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A little Oscar sunshine for actor Alan Arkin

Decades after his last nomination, the veteran is up again for a golden statue for his work in Little Miss Sunshine. Still, he doesn't claim to have figured out Hollywood.

Published February 4, 2007


WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. - Although Alan Arkin has appeared in dozens of movies since 1957, playing everything from heartbreakingly serious (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter) to hilariously harried (The In-Laws), he said he actually felt good about at first being turned down for a role in the independent comedy Little Miss Sunshine.

That role has earned him his first Oscar nomination in a very long time. But the character, Edwin Hoover, was a foulmouthed 80-year-old, frail and shaky from years of drug abuse and bad behavior. "It's the best rejection I ever got in my life: They thought I was too virile," said Arkin, 72, flexing his biceps and striking a muscleman pose during lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

Even today, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband-and-wife team who directed Little Miss Sunshine, sound a bit sheepish when explaining why they passed him over at first. "We thought Alan was too young for it, in such good health," Faris said by telephone recently. Then, she recalled, after speaking with Arkin and reflecting on his body of work, she and her husband thought, "Are we crazy?"

Certainly no crazier than the middle class clan at the center of the movie, in which an aspiring motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear) and his frazzled wife (Toni Collette) embark on a breakneck trip from Albuquerque, N.M., to Redondo Beach, Calif., to deliver their shiny-eyed young daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), to a kiddie beauty pageant.

Along for the ride in their Volkswagen van is the rest of Olive's family: her suicidal uncle (Steve Carell), her Nietzsche-loving teenage brother (Paul Dano) and her leather-vested grandpa (Arkin), a retirement home refugee who enlivens the long hours by dishing out inappropriate advice and bragging about his sexual conquests. Yet when he gazes at his granddaughter, Arkin somehow conveys a desire to blanket her with unconditional love and protect her from the world's ugliness.

Last January at the Sundance Film Festival, when Arkin saw the 1,200-seat auditorium where Little Miss Sunshine would be screened, he wondered if he needed to figure out how to protect himself, in this case from exaggerated expectations. "I was nervous," he said. "It's a little movie. I thought it was going to tank."

Instead, the distribution rights were snatched up by Fox Searchlight for a record $10.5-million. The film also prompted an unusual response during the postscreening question-and-answer session.

"Nobody had questions," Arkin said. "People would raise their hands and say, 'We just want to come up there and hug everybody.' The reaction was unbelievable. I've never experienced anything like that."

Six months later, when Little Miss Sunshine was released, critics praised Arkin not just for his comic timing but for his lively representation of the over-70 crowd.

Now Arkin is savoring - albeit quietly - his first Oscar nomination since 1969, when he was recognized for his portrayal of a deaf-mute in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

When asked what edge he might have in the Oscar race, he shrugged and said: "I don't feel like I spent a lot of time trying to figure out anything about Hollywood. I've never felt comfortable in this arena."

In conversation, Arkin is the picture of unwasted energy. During lunch here, the transporting of food by chopsticks was his only movement. Occasionally, when asked, he offered an anecdote about his life.

He perked up when discussing his three actor sons, Adam, Matthew and Anthony, as well as a couple of achievements worthy of note in a Wikipedia profile: He has written 10 well-received children's books and was a co-writer of a version of The Banana Boat Song back in the mid '50s, while playing guitar and singing baritone for the Tarriers, a folk group.

Just as often, though, he deflected questions with a dry joke, a short response or a simple "I don't remember," then returned to his scallion pancakes and snow peas. In his silences, one was reminded that although his signature is his deep, almost monotone voice, he also has a gift for injecting emotion in wordless moments.

For Robert Ellis Miller, who directed Arkin in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, it was this knack that gave such poignancy to his portrayal of a bachelor isolated by his inability to speak or hear. "His facial expressions, his eyes, told you so much, his body language," Miller said. "You could read his thoughts."

Arkin, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with his third wife, Suzanne, seems more comfortable talking about his freedom to pick and choose his roles. "I don't climb Matterhorns anymore," he said. "I'm liking life too much to knock my brains out. There was a time where I'd be: 'Hitler, yeah! Mussolini? Sign me up!' Then, as the temperature started rising on my happiness thermometer, I lost interest in being in a state of pain on anybody's behalf."

[Last modified February 1, 2007, 12:51:43]

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