How Marcia Gay Harden fooled the oddsmakers and took home an Oscar for "Pollock"

By Steve Daly
Updated April 06, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Were there omens? Marcia Gay Harden didn’t see any. The Las Vegas oddsmakers declared her a 12-to-1 long shot for Best Supporting Actress, proclaiming Kate Hudson the likely winner for Almost Famous. ”And the press,” she says with a wicked lilt of postgame satisfaction, ”had quite clearly suggested I would not be the winner.”

Harden still seemed like a dark horse on the red carpet. She was reportedly misannounced by Variety‘s Army Archerd as ”Marcia May Harden,” demonstrating her comparatively low profile even though she’s a 41-year-old stage and screen veteran. (Her movie debut was in the 1990 Coen brothers noir pastiche Miller’s Crossing, for which she beat out Julia Roberts to play a gangster’s moll; her biggest theatrical splash to date came playing the Valium-addicted wife of a closeted gay Mormon in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America on Broadway in 1993.) Worst Oscar bellwether of all: Pollock, in which Harden gives a ballsy, Brooklyn-accented performance as Lee Krasner, wife and de facto manager of alcoholic painter Jackson Pollock, happened to be by far the lowest grosser of any film in her category, with just under $5 million in receipts.

So how did the runt of the litter go home with the gold? With a lot of help from Sony Pictures Classics, which also pushed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to such visible success. ”We saw a rough cut last June,” says SPC copresident Michael Barker. ”While we were knocked out by Ed Harris, we were amazed by Marcia. We didn’t even recognize it was her in the film at first. From that moment, we thought she had a real shot.”

To help secure that shot, Sony resurrected an outmoded release pattern: Open for just a week in December to qualify, disappear, then plan a wider release to commence right after the nominations. It was perfected 20 years ago with The Deer Hunter and Tess, but has largely been abandoned. The strategy’s very obsolescence was what made it work this time around, says Barker (who also made sure that Academy voters got Pollock tapes): ”We didn’t see a lot of people doing it.” And those few competitors who did try it — The Gift and Snatch — came up empty-handed.

The other major conundrum — whether to position Harden as actress or supporting actress — was settled when Harden won supporting nods from both the New York Film Critics Circle (the award that first put her on the list of contenders) and an online critics’ group. ”She was perceived as supporting because it’s Ed Harris’ movie,” says Barker. ”When you have those indications, it’s hard to ignore them.”

The category downgrade got Harden out of the way of the Julia juggernaut. It also helped that among a gallery of female characters who stand by their men — Hudson and Frances McDormand in Almost Famous and Julie Walters in Billy Elliot are also handmaidens to male greatness — the Lee Krasner role had the widest, most decade-spanning range.

Harden is still spinning from the win, which she capped with a 4 a.m. thrill ride as two carloads of paparazzi trailed her limo, inside which she was ”panting with excitement” beside her mother and husband. ”In our naivete, we thought they wanted our Harry Winston diamonds,” she laughs. ”I swear I thought my mother would fling hers out the sunroof.” With help from their driver, the LAPD, and a security guard named Mark (courtesy of the Winston folks), they got home in one piece. ”I felt so saved,” exults Harden. By Mark — and by Oscar.