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Party of Five
by Stephen Rebello (Movieline - March, 1999)

They're five of Young Hollywood's very best. How did Matt Damon, Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Claire Danes triumph over daunting odds to get where they've gotton-and what challenges face them next?

. . .

One of the singular things about Claire Danes is that she comes with a cheering section any aspiring star might envy. Her industry fans include not just the powers who spotted her in the sensitive underdog TV show, My So- Called Life, but extremely influential fellow actresses who've been where she is and clearly see her as a kindred spirit. Winona Ryder championed Danes for both Little Woman and How To Make An American Quilt. Jodie Foster directed her in Home For The Holidays and stumped for her to play Juliet In William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Few who go out their way to mentor so generously are as fully rewared as Ryder and Foster has been. Danes's Beth in Little Women was poised, luminous earth-mother-in-training. And though Home For the Holidays was every bit as messy and irritating as, well, going home for the holidays, Danes performance in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet made up for all of it.

Opposite Leonardo DiCaprio's brashly magnetic Romeo, Danes gave Juliet an incandescent innocence made upon the equal parts moonstruck idealism and openheartedness. Nothing there felt calculated, and in an era when so many young actors get ironic and close-to-the-vest when it comes to playing romance, Danes Juliet was refreshingly free of the knowing nudge or wink. Her guileness, dewy vulnerability alone made for sweer sex appeal. Then there was that stillness in her, an old soul's calm center set off against the loose, ragdoll way she sometimes carried herself. Her melancholy gaze suggested a becoming preternatural gravity.

It made sense that Francis Ford Coppola cast Danes as the battered young wife Matt Damon defended and protected in The Rainmaker; he was playing up the intriguing contradictions in her that anyone could see were ripe for exploiting. Oliver Stone went after the dangerous, volatile child in Danes when he cast her in U-Turn as the desert wild thing who vamp Sean Penn and casually betrays boyfriend Joaquin Phoenix. Bille August saw the fatetossed waif when he cast her as Cosette in Les Misérables.

For each of these estimable directors, filmmakers of the kind few young actress ever get a shot at, Danes was solid and persuasive. But that wide- eyed, sorrowful-observer thing they all wanted from her, the quality she projects so well, began to look repetitive and rote in the aggregate. A misbegotten something like To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday gave reason for pause. By the time she did the would-be art movie Polish Wedding, Danes appeared to be dipping into an emotional well in need of replenishment.

It is pointless to fault Danes for seizing all the opportunities she could, but her aspiration for a long, Class-A career demand that she broaden her range and escape prolonged sameness. Perhaps sensing this, she has taken an intriguing turn in her career course. Following the example set by Jodie Foster, she'll be largely away from filmmaking to feed her head at Yale for awhile. It's a tough road, one that demands disciplines quite different from those of filmmaking, and it's undertaken with no assurance that she will emerge tougher, deeper, more poised and more beautiful the way Foster did.

As if in preparation for deparation, though one of our most high-minded young actresses apparently decided to show us she could be edgy, utterly contemparary and blockbuster-hungary like any other girl in Hollywood-she took the lead role in the big-screen update of the ultra-cool '60's TV show The Mod Squad. At the same time, she went deliberately thespian with Brokedown Palace, a gritty, harrowing Midnight Express-like warning against the perils of getting caught smuggling in a Third World country. (It can't be by accident the director of this film is Jonathan Kaplan, who guide Jodie Foster to post-Yale career resurrection and Oscar with The Accused.) Should Danes come across strongly in either of those film, it will help further the momentum she'll need to keep her star burning while she's rounding herself out with higher education.

With only brief intervals to make films and less choice of projects because of her schedule, Danes is doing something unimaginable to most of her peers. She's not the first actress to step away from movie stardom, but the majority of her predecessors have become wives and mother, politicians, activists, infomercial spokespersons, even nuns. Few actresses, aside from Jodie Foster of Brooke Shields, became bigger stars after they emerged from school. But you can bet the Industry will pull for Danes.

Originally transcribed by: Maly

© Movieline 1999