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Jeff Daniels no longer ‘vanilla’

Actor has garnered overdue respect for his role in ‘Squid and the Whale’

The first time I saw Jeff Daniels, he was kissing Christopher Reeve.

The year was 1980, and the occasion was a Broadway performance of Lanford Wilson’s play, “The Fifth of July.” Daniels and Reeve played lovers — a gardener and a disabled Vietnam vet — and it was clear that Daniels was already on his way.

Long before the release of “Brokeback Mountain,” the two actors created a remarkable sense of intimacy with just a few gestures of affection. And although one was Superman and the other an unknown actor, they behaved like equals on-stage.

Born in Georgia and raised in Michigan, where he helped found a theater group, Daniels made his big-screen debut in Milos Forman’s 1981 epic, “Ragtime.” In 1983, he scored his first box-office smash, playing Debra Winger’s philandering husband in “Terms of Endearment,” which swept that year’s Oscars.

Since then, it’s been a bumpy ride, with the misses sometimes dwarfing the hits. “My Favorite Martian” and the live-action “101 Dalmatians” tested the patience of his adult fans, while “Love Hurts” and “Chasing Sleep” were barely released. Critics have sometimes dismissed him as a “vanilla” actor, cleancut, restrained and capable of delivering only a limited range of flavors — though it’s more often the roles, not the actor, that are bland.

Persistent and professional, Daniels has kept at it for a quarter of a century now, establishing more of a range than several contemporaries who have dropped out of sight. The characters he plays in the introspective “The Hours” and the action-driven genre piece, “Speed,” could not be more different, yet he seems completely comfortable in both films.

This year he’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Independent Spirit award for his work as a failed father and husband in “The Squid and the Whale,” for which he’s also received the best reviews of his career. An Oscar nomination could follow.

Of course this performance didn’t come out of nowhere. Daniels, who turned 50 this year and recently started directing his own movies, has been building to it for a long time. Here are 10 films that brought him to this point:

“The Fifth of July” (1982). Richard Thomas took over the Reeve role in the PBS movie of Wilson’s play (available on DVD as part of the Broadway Theatre Archive series), but Daniels and Swoosie Kurtz recreated their Broadway performances (hers won a Tony). At a family gathering in Missouri during Independence Day celebrations, Daniels again makes credible the supportive nature of a somewhat idealized partner.

“Terms of Endearment” (1983). The “vanilla” charge may have begun with this film, in which Daniels has to compete for attention with more volatile characters played by Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson. His weak character, who marries Winger without the approval of her mother (MacLaine), is given the impossible task of becoming Winger’s new family. It’s a thankless role, but Daniels does an effective job of underlining the husband’s frustrations.

“The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985). In Woody Allen’s beloved Depression-era fantasy, Daniels plays a character who literally steps out of the screen to inspire an abused and cheerless wife (Mia Farrow) who’s addicted to escapist movies. Daniels also plays the actor who plays the character; he also falls for Farrow when he visits her New Jersey home. For all the confusion generated by the dual role, Daniels delights in its contradictions.

“Something Wild” (1986). Jonathan Demme’s mad tale of a mild-mannered New York businessman (Daniels) who enters a life of crime by not paying his lunch bill. When he’s picked up for a joy ride by a femme fatale (Melanie Griffith), he enters a parallel universe that includes bondage, robbery and the threatening appearance of Griffith’s vicious ex-husband (Ray Liotta). The script requires a major transformation on the part of Daniels’ character; he earned his first Golden Globe nomination for making it believable.

“Gettysburg” (1993). Aside from the film adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” there aren’t many movies that convince us that we could be led into battle by an inspiring speech. This is one of them, thanks to Daniels’ performance as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, an idealistic professor whose selfless Civil War cheerleading never denies his own fear and inexperience. Daniels repeated the role in the less successful 2003 prequel, “Gods and Generals.”

“Dumb & Dumber” (1994). Jim Carrey going over the top? Nothing new there. But Jeff Daniels, playing Carrey’s bad-hair-day buddy in a slapstick comedy that proudly proclaims its Two Stooges stupidity in its title? Rarely has a respected actor gone so far to overturn his image. And rarely has the chemistry between two actors been so obvious in a Farrelly brothers movie.

“Fly Away Home” (1996). Anna Paquin, cast as Daniels’ lover in “The Squid and the Whale,” played his estranged daughter in Carroll Ballard’s gorgeous nature epic. Following the death of her mother, she reluctantly moves in with dad and bonds with a flock of goslings. Thanks to Daniels and Paquin, the father-daughter episodes are as strong as the remarkable flying scenes.

“Pleasantville” (1998). Playing a blank-brain soda jerk in a black-and-white 1950s television town, Daniels blossoms when he realizes his love for painting — and for Tobey Maguire’s suburban mom (Joan Allen), who becomes his model. As they scandalize the citizens, they suddenly find themselves thrust into an unsettling Technicolor world.

“The Hours” (2002). Daniels and Meryl Streep play the ex-lovers of an AIDS-stricken writer (Ed Harris) who has published a novel that is shamelessly based on their lives. In one short scene he shares with Streep, Daniels deftly conveys the guilt, awkwardness and irresponsibility of a character who has just enough self-awareness to ask: “Do you think I’m ridiculous?”

“The Squid and the Whale” (2005). Ironically, Daniels gives his most acclaimed performance as a writer/teacher who appears to have passed his professional prime and may be in the process of taking his family down with him. While the messy divorce that drives the story is mostly played for comedy, Daniels embraces the character’s pain and confusion, as well as his tragic inability to change. Even when he’s giving seriously bad advice to his teenage son, he’s never two-dimensional.