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Jennifer Connelly: A Beautiful Mindfulness


Shelter star Jennifer Connelly proves (yet again) that she’s not just another pretty face

All those selfies and party shots might be fun in the moment, but the Internet has a nasty habit of forever preserving images we wish had never existed. The horrors that used to lurk in family photo albums and hidden in drawers can now be retrieved by anyone who wants them. In that respect, we may finally be able to understand what it’s like for actors who grew up in front of the camera and whose most cringe-inducing phases were recorded for posterity.

...few have worked as hard as Jennifer Connelly to create a distance between who they are now and who they were then...

Of the many former child performers who went on to have illustrious careers as adults, few have worked as hard as Jennifer Connelly to create a distance between who they are now and who they were then. Over the last 15 years, the 44-year-old actress has built a reputation as a serious-minded artist who’ll do whatever it takes to get inside a character’s skin. In the case of Shelter, she not only shed 25 pounds to play a homeless New Yorker, she injected herself with a real syringe for a scene in which her character shoots heroin. (Shelter writer and director Paul Bettany — also Connelly’s husband — was duly impressed.) She was just as fearless while playing troubled characters in Requiem for a Dream, House of Sand and Fog, and Virginia.

     Indeed, Connelly has been the epitome of intelligence and diligence since winning an Oscar for her role as the wife of mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Yet she fostered a very different image in earlier stages of her career. Growing up in Brooklyn and upstate New York as the daughter of an antiques dealer and a clothing manufacturer, she started working as a model at the age of 10 and began getting movie parts in her early teens. “I felt like a kind of walking puppet” is how she later described her first experiences in front of movie cameras. “It took me a while to really come into my own.”

To be fair, there are some glimmers of her later intensity in the adolescent self we see in Sergio Leone’s gangster saga Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Jim Henson’s fantasy flick Labyrinth (1986). (Not even the sight of David Bowie’s mullet was enough to throw her off her game.) What’s clearly more embarrassing is the next stage in Connelly’s career, which was heavy with the kind of sexpot roles typical for young women in the movie biz.

Long before Connelly was one of Hollywood’s classiest red-carpet walkers, she was often seen in skimpier attire, like her tight white tank top in Career Opportunities (1991), her bikini in The Hot Spot (1990), or nothing at all in Mulholland Falls (1996). Back then, descriptions of Connelly tended to involve words like “well-endowed” (Rolling Stone); mentions of her acting abilities were somewhat rarer. No wonder she felt like she had something to prove.

As she told an interviewer around the time of her Beautiful Mind win in 2002, “I have felt that my earlier films were not a representative of what I wanted to communicate and the kind of films I wanted to make and what I felt I was capable of doing.” She was clearly pleased to have “changed that perception.”

In the eyes of Oscar voters, she had come into her own in A Beautiful Mind, which also won for Best Director (Ron Howard) and Best Picture, as well as for its screenplay. It’s telling that she works hard to downplay her looks after early scenes that emphasize the effect of her physical allure on the eccentric brainiac Nash (Russell Crowe). But as the toll of the mathematician’s mental illness becomes clear, she looks increasingly wan and worn out.

The descent was even more dramatic in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, which should’ve won her an Oscar the year before. Her character, Marion, may exude a lively energy during her first escapades with boyfriend and fellow junkie Harry (Jared Leto), but by the movie’s grim conclusion, she’s a shell of herself, her spirit broken by her increasingly humiliating experiences as an addict and sex worker.

Her characters since then often have looked like they’re about to buckle under the weight of the world’s miseries. That’s true whether Connelly is appearing in a superhero movie (Ang Lee’s underrated version of The Hulk), a science-fiction thriller (The Day the Earth Stood Still), or even a rom-com (He’s Just Not That Into You). Reuniting with Crowe and Aronofsky in last year’s Noah, her sufferings in the role of Noah’s wife, Naameh, were of literally biblical proportions.

But Connelly’s other recent movies suggest that typecasting her as overly serious is as unfair and limiting as the earlier sexpot stereotype. Just consider how joyful she can be in her romantic scenes with hubby Bettany in Creation, the 2009 period drama about Charles Darwin.

And while her character in Shelter may be in dire straits, she shakes off her troubles by dancing madly in a park. When she and fellow street person Tahir (Anthony Mackie) take over a lavish apartment whose owners have foolishly left a door unlocked before going on vacation, Hannah gets to shed her dirty clothes and “borrow” something fancier from their hosts’ closets. 

“You are more beautiful than I have words for,” Tahir says at the sight of her transformation. Yet unlike the situation for Connelly’s younger self, her beauty in this moment stems from the depth and strength of her performance rather than anything she might (or might not) be wearing.