Soap star who altered the plot

David Usborne reports on the sudden rise of Oscar hot tip Helen Hunt
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The Independent Online
Americans - or at least American film critics - aregetting serious about a television sitcom star and one-time child actress of whom many Britons may not even have heard. Part of the reason is that she herself has an aura of seriousness that bespeaks something new about leading ladies in Hollywood. Move over, Michelle Pfeiffer, Demi Moore and Sharon Stone, here comes Helen Hunt. She may not have your glitz or sexy looks, but ask the pundits about this year's Best Actress Oscar tips, and hers is often the name they mention first.

That is because of her riveting performance in one of the current hottest films here, about a compulsively offensive writer and his slow path to redemption under the guidance of a struggling, down-trodden mother who is the only person willing to serve him in his favourite restaurant.

Ms Hunt, 34, plays the waitress and by rights she should not be the one shining in this film, As Good As It Gets, directed by James L Brooks. Her co-star is Jack Nicholson, so she risked being instantly eclipsed. She also faced competition from another in its cast who is as winning as it is ugly, a glob of canine fur of the Brussels griffon breed.

Time magazine recently devoted a four-page feature to Ms Hunt, whom it tagged the "serious siren". It ended with a rare testimonial: "Hollywood needs someone like Hunt, an actress who is both glamorous and grounded. Hunt may have a chance to define feminism, and redefine feminity, for a more mature movie audience - and, by her success, get different kinds of good movies made."

Hunt's sudden rise is all the more remarkable because of whence she comes. While she began her Hollywood career aged nine and has appeared in a few films such as Peggy Sue Got Married and the 1996 disaster flick Twister, her American fame derives from an NBC sitcom called Mad About You. Co-starring Paul Reiser, it tracks the travails of a New York married couple.

It has been a big hit in the US for five years but, as many other sitcom travellers will tell you, the journey from television to the big screen is a hard one to conquer. Just look at the recent celluloid efforts of cast members from hit shows such as Friends and even Seinfeld. Most have been more or less tacky and financially disastrous.

To be sure, Hunt, blond and slender, is sexy. But it is a subtle sort of appeal that resides somewhere in the corners of her mouth and her knowing eyes. Most critics also see something special in the intensity of her acting. Said Nicholson about her: "She is a juggernaut of ability ... she is deliberate, very precise, knows what she wants. She's really inspiring."

Audiences in London will have the chance to agree or disagree when As Good As It Gets opens in Britain in a few weeks. If you recognise Hunt, it may be from her occasional role two decades ago in the TV series The Swiss Family Robinson. If you don't, there is no need to fret. If the buzz has got it right, Hunt is an actress we will all be getting to know very well very soon.