Joan Allen is taller and prettier than you expect…

Joan Allen

b. Rochelle, Illinois, 1956

In person, Joan Allen is taller and prettier than you expect. On stage—especially in Burn This and The Heidi Chronicles—she has been a more expansive and compelling actress than film has admitted. And on the big screen, she is already one of our great supporting actresses, nearly automatically among the nominations, and a universal type whenever onlooking and long-suffering wives are involved. And, if you haven’t noticed, those are often the kind of wives that our movies seem to know best. Is this a modern reflection of the private lives of Hollywood executives, or a profound comment on American marriage? Whatever, it’s a limit that could be unfair to Ms. Allen—as witness the fact that Annette Bening got the “Joan Allen part” in American Beauty.

She had been closely associated with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company, and her movies amount to a textbook for acting classes: Compromising Positions (85, Frank Perry); the blind woman, superb in the scene with the tiger, in Manhunter (86, Michael Mann); Peggy Sue Got Married (86, Francis Coppola); Tucker (88, Coppola); In Country (89, Norman Jewison); a classic supportive wife, with Beau Bridges, in Without Warning: The James Brady Story (91, Michael Toshiyuki Uno); Ethan Frome (93, John Madden); Searching for Bobby Fischer (93, Steven Zaillian); Mad Love (95, Antonia Bird); so good as Pat in Nixon (95, Oliver Stone) that she effortlessly revived our sense of those years and the emotion of newsreel, but thereby left Anthony Hopkins seeming all the more of an imposter; outstanding again in The Crucible (96, Nicholas Hytner); Face/Off (97, John Woo); The Ice Storm (97, Ang Lee); Pleasantville (98, Gary Ross); All the Rage (99, James D. Stein); Irish in When the Sky Falls (99, John Mackenzie).

She had a big part, and a nomination, in The Contender (00, Rod Lurie), but that horribly rigged film left her whiny, prim, overly “nice” and archaic. She was Morgause, the femme fatale, in TV’s The Mists of Avalon (01, Uli Edel)—and she began to seem past prime; Off the Map (03, Campbell Scott); The Notebook (04, Nick Cassavetes).

She got a thankless running part in the Bourne pictures (04 and 07, Paul Greengrass; and 12, Tony Gilroy), and she was in Yes (04, Sally Potter); The Upside of Anger (05, Mike Binder); Bonneville (06, Christopher N. Rowley); Death Race (08, Paul W. S. Anderson); Hachiko: A Dog’s Story (09, Lasse Hallström); sadly genteel as Georgia O’Keeffe (09, Bob Balaban); a taxi driver in India for Good Sharma (10, Suri Krishnamma); and very uneasy in the TV series Luck (12).