By Brian Skutle
We all have points of reference for when we’re introduced to an actor, and whatever that is has a tendency to imprint on us, and influence us whenever we see them in other movies. If your first time really seeing, say, Robert Downey Jr., was in “Iron Man” (2008) or any of his performances as Tony Stark, you’re not going to be prepared for him in something like “Soapdish” (1991) or “Chaplin” (1992), and you’ll probably be looking for glints of that Stark persona when you catch up with movies like those or “Air America” (1990) or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005). Some actors lean into a specific role, however, regardless of how varied the projects are, and I think that, for the most part, Jennifer Connelly has done that over the years.
When “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) began its historic box-office run earlier this summer, it was, unarguably, the biggest spotlight Connelly has had in probably two decades, when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). But her career is not just defined by a single Oscar win, or being in the movie that “saved movie theatres,” as many people dubbed “Maverick.” That being said, it’s been great to see people on social media appreciate Connelly’s work as Penny Benjamin in the film, and to basically enter a fandom for her I’ve been a part of since the 1990s. Her role could have easily been, simply, the payoff to a joke from the 1986 film, when Maverick (Tom Cruise)’s dalliance with the “Admiral’s daughter” is treated as a reflection of the character’s recklessness. To not just the writer’s credit, but Cruise’s and Connelly’s, Penny is more than just a call back to the first film, but represents something Pete Mitchell has been missing in his life- someone to come home to, to survive for. Penny is ultimately the heart of the movie, and that’s something that Connelly has often found herself playing over the years.
I think my first, real familiarity with Connelly came from her role as Emma in Alex Proyas’s “Dark City” (1998). Being a 20-year-old man, naturally, a crush followed because of her beauty, and I went back to watch more of her work, especially “Career Opportunities” (1991)- with its much-memed scene of her in a white tank top, riding a children’s mechanical horse in a superstore- and “The Hot Spot” (1990), a sexy film noir from Dennis Hopper. But “Dark City” has always been special for me, though, and it’s the on-screen persona I most identify with Connolly. In it, she is the wife of the main protagonist, and is a lounge singer. The catch is, they aren’t really married- they only think they are because aliens known as the Strangers, who manipulate memories for their experiments to see what makes people human. The main character, John Murdock (Rufus Sewell), is missing key memories he’s supposed to have, but Emma has them all. When they first meet in the film, Emma is so very certain of her feelings for him, and knows what the Strangers have implanted in her as to why he might be so distant. Are her feelings genuine, though? In their next major scene, on opposite sides of glass when she’s visiting him in jail- where he has been imprisoned for murders the Strangers have framed him for, in hopes of seeing if someone with the memories of a killer would continue to kill- we get our answer. By this point, we’ve seen Emma become someone who cares about what John is going for, and gets invested in his plight, and John recognizes that. The scene is the most emotional one in the movie, and a lot of it is because of Connelly’s performance, which defies the shallow archetypes of film noir women it was adapted from, and becomes a compelling presence in her own right.
For a lot of people, their first point of reference with Connolly was 1986’s “Labyrinth.” I might have watched this one as a kid because I was into the Muppets and Fraggle Rock, but I was more of a “Dark Crystal” (1982) fan, so my familiarity came when I was older. Connelly plays a teenager who is reluctantly watching her baby half-brother when he is taken by the Goblin King. To get him back, she must make it through a dangerous labyrinth to get to him. She is still a bit rough around the edges as an actress, but again, the natural radiance of her personality comes through, and we see why the creatures in the labyrinth would help her. Part of that is the infectious sense of fun Jim Henson is able to create in fantasy, but so much of it is on Connelly, and she makes “Labyrinth” work even more than the puppetry and music does. (As an aside, I do like how Penny’s introduction in “Maverick” is set to a David Bowie song, as a reference to Connelly’s late, great “Labyrinth” co-star.)
One movie that challenges my point is Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” (2000). If this was your first time watching Connelly, I’m not quite sure what you would think of her as she’s playing a young woman who’s addicted to drugs, and will do anything to get that fix. But she and her boyfriend, Harry (played by Jared Leto) are also dealing for a purpose; they want to make their dreams come true. For Marion, Connelly’s character, that is opening a clothing story for her designs. This is a harrowing film, and Connelly is asked to go through some profoundly upsetting moments, but there’s a moment near the end of the film where Marion is at the end of a Coney Island pier. It’s a moment that mirrors the final scene of “Dark City,” which gave us hope for another, brighter day for the character. In this film, it’s reflective of a happy ending that isn’t coming for any of these characters. But regardless of whether we agree with the choices Marion makes in this film, I think Connelly’s performance helps us understand those choices, and allow us to have empathy for her, all the same.
Her next big film was 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind.” Ron Howard’s Best Picture winner is a biopic about John Nash (Russell Crowe), a mathematician whose mind is broken after being involved in a government project. Connelly’s character, Alicia, is a student he falls in love with, and will stand by him at every turn in his journey. If there’s one Oscar “A Beautiful Mind” did deserve to win, it’s Connelly’s. Yes, there were other great performances, and yes, the film takes significant liberties with Nash’s story, but like her Emma in “Dark City,” Alicia is Nash’s North Star, and the heart of this complicated psychological story. She also played a similar role as Betty Ross in Ang Lee’s “Hulk” in 2003, and when she reunited with both Russell Crowe and Aronofsky in 2014’s surreal Biblical epic, “Noah.” As I said earlier, some actors just fit into a specific role; it takes a great one to hold our interest every time they inhabit it.
If I don’t mention other notable roles of hers such as her debut in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984), Joe Johnston’s “The Rocketeer” (1991), “House of Sand and Fog” (2003), Todd Field’s “Little Children” (2006) or Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” (2006)- among others- it’s because I either haven’t seen them (in the case of Leone’s film), or don’t remember her impact in them as well. After “Top Gun: Maverick” reminded me of what her presence in films brings to a story, I may be rectifying that situation.