“So I took it home and I read it…I was blown away. I loved the script, the role — I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is incredible.’ And I walked into my brand-new agent’s office the next day, and I put the script down on his desk, and I was like, ‘I have two words for you: Jerry Maguire.’”—Actress Connie Britton quoted in Susan Dominus, “Connie Britton is a Late Bloomer,” The New York Times Magazine, February 17, 2013
Over a decade ago, a high school friend of mine who had gone into acting bemoaned his big missed chance. In one of his recent films, he groaned, his big scene—he got to arrest Paul Newman in one of the screen legend’s later films—had been left on the cutting-room floor. Many actors have similar tales to tell--or worse.
One who has, and has lived to triumph on her own terms, is the subject of this post. As everyone who’s seen Jerry Maguire knows by now, Tom Cruise never got around to saying “You complete me” to Connie Britton. She had done so well with the audition and read-through with Cruise that, she was told, they were only going to test “one more actress.”
More’s the pity, I say. Oh, Renee Zellwegger was perfectly fine in her career-making role, but, after seeing what Britton has done since then, with infinitely less material, I think that writer-director Cameron Crowe missed a chance to take his movie to another level. Who knows why these things happen? “Maybe I was too tall,” Britton joked in her interview with Susan Dominus a few weeks ago. As far as I’m concerned, the implication there about the insecurity of her prospective male lead sounds as good a reason as any for what seems inexplicable to me.
I’ve seen only a few episodes of several TV series with which Britton—who turns 46 today—has been associated (and one episode too many of another, American Horror Story), but I’ve been incredibly impressed each time by her work in, successively, Spin City, Friday Night Lights and Nashville. I’m thankful that the advent of the video age has allowed me to catch up on her work at my leisure.
But then, I knew early on that she was something special. It came in a low-budget indie film she made before the Jerry Maguire audition, The Brothers McMullen. Maybe later this month, I’ll surmount my annoyance about that movie’s clichés about Irish-American drinking, Catholic guilt, etc., and glory in what gave me initial false hope for writer-director-star Edward Burns’s career: the wonderful soundtrack (featuring Sarah Maclachlan’s beyond-beautiful “I Will Remember You”) and Britton’s performance.
Britton remains forever grateful to Burns for giving her the role that allowed her to have a career at all after years of unsuccessful auditions. All well and good, but when you see her as Connie McMullen, the much-put-upon sister-in-law of Burns’ character, you see her soar far, far above her material and fellow cast mates. Vivacity, unpretentiousness, and flintinesss comes from every pore, as she reacts to her unfaithful husband, and you wonder: why on earth doesn’t she stray on him? I mean, why is oldest brother Jack McMullen even thinking of straying when he has her?
Part of what I saw carries over to the small screen now, in Nashville, that All About Eve primetime soap in the world's country-music capital. Her role as Rayna has allowed Britton has become an iconic older woman, even the subject of her own Twitter hashtag, #conniebrittonshair. More power to her. That success is enough to renew one’s faith in the small screen, after all.
There’s one scene, in one of the first episodes of her former series, Friday Night Lights, that illustrates what Britton can bring to bear on any role. In it, her character, Tami Taylor, tells her husband Eric, the new high-school football coach facing unrelenting pressure in his gridiron-obsessed Texas town, that she believes in him.
Britton speaks the words slowly and quietly, but she holds the camera steadily with her eyes. It’s not a scene with flights of eloquence, but Britton nails it. Eric Taylor is the man responsible for lifting his team’s spirits in the week up to (and including during) gametime, but Tami, it becomes plain, is the one who makes it possible for him to go on.
Britton’s rendition of those lines motivates more powerfully, it seems to me, than a dozen male actors reciting the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V.
(The photo of Britton that accompanies this post was taken by Jeff Balke at the premiere of Grindhouse, March 2007.)