updated 02/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/04/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST
Judging from the best supporting actress Golden Globe she won for her turn as the wife of Russell Crowe (who was named best actor) in Mind, Connelly's future dressing rooms will be large enough for her little boy (fathered by her ex-beau, photographer David Dugan)—and her big boy buddies too. In 20 years in front of the camera, Connelly, 31, has appeared in dozens of roles that have played on her looks, from the object of Don Johnson's lust in 1990's The Hot Spot to Ed Harris's young mistress in Pollock in 2000. But not until Mind—about the schizophrenic math genius and Nobel Prize winner John Forbes Nash Jr.—did her brain, fine-tuned at Yale and Stanford, break into the big time.
"I didn't realize what her academic background was," admits director Ron Howard of his first meeting with Connelly. But after auditioning her he knew she had what it took to play physicist Alicia Nash: (a) "chemistry" with Crowe and (b) "a lot of smart things to say."
Not to mention the guts to say them to Crowe. Although the notoriously intense 37-year-old Oscar winner "is intimidating to a lot of people," says Goldberg, 31 (who plays Nash's colleague Sol), "Jennifer held her own." The material was another matter. During one scene in the audition, "I was a mess," says Connelly of the tearful effort it took to play the loving but also angry and fearful wife of Nash. "By the end Russell was offering to pick up my snotty tissues off the floor." And that, apparently, was as romantic as it got; Connelly, who lives in Manhattan, has reportedly been happily attached to actor Josh Charles, 30 (of the defunct ABC sitcom Sports Night), for two years, despite published reports implying she and Crowe are an item.
Fortunately Connelly is used to the bylaws of Club Fame. The only child of Gerard, 61, a clothing manufacturer in New York City, and Ilene, 59, an antiques dealer, now divorced, she began modeling in print and TV ads at age 10. She was 11 when she made her film debut in Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in America. Jobs kept coming—not always to her liking. Though her parents encouraged her to work, she has said, it was "a strain on me." According to a peer at the private Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn Heights, the looker in the red and black riding outfit was a fashion plate destined for Hollywood's spotlight. Says a former classmate: "She would wear Ralph Lauren Polo all the time and sometimes go home and change at lunchtime." After graduating in 1988 she took a hiatus from acting and spent two years studying English at Yale, then a year at Stanford studying drama. "I had to ask myself, 'Is this the life I want to lead?' " Connelly has said. " 'Maybe I should do manual labor.' "
In the end she chose Hollywood, lured by such films as 199l's The Rocketeer, during which she began a romance with costar (and current Once and Again star) Billy Campbell, 42, which ended when they broke off their engagement in 1996. Though her relationship with Manhattan-based Dugan also ended, he is close to their son—as, naturally, is she. "Every cell of her body is about being a mom," says her Mind costar Paul Bettany. Still, motherhood has meant change: She is no longer a smoker or a recluse. Once "shy and introverted," she says, now "I'm part of the Greenwich Village mom's network." For members of that academy, it's award season every day.
Karen S. Schneider
Natasha Stoynoff and Rebecca Paley in New York City and Ulrica Wihlborg and Amy Longsdorf in Los Angeles