Arts & Culture

Holly Hunter’s Best Southern Roles

The Georgia native may not be up for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, but few do the South better

Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Lionsgate

Holly Hunter as Beth in The Big Sick.

It’s slim pickin’s for Southerners in the major acting categories at this year’s Oscars—only the Texas native Woody Harrelson and Alabama’s own Octavia Spencer received nods for their supporting roles in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water, respectively. But there’s one snub in particular that has us fit to be tied: Holly Hunter.

Yes, the Conyers, Georgia, native may have already won a little gold man for The Piano, but that was a quarter-century ago. And Hunter dominated 2017’s The Big Sick, in which she portrays a strong, protective North Carolina mother. But just because she didn’t get a Supporting Actress nomination doesn’t mean we can’t praise her. For your consideration: Our five favorite Southern films starring Hunter—a woman who never tries to hide her accent, her homegrown roots, or her mind-boggling talent.

Broadcast News (1987)

Debra Winger was originally supposed to star as Jane Craig—a brilliant television producer in Washington, D.C., caught between two reporters played by Albert Brooks and William Hurt—in Broadcast News, but thank goodness Hunter stepped in when Winger became pregnant. A star was born, and the Oscars acknowledged her with a Best Actress nom.

Miss Firecracker (1989)

Family rivalries. Fading beauty. A rural county fair beauty pageant. Catfish guts. And if all that isn’t appealingly Southern Gothic enough, the movie was filmed in Yazoo City, “Gateway City to the Delta,” which is, as everyone knows, the most Southern place on earth. Hunter sparkles as Carnelle Scott, a fiery fish-gutter with dreams as big as the chip on her shoulder, in this adaptation of Jackson, Mississippi, native Beth Henley’s 1984 play The Miss Firecracker Contest.

The Firm (1993)

Tom Cruise might have gotten top billing as Mitch McDeere, a young lawyer who realizes his new Memphis firm may not be on the up and up, in this thriller based on the eponymous novel by the Mississippi native John Grisham. But in our eyes, The Firm might as well be renamed The Holly. She’s the one you remember best, as Tamara “Tammy” Hemphill, the chain-smoking secretary and girlfriend to Gary Busey’s private eye (and erstwhile jailbird) Eddie Lomax.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

I’ll tell you where he is. He’s getting his butt chewed out by Holly’s Penny, ex-wife to Everett McGill, the Mississippi ne’er-do-well played by George Clooney.

The Big Sick (2017)

Based on a true-life romance between Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, The Big Sick ostensibly stars Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan as a couple brought together by an illness. But enough about them. The performance by Kazan’s North Carolina parents—played by Hunter and a laudable Ray Romano—is what will really blow your hair back.


Do TV movies count? When they’re The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993), we’re going to say, “yes.” Hunter won a well-deserved Emmy for her portrayal of Wanda Holloway, the gimlet-eyed small-town Texas woman who tried to put a hit out on her daughter’s main competition for the middle-school cheerleading squad. In the movie’s third act, when all the characters attempt to sell the film rights to their stories, the satire takes a meta turn: A writer sees someone like Holly Hunter in the role of Wanda. We couldn’t see anyone else.