NEW YORK — When the nominations for the 82nd annual Academy Awards were announced Feb. 2, there was one bona fide surprise acting nomination: Maggie Gyllenhaal for best supporting actress in writer-director Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart.” In the tradition of Laura Linney in “The Savages” or Marcia Gay Harden in “Mystic River,” Ms. Gyllenhaal, with virtually no precursor support from critics organizations during awards season, landed an out-of-nowhere nomination that left just about everybody buzzing.
The Oscars being a kind of family tradition, Maggie joined brother Jake (supporting actor, “Brokeback Mountain”) and mom Naomi Foner (best original screenplay, “Running on Empty”) in the nominees club against the odds, trumping such favorites as Samantha Morton (“The Messenger”), Julianne Moore (“A Single Man”) and Diane Kruger (“Inglourious Basterds”) for the coveted spot in the final five.
It was a foregone conclusion that veteran performer Jeff Bridges would land among the nominees for best actor, having justifiably received the lion’s share of critical praise for his towering turn as grizzled country musician “Bad” Blake (he is the favorite to win on Oscar night). Ms. Gyllenhaal’s beleagured single-mother journalist Jean Craddock has flown decidedly under the radar until now. It is the benchmark of any great character actress to be able to achieve this kind of subtlety and nuance opposite showier turns such as Bridges’.
Jean is a bit of a mystery in “Crazy Heart.” We know she’s had bad luck with men. We know she has a young son. She has a fledgling career as a music journalist. Other than that, Ms. Gyllenhall wisely chooses to leave a few deliberate loose ends dangling in the wind, making Jean a little bit of a mystery but also positing her directly in the moment.
“Maggie kind of approaches it like I do,” said Mr. Bridges this past December in New York. “Which is, getting to know the people you’re playing with as much as you can so you can bring some of that genuine friendship and caring, you know, up to the screen.”
“I wanted to work,” emphasized Ms. Gyllenhaal during “Crazy Heart’s” Manhattan press junket. “I had so much built up, you know?”
Jean is a carefree young woman ruled by romance and her emotions up to a point, but also one with a clear direction and one who knows when romance is not enough to sustain a life.
“I think she doesn’t think, a lot,” said the actress. “She acts so recklessly throughout this movie, and that’s how I was. I just went with what felt good and just didn’t think. And then she gets smacked across the face.”
Who hasn’t been there? Unlucky in love, unlucky in her profession but eager to let these new experiences shape her without ripping her life apart. Jean is a universal character with whom audiences can easily empathize. That Ms. Gyllenhaal’s everywoman single mom doesn’t get completely swallowed up opposite such a rapacious, colorful character such as Bad, and that she grounds Bad’s flights of alcoholic fancy in earthy realism, are a testament to the actress’s strength and skill.
For fans of Ms. Gyllenhaal, these capabilities are far from new. It could be argued that her Oscar nomination has been a long time coming when glancing at her accomplished resume, which includes scorching lead performances in 2003′s sweetly kinky “Secretary” and the John Cassavetes-esque “Sherrybaby,” as well as solid supporting turns for directors Oliver Stone (“World Trade Center”), John Sayles (“Casa de los Babys”) and Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”).
“The thing that was cool about (“The Dark Knight”), really, really notable, was that everybody, in every department, was an expert,” said Ms. Gyllenhaal. “Which is not always the case on a tiny movie. Whether you like the style of the movie or not, the people who were working on sound (on a big-budget film) are probably not going to make a silly mistake. On a small movie, people sometimes do make silly mistakes. What’s funny about that is on a small movie, a silly little mistake can set you back massively.”
Ms. Gyllenhaal will next be seen in Emma Thompson’s sequel “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” opposite such luminaries as Maggie Smith and Ralph Fiennes. She spoke about a desire to return to live theater to work with Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton and her husband, actor Peter Sarsgaard.
“If we did that, we’d want to do it tiny, the same way we did ‘Uncle Vanya,’ ” said Ms. Gyllenhaal. “In a way, if it’s tiny enough, you don’t even need reviews. You just kind of open your door when you’re ready if it’s a small enough theater and you’re not needing to fill seats. You do a tiny bit of advertising, and you just do whatever you want!”
Look for her to be more fashion-forward than the other Oscar nominees on March 7 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater.