Often noted for her striking feature debut as a gun-toting seductress in the Coen brothers' noirish gangster crime thriller Miller's Crossing (1990), Marcia Gay Harden has since bounced between disparaging disappointment and critical prosperity, and is commonly praised for her chameleon-like ability to immerse herself in characters that are often the polar opposite of the cheerfully optimistic actress.
Born in La Jolla, CA, on August 14, 1959, as the third of five children in a military family, Harden's clan moved constantly. Her passion for drama sparked by a period that the family spent in Greece (when she attended Athenian plays), Harden studied drama in college, earning a B.A. in theater from the University of Texas, and an M.F.A. in theater from New York University. After graduation, Harden continued to hone her acting talents on stage in Washington, D.C. Immediately evincing an innate ability to portray a wide range of characterizations, Harden earned two Helen Hayes Award nominations - one for her role in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and one for her role in The Miss Firecracker Contest. Angels in America brought Harden to Broadway, where she found further success in earning both Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations, as well as winning the Theater World Award for Best Actress. Though she had made an impressive screen debut in Miller's Crossing, disappointment soon followed with a slew of critically shunned successes mixed with a series of creative misfires. Though discouraged in the critics' failure to recognize what Harden considered to be some of her best work, Harden began to focus less on Hollywood validation for happiness, and instead shifted her attention to refining her acting abilities. Moving from quirky dramatic roles, such as her manipulative character in Crush (1992), to quiet dramas like 1996's The Spitfire Grill, and such mainstream efforts as The First Wives Club (also 1996) and Meet Joe Black (1998), Harden felt comfortable in a wide variety of roles. She also occasionally compromised on her choice of material during this period (perhaps out of necessity) - such as the dumb-dumb comedy Spy Hard, with Leslie Nielsen, and the 1997 Absent Minded Professor rehash Flubber (starring Robin Williams).