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Watch the 7 best movies from the greatest actor that fans barely knew

Chris Hewitt, Star Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

Be­fore greet­ings are ex­changed, Cherry Jones begs for for­give­ness.

"I must a­pol­o­gize. I'm hope­less with dia­lects," said Jones, even be­fore be­ing asked about her ac­cent in "The Eyes of Tam­my Faye," which opens today and in which she plays the moth­er who raised fu­ture ev­an­ge­list Tam­my Faye Bak­ker in International Falls, Minn. "I'm ab­so­lute­ly not the per­son to ask [about that dia­lect], clear­ly. I'm from Ten­nes­see and I did the best I could."

The vet­er­an stage ac­tor's ac­cent sounds fine, in­ci­den­tal­ly, subtler than, say, the "Fargo" brand of the Minnesota sound. But it's very on-brand for the two-time Tony Award win­ner ("Doubt" and "The Heir­ess") to under­play her skill.

Al­though she's been act­ing for more than four de­cades, movies are still rel­a­tive­ly un­fa­mil­iar for the woman who of­ten plays peo­ple from Yan­kee stock with strong mo­ral back­bones. You could ar­gue she's in a sim­i­lar vein as Kath­ar­ine Hep­burn but it's tell­ing that Hep­burn only played mov­ie leads and Jones has nev­er played one.

As a re­sult, she may be the great­est ac­tor that mov­ie fans bare­ly know. In New York, she's spoken of with hushed rev­er­ence. Both of her Tony Award-winning roles are a­mong the finest stage per­form­an­ces I've seen but, in the movies, she's li­a­ble to pop in for a scene or two as a pres­i­dent's wife (El­ea­nor Roo­se­velt in "Amelia") or a singer's mom (in the Hank Williams biopic "I Saw the Light").

They may not be great parts but Jones' de­tailed and at­ten­tive act­ing makes them seem great. Her char­ac­ters are al­ways in­tel­li­gent, in­clud­ing a lot of au­thor­i­ty fig­ures, not just as first lady but also as president on "24," vice pres­i­dent in "The Bea­ver" and a ty­coon on HBO's "Suc­ces­sion." There's grav­i­ty and forth­right­ness in Jones. Some say act­ing is lying but when she speaks, every word is believable.

Her skills are on dis­play a­gain in "Tam­my Faye." Moviegoers will see how efficiently she works when she at­tends a tap­ing of her daugh­ter's "PTL" tel­e­vi­sion show and, when asked to stand in the audi­ence, her weary glare of re­fus­al seems to condemn the whole re­li­gious/in­dus­trial com­plex. Or when Bak­ker re­veals she's engaged and her mom's im­me­di­ate re­sponse is baf­fled, si­lent dis­be­lief.

When told her char­ac­ter feels like the heart of "Tam­my Faye," Jones is mod­est.

"She is such a tough­ie. I'm amazed any­one could come away feel­ing that way but I'm hap­py be­cause I do think she's lov­ing," said Jones, while as­sem­bling a to­ma­to/bean sal­ad for a gath­er­ing of the cast of up­com­ing min­i­se­ries "Five Days at Memorial."

If you go to "Tam­my Faye," you'll want to see more of the ac­tor, which hap­pens a lot. She's not the star of any of the following movies. But think of her, in­stead, as the cherry on top.

'SIGNS'

M. Night Shyamalan's thrill­er seems to be about an alien in­va­sion but it's re­al­ly about grief that stopped its hero, an ex-priest played by Mel Gibson, in his tracks. We don't know the de­tails un­til a climactic flash­back shows a re­gret-filled po­lice of­fi­cer (Jones) telling him his wife is dead. Jones deals with a lot of the ex­po­si­tion in the sur­pris­ing­ly mov­ing film, imbuing it with com­pas­sion and grace (and, may­be, a hint of ro­mance?).

'MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN'

 

One fiery speech es­tab­lish­es Jones, play­ing an ac­tiv­ist fight­ing in­jus­tice in 1950s Man­hat­tan, as the con­science of Ed­ward Norton's styl­ish reimagining of Jon­a­than Lethem's novel.

'OUR FRIEND'

The in­tel­li­gent tear-jerker didn't have much of an im­pact when it came and went from theaters last win­ter but I hope peo­ple dis­cover it at home. Dakota Johnson plays a woman who is strug­gling with can­cer. Jones plays a hos­pice work­er and doesn't show up un­til the end. Her dig­ni­ty, com­pas­sion and hon­es­ty make sense of the film's ap­proach to death and dy­ing.

'ERIN BROCK­O­VICH'

The sim­plic­i­ty of Jones' per­form­ance, as one of the few peo­ple in the mov­ie able to re­sist Jul­ia Roberts' bull­doz­er charm, is breath­tak­ing. Her char­ac­ter only gets a cou­ple of scenes but Jones gets across that she's so beat­en down from fight­ing a gas com­pany that's pois­on­ing her family that she doesn't even have time to feel bad about it any­more. I'd bet mon­ey that di­rec­tor Ste­ven So­der­bergh cast her be­cause he knew that in the scene when she fi­nal­ly agrees to help Brock­o­vich, a single Jones close-up would tell us ev­er­y­thing we need to know.

'OCEANS TWELVE'

How much can one ac­tor pack into five min­utes of screen time? Let Jones show you. First, she's a hard­ened FBI a­gent who ad­vis­es a quak­ing Matt Damon he's about to spend the rest of his life in pris­on, with rats gnaw­ing on his toes. Sec­onds later, be­cause that's the way the "Ocean's" movies roll, ev­er­y­thing has changed and she's Damon's smoth­er­ing-but-play­ful mom. And there are strong hints that's not the end of her sur­pris­es.

'CRADLE WILL ROCK'

Tim Rob­bins' all-star his­tori­cal dra­ma isn't quite sure what it wants to be when it grows up, but Jones en­er­gizes the live­li­est, bright­est parts. As Hallie Flan­a­gan, a gov­ern­ment arts hon­cho dur­ing the Great Depression, she brings a light touch to far­ci­cal walk-and-talk scenes and — quite be­liev­a­bly — en­thus­es about how much she loves live theater.

'WINE COUNTRY'

In con­ver­sa­tion, Jones is breezy and fun­ny but we don't get to see her do much com­e­dy, may­be be­cause she con­veys such au­thor­i­ty. This women's-trip mov­ie, fea­tur­ing Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Ra­chel Dratch and Tina Fey, makes smart use of that, casting Jones as a very se­ri­ous, very woo-woo tar­ot card read­er who warns the women that they're doomed. Jones doesn't have any fun­ny lines but she's so se­ri­ous that her lack of hu­mor is hi­la­ri­ous.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367

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