Largely underappreciated for years in Hollywood before her Oscar-nominated turn as the First Lady in Nixon (1995), Joan Allen has had a distinguished career encompassing the stage, screen, and television. A native of Rochelle, Illinois, where she was born August 20, 1956, the blond, swanlike actress developed an interest in acting while in high school. Voted Most Likely to Succeed by her senior class, Allen went on to study theatre at Eastern Illinois University. She then moved to Chicago, where she became one of the founding members of the vaunted Steppenwolf Theatre Company, along with such respected talents as Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.
Allen made her screen debut with a small role in the 1985 film Compromising Positions and a year later played two wildly different characters in Manhunter and Peggy Sue Got Married. Her portrayals of a tragically confused young woman who attempts to seduce a serial killer in the former film and a brainy high school student in the latter impressed a number of critics, but it was on the stage that Allen was most appreciated. In 1988, she won a Tony award for her Broadway debut performance in Burn This, and a year later she earned her second Tony nomination for her role in Wendy Wasserstein's highly acclaimed The Heidi Chronicles.
Following increasingly substantial roles in such films as In Country (1989), Ethan Frome (1992), and Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), Allen won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her stunning portrayal of First Lady Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's Nixon. The acclaim surrounding her performance in the 1995 film finally gave Allen the Hollywood recognition she deserved; the following year this recognition was further enhanced with her Oscar-nominated turn as the long-suffering Elizabeth Proctor in Nicholas Hytner's adaptation of The Crucible.
More praise came Allen's way in 1997, when she headlined a stellar ensemble cast in Ang Lee's lauded adaptation of Rick Moody's The Ice Storm. Starring as a troubled upper middle-class Connecticut housewife alongside the likes of Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, and Tobey Maguire, Allen gave repression a stirring, beautifully nuanced name. That same year she went in a completely different direction, starring as the wife of an FBI agent (John Travolta) in John Woo's popular action thriller Face/Off. Allen returned to the realm of the repressed housewife in 1998, starring (and reuniting with Maguire) in the acclaimed 1950s-set comedy drama Pleasantville. The turn of the century found Allen taking leads in a trio of issue-oriented dramas: In the multi-character handgun treatise All the Rage (released on video in 2000), she played the wife of a short-fused lawyer (reuniting with Pleasantville's Jeff Daniels in the process); in the Irish production When the Sky Falls, she teamed with The Long Good Friday (1980) director John Mackenzie to tell the true, tragic story of a Dublin crime reporter; and in Rod Lurie's The Contender, Allen nabbed her biggest role to date -- and her first Best Actress Oscar nomination -- as a would-be U.S. vice president who finds herself at the center of a sex scandal.
After all the attention for The Contender, the savvy Allen continued to oscillate between big roles in low-profile independent films and small roles in big-budget popcorn fare, to even greater success. She featured prominently in two of the biggest box-office hits of 2004: the sentimental romance The Notebook and the wildly successful second installment of the Jason Bourne franchise, The Bourne Supremacy. In the latter, she dug into a meaty, sympathetic supporting role as an all-business CIA agent who pursues the framed title character. Spring 2005 saw the near-concurrent release of two of her indie films, both of which premiered at Sundance Festivals from years prior: Campbell Scott's lapsed-hippie family drama Off the Map and Mike Binder's Terms of Endearment-ish saga The Upside of Anger. The former cast Allen against type as a let-it-all-hang-out New Mexico naturalist who finds her family coming apart at the seams in the mid-1970s. More widely acclaimed was her Anger appearance: As a drunk, headstrong, suburban Detroit housewife who lashes out at her four daughters -- and everyone else -- after her husband leaves the family, Allen turned in a performance that was both caustic and relatable, and garnered some of the best notices of her film career.
In 2008 she played the bad guy in the action film Death Race, and the year after that she starred as Georgia O'Keefe in the biopic about her directed by Bob Balaban. She returned to the role of Pamela Landy for The Bourne Legacy, the Tony Gilroy directed reboot of the popular franchise that featured Jeremy Renner taking over the title role. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi