For most of her film career, Joan Allen, 44, has been cast as ”the wife.” Among her film husbands have been Nicolas Cage, Jeff Daniels, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, John Travolta, Kevin Kline, Anthony Hopkins, and both Jeff and Beau Bridges. Two of those roles, as Pat Nixon in Nixon (1995) and Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible (1996), earned her supporting actress nods.
So there’s a nice glass-ceiling-shattering subtext to Allen’s performance as Sen. Laine Hanson in Rod Lurie’s The Contender. For the first time, Allen — a product of Chicago and New York theater — gets to take center stage in a major movie, playing a woman thrust onto the center stage of America. ”Instead of being married to the politician,” she’s said, ”I get to be the politician.”
As a film reviewer, Lurie had a ”creative crush” on Allen, calling her ”a female Gregory Peck,” so he wrote the screenplay with her in mind: After the death of the Vice President, Democratic President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) decides to make history by naming a woman to take the VP’s place. But his nominee, Senator Hanson, must weather confirmation hearings led by a vicious Republican congressman (Gary Oldman) who has dredged up a lurid college escapade.
Allen gives the senator dignity and passion, competence and conflict. Her most rousing scene comes when she tells the committee exactly what she believes in, but her most moving moment comes in the Oval Office, when the President and his chief of staff literally bring her to tears. ”It was fun to play somebody who was so sure of herself and even willing to lose it all,” Allen has said. ”Wouldn’t it be great if we could all be that honest and stand up for what we believe in?” In the last scene of The Contender, Hanson’s husband tells her, ”You’re back.” Meanwhile, Joan Allen has arrived.