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Mariska Hargitay


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Mark Feuerstein

Marcia Gay Harden Biography


Home > Actresses > H > Harden, Marcia Gay > Biography


Birth Name: Marcia Gay Harden
Born: 08/14/1959
Birth Place: La Jolla, California, USA


Marcia Gay Harden was born on Aug. 14, 1959, one of five children born to a U.S. Naval captain and his homemaker wife. Harden spent a peripatetic childhood, changing her identity all the time, she would later admit, even pretending to be a boy for a time while living in Japan. Intending to enter diplomatic service, Harden changed her plans while the family was living in Greece. She was overcome during a visit to the historic Parthenon, and while standing at the foot of the ancient stage, she suddenly became determined to join the legacy of thousands of years of dramatic arts. Shortly thereafter, she began attending college in Munich, Germany, appearing onstage in rather heavy material for a newcomer, including works by Albee and Chekhov. Upon the family's return to the United States, she transferred to the University of Texas in Austin, where she earned a BA in Theater Arts in 1983. In the Washington D.C. area, she became active in regional Theater and earned Helen Hayes awards in 1984 and 1985 for productions of "Crimes of the Heart" and "The Miss Firecracker Contest."

Having experienced some success in Washington, Harden moved to Manhattan and had some luck landing small TV and independent film roles. With a desire to strengthen her craft even further, she applied to the masters program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and won a full scholarship. During a school production, Harden caught the eye of a casting director who introduced her to the Coen Brothers. The budding filmmaking brothers selected her over contenders Demi Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh to play the sultry, husky-voiced Verna in "Miller's Crossing." One of the Coen Brothers' earliest efforts, the stylized film had its detractors, however Harden did gain notice as a "Promising New Actor of 1990" in John Willis' Screen World. Harden was tapped for back-to-back TV thrillers before 1991's "Late for Dinner," in which she successfully portrayed a woman who aged from her twenties to her fifties, demonstrating the flair for character work that would become her hallmark.

Harden's classic Hollywood looks helped round out a successful embodiment of Hollywood beauty Ava Gardner in the biographical miniseries "Sinatra" (CBS, 1992) before the relative newcomer joined a bevy of Oscar-winning actresses, including Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates in "Used People" (1992), playing a grieving, neurotic, Hollywood-obsessed mother who reenacts celebrated performances of famous leading ladies. Harden went on to receive excellent notices for her leading role in "Crush" (1992), in which she essayed a careless American who ingratiates herself into the lives and beds of a writer and his grown daughter. The directorial debut from Alison Maclean was nominated for the Palm D'Or at Cannes.

Onstage, Harden headlined a 1992 Chicago production of "The Skin of Our Teeth" and acted alongside Paul McCrane and Frank Whaley in the Off-Broadway play "The Years" in 1993. Later that year, she earned a Tony nomination for her portrait of a fragile Mormon wife who develops an addiction to Valium as her marriage crumbles in Tony Kushner's landmark epic, "Angels in America." Harden segued to supporting Ed Harris and Beverly D'Angelo in Sam Shepard's "Simpatico," produced at The Public Theatre in 1994.

Returning to the big screen, Harden received excellent reviews for her portrayal of the timid wife of a local businessman who blossoms when she begins working at "The Spitfire Grill" (1996), but her talents were subsequently underused when she was cast opposite the manic Robin Williams in "Flubber" (1997). A turn as the brittle daughter of a wealthy man (Anthony Hopkins) in "Meet Joe Black" (1998) helped Harden break through to a new level of Hollywood drama, and in 2000, she lent an intelligence and sultriness to her role of a NASA engineer romanced by over-the-hill astronaut Tommy Lee Jones in "Space Cowboys" (2000). Later in the year, Harden was suddenly in the bright spotlight for her portrayal of Lee Krasner in "Pollock" (2000), Ed Harris' labor-of-love biopic of the tempestuous artist. Sporting a thick Brooklyn accent and forceful screen presence, Harden perfectly matched director-star Harris' portrayal of the tortured title artist. Harden was the surprise winner of that year's Best Supporting Actress Academy Award - and her stunning burgundy satin dress was the talk of fashion commentators who generally voted her best on the red carpet.

Her post-Oscar choices demonstrated a maverick sensibility, with Harden taking the New York stage alongside Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Kevin Kline, John Goodman and Natalie Portman in Mike Nichols' production of "The Seagull." She made her first foray into series TV with "The Education of Max Bickford" (CBS, 2001-02), co-starring with Richard Dreyfuss as a former student and lover turned professorial rival. She shone opposite Patrick Stewart in the acclaimed Old West retelling of Shakespeare's "King Lear" - "King of Texas" (TNT, 2002). In indie writer-director John Sayles' "Casa de los Babys" (2003), Harden delivered a rich and unsentimental performance as part of a group of six American women traveling to South America to adopt babies. As the Ugly American in an otherwise sympathetic ensemble, Harden dug under the abrasive surface to suggest childhood traumas that had hardened her character and would do likewise to her offspring if she was not able to receive a child. Harden then reunited with Clint Eastwood for one of the director's most accomplished and acclaimed films, "Mystic River" (2003), playing Celeste, the lost soul wife of Dave (Tim Robbins), one of three childhood friends caught up in a murder that threatens to unravel their entire lives. Her harrowing performance was one of the film's best, and earned her a second Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

The actress also had a well-measured role opposite Julia Roberts in "Mona Lisa Smile" (2003) as a prim instructor of deportment, grooming, and table setting in the repressive 1950s environment of Wellesley College, but was less well-served by the script in the middling Ray Romano-Gene Hackman comedy "Welcome to Mooseport" (2004) as the long-suffering, overly doting aide to Hackman's former U.S. President. In the admired indie "P.S." (2004), Harden played the best friend of a woman (Laura Linney) who believes her new 20-year-old beau (Topher Grace) is an identical ringer - including his name - for the deceased boy she loved when she was 20. Like many before her, the Oscar-winning actress endured a run of subpar material with the Lifetime movie "She's Too Young" (2004) and Richard Linklater's remake of "The Bad News Bears" (2005) before a guest run on "Law and Order: SVU" (NBC, 1999- ) earned her an Emmy nomination.

Harden followed up her TV success with an impressive string of independent dramas. She was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for "American Gun" (2005), an IFC film exploring several stories of gun use and misuse among high school students. In "The Dead Girl," Harden played a grieving mother who uncovers the real depth of her daughter's troubles following the girl's death. Likewise, Harden played the mother of a deceased teen watched by her limbo-trapped son in the moderate box office hit "The Invisible" (2007). In Sean Penn's film adaptation of "Into the Wild" (2007) she again found herself coming to grips with the loss of a child, one who first reinvented his identity on the road before eventually dying alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Harden delivered a strong supporting performance in "The Hoax," Lasse Hallstrom's depiction of author Clifford Irving, who gained notoriety following the discovery that his "authorized" biography of Howard Hughes was actually a work of fiction. Harden portrayed the author's conflicted wife before rounding out the year in the ensemble cast of "The Mist" (2007), based on a Stephen King novella about a group of small-town citizens holed up inside a supermarket while the town is terrorized by deadly creatures. In 2013 Harden returned to television with her role as the high-powered New York attorney, Rebecca Halliday, on HBO's "The Newsroom" (2012- ). The show reunited Harden with Jeff Daniels, who played acerbic news anchor Will McAvoy on the Aaron Sorkin-penned series about the various personalities on a bustling cable news show. Harden previously starred alongside Daniels on Broadway in a 2009 production of Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage."