Want more of what the Academy is honoring? Look back at great performances by Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Terrence Howard, and 2006's other Oscar nominees
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Credit: Dick: M.Grossman

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Amy Adams

SCREEN GEM: Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Great role: Amy Adams in ”Catch Me if You Can ”

PREMISE Check-forging imposter Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) poses as a doctor, wooing and nearly marrying brace-faced candy-striper Brenda (Adams). But when his cover is blown, he skips town, leaving her bewildered and brokenhearted.

FUN FACT DiCaprio exploited Adams’ naïveté in real life as well. ”He’d tell me Justin Timberlake was giving him singing lessons, or that Britney [Spears] is like a sister to him,” Adams told Elle magazine. ”I’d go, ‘Really?’ And he’d say, ‘No. Did you just get off the bus?”’

WHY IT’S GREAT Adams’ portrayal of a sweet, guileless, Southern gal shows off many of the winning traits that marked her standout performance in Junebug.

Image credit: Paul Giamatti: Kobel Collection

Paul Giamatti

SCREEN GEM: Private Parts (1997)

Great role: Paul Giamatti in ”Private Parts”

PREMISE In his rise to fame, Howard Stern (left, playing himself) frequently clashes over content with Kenny, the petty radio bureaucrat he nicknames Pig Vomit (Giamatti, right).

FUN FACT ”He’s got that soft face, those rat eyes,” Private Parts director Betty Thomas said of Giamatti in an EW interview. ”He’s the perfect sleazy guy!” We’re sure she meant it as a compliment.

WHY IT’S GREAT Giamatti’s exasperated everyshlub persona, which he perfected in American Splendor and Sideways, first earned him critical notice here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

SCREEN GEM: State and Main (2000)

Great role: Philip Seymour Hoffman in ”State and Main”

PREMISE This David Mamet farce centers on Joseph Turner White (Hoffman), a rising playwright who has written a screenplay about ”the quest for purity.” But he finds himself up to his eyeballs in moral and artistic compromise when the movie shoots in a New England hamlet that’s all too eager to be corrupted by Hollywood. He also falls in love with a sharp-witted local, bookstore owner Ann Black (Rebecca Pidgeon, pictured).

FUN FACT There’s a hilarious fake promotional website for The Old Mill, the Joe White-scripted movie, that completely glosses over the disastrous production history depicted in State and Main.

WHY IT’S GREAT In a career marked by small but juicy character roles, the chameleonlike Hoffman finally got his first chance in this film to prove he could play a movie’s hero.

Image credit: The Best Man: Kobal Collection

Terrence Howard

SCREEN GEM: The Best Man (1999)

Great role: Terrence Howard in ”The Best Man”

PREMISE The weekend before Lance (Morris Chestnut) gets married, several of his college buddies gather, including guitar-picking womanizer Quentin (Howard, right) and best man Harper (Taye Diggs, left), who’s about to publish a novel with characters modeled on his old friends.

FUN FACT Howard’s performance in The Best Man earned him a job offer from filmmaker John Singleton, but he didn’t accept until 2005’s Hustle & Flow and Four Brothers. ”It’s like the stock market,” the actor told EW. ”You can trade in your nice little stock tomorrow, but you won’t get the payday you would if you sit on it and let it grow.”

WHY IT’S GREAT As in Hustle, Howard invests a role that could have been a stock caricature with surprising humanity and sensitivity. Also, he steals the movie from putative stars Chestnut and Diggs.

Image credit: Walking and Talking: Everett Collection

Catherine Keener

SCREEN GEM: Walking and Talking (1996)

Great role: Catherine Keener in ”Walking and Talking”

PREMISE When her best friend Laura (Anne Heche) gets engaged, the resentful and romantically unattached Amelia (Keener, left) sees her life going into a comical tailspin, including involvement with a couple of doofy guys (Liev Schreiber, right, and Kevin Corrigan).

FUN FACT It took writer/director Nicole Holofcener five years to raise the cash to make this Sundance hit, her debut film and the first of three to date she’s directed starring Keener (including 2001’s Lovely & Amazing and 2006’s Friends With Money).

WHY IT’S GREAT In what feels like a fully lived-in performance, the versatile Keener showcases her ability to shift deftly between comedy and drama.

