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).
But her fortunes began to turn with a supporting role in Ed Harris' long-anticipated Jackson Pollock biopic Pollock (2000) that finally brought the actress much-deserved, mainstream critical recognition for her work. Reunited with Harris from their pairing in an earlier stage production of Sam Shepard's Simpatico, Harden's role as Pollock's dysfunctional muse earned her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2000 Academy Awards.
The dawning years of the new millennium were undeniably kind to the tireless actress, and after a trio of made-for-television movies in the year 2000 Harden essayed the role of a stylish but enigmatic catalyst to a mystery with decidedly comic undertones in Susan Seidelman's Gaudi Afternoon, and portrayed the NASA engineer love interest of Tommy Lee Jones's crop duster, Hawk, in Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys; Harden and Eastwood forged a strong professional bond and would work together again, several years later.
A brief foray into sitcom territory followed soon thereafter, when Harden co-starred with Richard Dreyfuss in shortlived television series The Education of Max Bickford (2001), and the following year, she stuck to the small screen for the mini-series Guilty Hearts and the made-for-television feature King of Texas (the latter earning her a a Golden Sattelite nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Made for Television). An adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear set in the Old West, King of Texas found Harden essaying the role of cattle-baron John Lear's (Patrick Stewart) eldest daughter. Equally busy in 2003, Harden abandoned the small screen to work with some of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Hollywood. Following her second onscreen assignment for Clint Eastwood - in his deeply flawed but commendable ensemble piece Mystic River -
Harden essayed the role of a mother attempting to adopt a South American girl in longtime indie filmmaker John Sayles' Casa de Los Babys and provided a key supporting performance in Mike Newell's Mona Lisa Smile. She contributed to the disappointing (and eminently forgettable) Gene Hackman/Ray Romano onscreen pairing Welcome to Mooseport (as president Hackman's campaign manager) but fared better by joining the cast of Richard Linklater's remake The Bad News Bears, starring Billy Bob Thornton (Harden plays the mom who brings Thornton's slovenly Morris Buttermaker in to coach the team).
After relatively limited work throughout 2005 - including a small-scale voiceover assignment as Willa Cather in Joel Geyer's Willa Cather: the Road is All and Mrs. Merriman in the heartwarming family drama Felicity: An American Girl Adventure - Harden's activity crescendoed over the course of 2006, with appearances in no less than three A-list features. These entailed work in multiple genres, and suggested a broad array of fun and challenging characterizations. In Lasse Hallstrom's late 2006 docudrama The Hoax, Harden plays Edith Irving, the wife of scam artist Clifford Irving (portrayed by Richard Gere) during his notorious early-1970s scheme to forge an autobiography of the late Howard Hughes. In Paul Weitz's American Dreams, she plays yet another matron - this time the wife of American president Dennis Quaid, as the generally clueless fellow (!) is sent on a nationally-broadcast talent program. And Harden joins the celebrity-studded ensemble of the more conventional Dead Girl - a murder mystery directed by Karen Moncrieff, whose cast members include Harden, Giovanni Ribisi, Brittany Murphy, Piper Laurie, Josh Brolin, and Mary Steenburgen. The plot recalls Ray Lawrence's Lantana, in its investigation of several seemingly-unrelated lives that intersect in unforeseen ways as the mystery surrounding a woman's death is gradually disclosed to the characters and audience.
Offscreen, Harden married property master and occasional location scout Thaddaeus Scheel (Boys on the Side, Houseguest, The Spitfire Grill) in 1996. The couple has three children.