalls on "Broadcast News" seeing Hunter "when somebody wasn't giving their all, shaking that person with tears in her eyes. She earned everybody's respect just from the ferocity of her focus."

Hunter will focus you to dust if you ask about her personal life. She's 35, never married, was the youngest of seven children who lived on a 250-acre farm. Her mother and father, a sporting-goods representative/ part-time farmer, encouraged her early efforts as an actress. She made her stage debut in the fifth grade as Helen Keller, studied piano "religiously" from 9 to 19, took theater at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1980 she joined the bit-parts army in New York, where she met Beth Henley in a stalled elevator. Hunter became the embodiment of Henley's Southern Gothic world, appearing in most of Henley's plays, including the Pulitzer-winning "Crimes of the Heart." Her commitment to Henley may have caused that detour on the road to traditional stardom, which she insists she never wanted.

What she wants, she said in her Emmy acceptance speech, are roles that "have a sense of magic and spirit and rhythm and music and imagination." That's a perfect description of Ada in "The Piano," a mysterious young woman who speaks only in signs, whose most intense relationship is with her beloved piano until she goes down under in New Zealand to find her erotic self (see box). Hunter was born to play this part and almost didn't get it. She saw Campion's script in 1991 and knew she had to have it. Campion thought, "It's ridiculous!" She had conceived of Ada as tall (Hunter is 5 feet 2), an "extraordinary beauty" (Hunter is merely adorable) and "a little awesome and frightening" (Hunter is...well, could be). Campion forgot about it, but Hunter's agent tracked her around the world, firing off messages as she interviewed actresses.

When her search took Campion to Los Angeles, she agreed to meet Hunter and gave her the opening and closing voice-over monologues, the only words Ada speaks in the film. Hunter went off with a coach expert in Scots dialect, and a few days later Campion videotaped her. Instantly Campion saw that Hunter had--what else?--"a really good intensity." Now Campion can envision no one else as Ada. "She was intimidating and intriguing because of the little feminine package she represented," says Campion. "For someone who walks around like a little baseball player, it's amazing how she created a very darling walk for Ada and such a gentle signing style."

Hunter had to learn sign language ("I wanted it to have beauty and elegance and to be very feminine. And secret."), but her ability to play the piano was a big bonus. In New York she met with composer Michael Nyman, who was writing the haunting music that Ada invented. They went to the Steinway showroom where Hunter at first "played shakily, nervously. But once he saw I could play it pretty much sight reading, he went back and wrote what he wanted to write."

On the long, difficult shoot in New Zealand, Hunter found an erotic dimension seldom matched by an American actress. The sensuous ambience on the set was the antipode of Hollywood's cynical vulgarity. Hunter cheerfully admits that everyone was "turned on." "That's one of the wonderful things about Ada, that she can identify her needs and then go about satisfying them. So often that is our problem in the world today," says Hunter, and then adds a flip "She said epically," to deflate any hint of pretentiousness. As for her own needs, "I have too many 'shoulds' in my head. That's not too cool, but I guess it's part of my angst."

She said epically. Well, it's been an epical year for Hunter. "People as good as Holly tend to become stars and that mucks over a lot of things and everything becomes high stakes," says Brooks. "She crossed that line and became an artist." At the Chinese restaurant Hunter breaks open her fortune cookie. "Ooo-la-la," she laughs, reading: "'Sail into the land of opportunity. Treasures await'."