Commentary

There are many reasons you can't write off Kentucky as a cultural backwater

the commonwealth's stars shine on many stages

September 22, 2012 

You really can't make up the Hollywood A-list these days without talking about Kentuckians.

While the Commonwealth is often written off as a shoes-optional cultural backwater, it has given the world some of its most glamorous and erudite stars.

If you doubt this, we give you two words: George Clooney.

Even if you disagree with the man's politics, it's hard to argue with films like Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), Up in the Air (2009) and The Descendants (2011), all of which garnered Clooney Oscar nominations, and a philanthropic career that has included personally challenging efforts to highlight atrocities in Sudan. All this from a guy who was born in Lexington and grew up in Augusta, where he played high school basketball.

Joining Clooney on the A-list is Owensboro native Johnny Depp, one of the stars who is keeping movies interesting with chameleon-like turns in his frequent collaborations with director Tim Burton, and as the driving force behind the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean series.

This year, two more Kentuckians made major plays for the A-list by leading the cast of the blockbuster first entry in The Hunger Games trilogy. Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence was the centerpiece of the film as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine who has inspired many a girl to pick up a bow and arrow. Even Olympic gold medal beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor was on The Daily Show talking about how she wanted to be Katniss.

Lawrence's co-star is Josh Hutcherson, who had fans showing up at the door of his Union home before the movie even opened. Before you get any ideas, he's not big on people just dropping by.

Ashley Judd is frequently in the Bluegrass cheering on her beloved Cats; Oscar nominee and Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon got his start in Lexington theater, and some of his family still lives here; busy character actor Steve Zahn calls Central Kentucky home and is active directing a local theater troupe, The Rep; and Irvine native Harry Dean Stanton's fans in the Lexington Film League have launched an annual film festival in his honor.

Kentuckians have also made their marks on New York stages, most notably Ashland's Steve Kazee, who picked up a Tony Award for best actor in a musical this year for his performance in Once. Lexington's Laura Bell Bundy was a 2007 nominee for best actress in a musical originating the role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, and she also created the role of chief antagonist Amber Von Tussle in the Tony Award-winning production of Hairspray.

Bundy has been working on a country music career, a field that certainly has more than its fair share of Kentuckians, led by country music queen Loretta Lynn. The Butcher Holler native will be back on the marquee soon with a planned musical version of her biographical Coal Miner's Daughter starring current Hollywood it girl Zooey Deschanel — not a Kentuckian, but we'd take her.

Other Kentuckians in country include Nicholasville's John Michael Montgomery and his brother Eddie. Eddie and musical partner Troy Gentry formed the duo Montgomery Gentry. Then there's the Judd family with Wynonna, who helped redefine country music in the 1980s with her mother Naomi as The Judds.

But the Commonwealth isn't just country.

Central Kentucky cousins Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson were at the center of the late-1990s boy-band craze as two-fifths of the Backstreet Boys. These days, music gets a lot of Kentucky influence from the likes of Louisville's My Morning Jacket; rootsy cellist Ben Sollee of Lexington; and Lexington's Scott Hoffman, the bassist for the fabulous Scissor Sisters. Leading the category of bands too cool for you to have heard is Bowling Green's Cage the Elephant.

Yep, call Kentucky a backwater if you like. Clearly there's something in the water here that turns Kentuckians into stars.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.

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