THERE are long and critical stretches of As Good As It Gets when Helen Hunt's face holds the screen in large close-up. She listens to and absorbs what is said to her. Sometimes things are crass, cruel and damaging; at others when the guy says he wants to be a better man because of her, things are just marvellous. She is not the most beautiful woman in the world, and Carol, the waitress she plays, is not meant to be. But her impossible guy - who is played by Jack Nicholson - comes to see that she may be as good as it gets. Helen Hunt's wan, guarded, wry face hangs there, looking like one of those girls next door from the 1930s - Jean Arthur, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell - until she persuades you that she truly is lovely and wondrous.
This sounds like soft stuff these days, but that is because so few people feel at ease with old-fashioned romantic comedy. Even As Good As It Gets lurches along sometimes, but Helen Hunt keeps it together, and tomorrow night in Los Angeles she will win the Oscar for just being so ordinary, decent and perfect.
Although it is possible she won't. She has real competition in four fine British actresses - Kate Winslet in Titanic, Judi Dench as Mrs Brown, Julie Christie in After and Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove. But British fans may not appreciate what Helen Hunt means in the United States, where she has been one of the two central figures in a long-running television sitcom, Mad About You. In America she stands for those qualities that once were utterly endearing in girls next door - that if you hang in there, and persevere, and keep smiling and hoping, your reward will come.
HELEN HUNT was born in Los Angeles on 15 June 1963, a child of the city that has the least sentimental standards for deciding whether your little girl is nice-looking, really pretty, a knockout, or something else again. Hunt never was in the higher realms - not like Michelle Pfeiffer, born in suburban Santa Ana six years earlier, Drew Barrymore, born in LA 12 years later, or especially Norma Jean Mortensen, the fragile source for the cultural weather system known as Marilyn Monroe. Those girls were knockouts. Helen Hunt was a young woman who could look a little narrow-eyed and as sharp, bright and sour as cut lemons. Until she smiles.
Hunt has been an actress from an early age. In LA that means putting your looks on a very public line. It is to the point of the great Los Angeles myth that she made it first in television. Television is regarded as the wrong side of the show-biz tracks, a place where you might get away with having no better than cute-waitress looks.
Her father, Gordon Hunt, was a stage director and then a director of animated films. When she was 11, he got her a small role in a forgotten series called Amy Prentiss. Next year, she played in a television series that lasted one season. Aged 14, she was cast in a show that was cancelled half-way through its debut season.
She worked in television movies, too. She had a small role in the feature film Rollercoaster in 1977. Then, when she was 17, she was the plucky lead in The Miracle of Kathy Miller, about a teenager who overcomes brain damage in a car crash to become a top athlete. It may have been a true story, but it was in the television-movie tradition of cheesy hype.
But she got noticed, and she was picking up a basic acting education as she went from one show to another. As she got to be 20, however, she did not have the face that led to fast promotion. So there were more television movies. By the mid-1980s, Hunt's career was in real doubt. Nothing had clicked; an ominous pattern was emerging in the titles of her credits. She had a nice supporting part in Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married, and girlfriend roles in a few poor movies like Next of Kin, though she was touching as the girlfriend to the paraplegic Eric Stoltz in The Waterdance. That had a delicate love scene in which everyone noticed she had a terrific body. But she was pushing 30.
Then she got the part of the wife, Jamie, in a new sitcom Mad About You, set to open in September 1992. It was created by Danny Jacobson and its male co-star, Paul Reiser, and it had a concept you could fit on a postcard: a newly married couple living in Manhattan, smart, hip, educated people; he's a documentary film-maker and she will open up a public relations business. They are mad about each other, but they bicker, they compete, and they delight in the small everyday frauds and deceits of married life. There was no reason to think it would succeed where others, so similar, had flopped. But the writing was good and a real, tart chemistry developed between Reiser and Hunt, both playing characters who were rather cold and aloof, somewhat controlling, inclined to be self- centred and neurotic.
It was a testing time. They had to produce a season of two six half-hour shows on which Reiser was part owner and frequent writer and Hunt was facing what was likely to be her last shot. It was not an easy or sweet set, but the antagonism worked for the show. As in many happy marriages, it helps if the couples are always arguing. Insiders on the show began to report a running debate about which star was the bigger pain in the neck.
Mad About You never got into the top 10 in the ratings. There was much doubt as to whether it would be picked up after its first season, but NBC stuck by it and the on-camera mood flourished as it became clear that smart young marrieds - those people, of course, who are most pursued by advertisers - liked the show a lot. It is in its sixth season, and Hunt has three times won the Emmy for best actress in a comedy series. With justice, for she has improved out of sight. She makes 26 hours of film in a year and she has learnt a nice, understated playing style that works beautifully against the fussy, overdone Reiser.
Whether there will be a seventh season hinges on Monday night. Hunt had built herself up to $500,000 (pounds 290,000) a show. She has become a national sweetheart, as well as a very deft comic actress. But she kept on plugging away at movies in her off-season. Nothing happened until Twister, in which she played a weather expert with a bitter-sweet failed marriage, rushing around the prairie after tornadoes in a flimsy top. Anyone could have played the part, but Twister was a summer hit, and she was cute and she was OK. Hollywood looked again, and James Brooks gave her the best part she ever had in As Good As It Gets.
That film has been a hit; and the industry wisdom is that she is what made the tricky picture work. If she wins the Oscar, she's a new star. Even if she doesn't, she's going to be offered a new range of parts. But she's 35 this year and there are worry lines on her face already. So she's asking $1.25m per episode to do another season of Mad About You. She's being offered $750,000. The negotiations might be settled this very weekend, or late on Monday.
MEANWHILE, Hunt has directed a couple of episodes in the current season - and she got her father in as a director some time ago. She is married, to the actor Hank Azaria, and you can tell it all as a happy story. But then there are inside reports that Hunt is more ambitious than ever, and more full of herself now that she has broken through the Hollywood class barrier. Maybe she will now direct a movie. Maybe she will become a huge star. Others say she's still the girl next door just getting a bit above herself. The answer is on the screen and in your hearts. If she moves you in As Good As It Gets and beats the British invasion to win the Oscar, you'll see how beautiful a rather sharp-faced woman can be.
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