Image credit: Richard Cartwright

Heath Ledger

SCREEN GEM: 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Great role: Heath Ledger in ”10 Things I Hate About You”

PREMISE In this high school Taming of the Shrew, Ledger is Petruchio to Julia Stiles’ Katherine.

FUN FACT At the time of the movie’s release, Ledger told EW his inspiration was Steve McQueen. ”I actually just bought a Mustang,” he said, ”like the one in Bullitt.”

WHY IT’S GREAT In his Hollywood debut, Ledger gives a scruffy, laid-back, sly performance that hints at the unlikely romantic leading man he’d become. And his serenade of ”Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” is priceless.

Image credit: Blood Simple: Everett Collection

Frances McDormand

SCREEN GEM: Blood Simple (1984)

Great role: Frances McDormand in ”Blood Simple”

PREMISE In this Coen brothers film noir, adulterous wife Abby (McDormand, left, with costar John Getz) gets caught in a web of blackmail and murder that’s bloody but far from simple.

FUN FACT This was the first film for both McDormand and director Joel Coen, who fell in love during shooting and married soon after. A decade later, they both won Oscars for the similarly bloody Fargo.

WHY IT’S GREAT Full of surprises, McDormand’s resourceful, sympathetic performance put her on Hollywood’s radar as a leading lady who defied pigeonholing.

Image credit: To Die For: Everett Collection

Joaquin Phoenix

SCREEN GEM: To Die For (1995)

Great role: Joaquin Phoenix in ”To Die For”

PREMISE Seeing her husband (Matt Dillon) as an obstacle on her path to stardom as a TV journalist, Suzanne Stone Maretto (Nicole Kidman, left) manipulates a teen (Phoenix, right) into killing him.

FUN FACT This was Phoenix’s first feature-film performance under his given name; as a child actor, he had appeared as Leaf Phoenix in movies like Parenthood.

WHY IT’S GREAT Phoenix’s sympathetic performance as the dreamy, lovestruck, awkward, confused Jimmy helped him emerge from the shadow of his late brother, River.

Image credit: Blue Car: Everett Collection

David Strathairn

SCREEN GEM: Blue Car (2003)

Great role: David Strathairn in ”Blue Car”

PREMISE Two damaged souls — Meg (Agnes Bruckner, left), a teen with a broken family and a talent for poetry, and Auster (Strathairn, right), Meg’s high school English teacher, who’s coping with tragedy in his own family — form a complicated, mutually exploitative bond.

FUN FACT Strathairn got his early theatrical training as a circus clown, at Ringling Brothers Clown College.

WHY IT’S GREAT Whether he’s playing creeps (L.A. Confidential), heroes (Good Night, and Good Luck), or guys who are a bit of both (as in Blue Car), Strathairn always lets you see his characters thinking, reasoning, and rationalizing.

Rachel Weisz

SCREEN GEM: Runaway Jury (2003)

Great role: Rachel Weisz in ”Runaway Jury”

PREMISE Nick (John Cusack, left), a juror in a high-profile gun liability lawsuit, conspires with his lover, outsider Marlee (Weisz, right), to sell the jury’s verdict to the highest bidder.

FUN FACT Weisz won the role over such reported aspirants as Naomi Watts, Jennifer Connelly, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

WHY IT’S GREAT As in The Constant Gardener, Weisz convinces as a passionate, resourceful woman with mysterious motives.

Image credit: Dick: M.Grossman

Michelle Williams

SCREEN GEM: Dick (1999)

Great role: Michelle Williams in ”Dick”

PREMISE In this Clueless-meets-All the President’s Men satire, the Deep Throat who brings down Richard Nixon (Dan Hedaya) turns out to be two ditsy D.C. high school students, Arlene (Williams, right) and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst, left), who become privy to White House secrets when the president hires them to walk his dog.

FUN FACT Dave Foley, who played White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, told EW that working with Williams and Dunst, both born well after Watergate, made him feel old. ”They were like, ‘What was it like to live in the ’70s and have to fight woolly mammoths every morning for your food?”’

WHY IT’S GREAT As a teen who goes from lovestruck hero worship (Nixon replaces Bobby Sherman as her pinup crush) to righteous anger, Williams is hilarious in this priceless and underrated spoof.

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