Actress Marcia Gay Harden is a Texan, non-Jewish and the daughter of a U.S. Navy captain who regularly moved his family around the world. So she has had to do her homework, she says, to portray the tough-yet-vulnerable Jewish characters that have won her wide acclaim.
Harden studied 1920s anti-Semitism to play Verna, the two-timing Jewish moll to Irish mobsters in the Coen brothers' stylized gangster film "Miller's Crossing." She read up on the laws of shiva to portray Norma Berman, the eccentric daughter of a Jewish widow in Beeban Kidron's "Used People." She learned a thing or two about psychology to become the Jewish shrink Susan Silverman in A&E's "Small Vices." And she perused biographies to prepare for the role that just gleaned her a supporting actress nomination: the Jewish American painter Lee Krasner, the long-suffering wife of Abstract Expressionist giant Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) in the biopic "Pollock."
"Lee and Jackson were the proverbial case of opposites attracting," Harden said during a Journal interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
Verbal, matter-of-fact Krasner (1908-1984) was the daughter of Orthodox Jewish Russian immigrants, raised in Brooklyn and the tenements of the Lower East Side. Like many Jews of her generation, she rejected the old ways to become an American, specifically a New York Jewish intellectual committed to everything radical and modern. Pollock (1912-1956), conversely, was a taciturn, troubled young man from Wyoming: alcoholic, manic-depressive, prone to frightening rages and swaggering boasts.
They met when Krasner saw his work in a 1941 exhibition, charged up the stairs of his Greenwich Village apartment building and knocked on his door.
"The fact that Lee was Jewish was part of the draw for Jackson," said actor-director-producer Harris, who bears an eerie resemblance to Pollock and is an Oscar nominee for best actor. "He found that exotic, provocative and mysterious."
Harden ("Space Cowboys," "Meet Joe Black") regards Krasner as provocative. "She was a woman who broke all the rules," says the actress, who earned a Tony nomination for playing a valium-addicted housewife in "Angels in America." "She was a Jewish woman making her way in a world of WASPy, macho artists. She was not a virgin when she married Pollock, which was unusual at the time. She was smart, tenacious, a survivor. I identify with her struggle, her desire to find her own voice."
For Harden, that struggle began in childhood, when she strove to upstage her sisters as the third of five children growing up in Japan, Germany, Greece, California and Maryland.
A Greek-language production of "Medea" at the Parthenon inspired her to become a performer, though the New York theater scene proved less than welcoming. Harden subsisted on a series of menial jobs and was once left with only $1 to survive the weekend. A casting director handed her a plastic surgeon's business card and said, "You have what I call the flaring-nostril look, and unless you get it fixed, you will never work." One winter morning, Harden was so distraught that a homeless person comforted her on the street.
Her big break came after she enrolled in the graduate theater program at New York University, when she was cast as "Lucy, the Fat Pig" in a zany production of "The Comedy of Errors." All she did was oink and jiggle her huge, padded bum and her beanbag breasts, which were the object of several sight gags. But that was enough to catch the eye of Joel and Ethan Coen's casting director, who was looking for an actress to play the Jewish vamp, Verna, in "Miller's Crossing."
Before long, the starving artist, dolled up in smoky dark make-up, was sitting across the table from the Coens, salivating over a Lucullan smorgasborg of pastries and cold cuts. Fortunately, the assertive Verna took over: "I just grabbed a cookie, lit up a cigarette and did the audition," she said. "I was uncharacteristically aggressive, which must have been the character speaking."
The Coens had just one question for the actress: "Is it a problem for you playing a Jewish character?" "I shook my head, 'No," and that was exactly the answer they needed," Harden said.
Nevertheless, she felt she needed to educate herself by reading about the kind of anti-Semitism her character would have faced during the Prohibition era. "I wanted to understand what made Verna feel like an outcast at the time, which informed all of her choices," Harden said.
To prepare for "Pollock," the actress studied painting ("I suck," she said), listened to audio tapes of Krasner and interviewed her surviving friends and relatives. "Her nephew told me, 'If you want to play Lee Krasner, start screaming from the minute you walk into the door until the minute you leave,'" Harden said.
In fact, Krasner focused much of her creative energy on keeping Pollock together and furthering his career. But by 1956, the tension in their marriage had escalated; Pollock often stormed off to a tavern or to the arms of his mistress. Their rows became so violent that Harden braced herself to receive an anti-Semitic slur in the film's most explosive scene.
"I debated a lot as to whether to leave that in the movie," Harris confided to a Journal reporter. "But to me, it was symbolic of just how low the relationship had deteriorated and of the despair and anger Pollock was feeling about himself. He wasn't anti-Semitic, but the slur was just the most heinous, ugly thing he could think of to say."
Harris helped Harden understand why Krasner put her own career on hold to nurture an abusive husband: "Lee realized this man had the potential to create art that she loved," he told The Journal. "But she also had her own problems as a woman. Her relationships with her brother and a previous lover were quite masochistic. Her brother would degrade her and talk down to her, and she followed him around like a puppy dog."
It wasn't until after Pollock's 1956 death in a car wreck that Krasner began one of the most productive periods of her career, Harden noted. Her impressive body of work was showcased in a 1999 retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but the actress was glad she saw the exhibit after she had completed "Pollock." "The work in the show was confident and big and bold, and that is not the person Krasner was while Pollock was alive," she explained. "My Lee Krasner was much more insecure. The woman who could create those big, bold paintings hadn't come into being yet."
"Pollock" opens today in Los Angeles.