Wednesday, October 2, 2013

In Character: Catherine Keener

“She’s so adept at portraying someone not entirely in control of their faculties.” – Steven Soderbergh

Leave it to Steven Soderbergh to describe the abilities of a great actress so succinctly and accurately. Catherine Keener is the queen of portraying neurotic confidence. Her characters rarely have it all together, yet they put up this great façade of false assurance. But there’s more. In fact, Keener has proved to be just as effective in gentler roles, standing in the background, lending a kind word when necessary. Forceful or quiet, manipulative or kind, Kenner can simply play it all.

Five Essential Roles
Lovely & Amazing (2001)
Michelle Marks
This post could consist entirely of Keener’s work in Nicole Holofcener’s films. Keener has been in every one of Holofcener’s features, acting as a filmic doppelgänger to Holofcener herself, who is certainly one of independent cinema’s most unique voices. With that noted, Keener’s most awkwardly comic portrayal in a Holofcener film is as Michelle Marks in Lovely & Amazing. Michelle is a quietly lazy, somewhat self-entitled artist who generates zero income from her art. Her husband, growing tired of Michelle’s lethargy, urges her to get a job. Any job.

So, shortly after working as a clerk in a one hour photo shop, she falls for an underage coworker, Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jordan and Michelle grows dangerously close, and, in the words of Roger Ebert, who explained their relationship perfectly: “[From] here Holofcener does something almost no other movie ever does: holds an adult woman to the same standard as an adult man.”

Holding women to the same standard as a man is, sadly, yes, all too rare in modern films. Having a director and star who are able to pull it off so convincingly is quite another feat.

Full Frontal (2002)
I may be one of a dozen people who actually loves Steven Soderbergh’s indie experiment, Full Frontal, but love it I do. And much of my appreciation for the film is thanks to Keener’s hopelessly desperate depiction of a woman in crisis. As a hot shit movie executive slowly unraveling, Lee is the epitome of cringe-worthy elitism. She’s a woman who seemingly has it all, if only she could get her shit together and just enjoy her cushy life. There’s a scene in this film where Lee breaks down at a party full of Hollywood elite. She causes a major scene before being told to sit down and shut up. Which she does, silently, spitefully. Lee is Keener at her most painfully humiliating.

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin (2005)
A character like Trish is broad, mainstream comedy at its most real. Upon rewatching The 40-Year-Old Virgin recently, I found myself so taken with Keener’s work during a rather small scene. It’s when she and Steve Carell are on their second date, and she apologizes for not telling him ahead of time that she had children. She then goes on to reluncantly yet playfully admit how many kids she actually has. Carell almost has to force the words out of her, and her delivery is a perfect balance of pride and worry. She’s proud of her kids, but worried that their very existence could scare Carell’s character off. It’s a small moment that feels plucked out of an actual real life conversation.

Capote (2005)
Harper Lee
My favorite moment of Kenner’s Oscar-nominated work as famed author Harper Lee takes place at the wrap party for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper slowly approaches her dear friend Truman Capote and asks him how things are going. It’s a simply question, you know? Just one of those things you ask. But when Truman goes on a drunken rant about the complexities of his life (thereby completing ignoring the success Harper has found in hers) it forces Harper to realize what kind of man Truman really is. She doesn’t verbalize this realization, but rather stares at him with saddened eyes. Her friend has fallen, and all she can do is get up and walk away.

Please Give (2010)
When I wrote my review of Holofcener’s Please Give a few years, I wondered aloud if it contained the best-acted scene of Keener’s career. The scene takes place in a gymnasium where several mentally disabled kids are playing basketball. Keener’s Kate is introduced to the kids, and is even invited to shoot some hoops with them. When she’s finished playing, she fights to conceal her tears. The teacher quietly asks her what she’s doing, and Kate says, “It’s just so sad.”

The teacher kindly tells Kate to leave, which she does while apologizing. This scene says everything you need to know about a woman like Kate. She sees a handful of disabled kids gleefully playing basketball and feels sorry for them, which is the exact opposite of how she should feel. It’s a brief but devastating moment. Kills me everytime.

The Best of the Best
Being John Malkovich (1999)
From the very first moment we meet Maxine – sitting in the back of a tiny, dark, office board room, smoking, dressed in dangerous white – we’re compelled to follow her. Being John Malkovich is a uniquely compelling film anyway; one worth following for many reasons. Thankfully, director Spike Jonze cast the role of expert manipulator Maxine perfectly, giving us one more thing to be wowed by.

One of the best aspects of Maxine is that she doesn’t have time for bullshit. If she hears something she doesn’t like, she cuts out, right then. But if she hears something intriguing (like being able to go inside the mind of another person for 15 minutes) she immediately turns it into a business opportunity. No room for denial, let’s monetize this shit.

But really, I’m drawn to the entire arc of Maxine. From vindictive bitch, to conniving exploiter, to scared shitless woman. There are many facets to her personality and many idiosyncrasies to be taken with. In short, Keener is a large part of why Being John Malkovich is so accomplished. And that’s surely saying something.

Other Notable Roles
In Out of Sight
Johnny Suede (1991)
Living in Oblivion (1995)
Walking and Talking (1996)
Out of Sight (1998)
Your Friends & Neighbors (1998)
8MM (1999)
Simpatico (1999)
Adaptation. (2002)
Death to Smoochy (2002)
The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)
The Interpreter (2005)
Friends with Money (2006)
An American Crime (2007)
Into the Wild (2007)
What Just Happened (2008)
Hamlet 2 (2008)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The Soloist (2009)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Cyrus (2010)
Trust (2010)
A Late Quartet (2012)
Enough Said (2013)
Captain Phillips (2013)


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    2. So glad you're a fan of her work! I appreciated what she did in An American Crime, but man, I did not like that movie. Still, her acting was, as always, amazing.

  2. My favorite performance from her is Lovely & Amazing in the way she can act a bit bitchy but also sympathetic. It's definitely a role that only she could play where she is a bit immature but is at least trying to do something that makes her happy.

    1. I agree, that role is only something Keener could do. That maybe be my all around favorite performance of hers in a Holofcener film. Tough, tough call.

  3. I'm pretty sure the first film I ever saw her in was Out of Sight, but she didn't get to do much in it, so when I saw Being John Malkovich it wasn't just a revelation that Diaz could be made almost unrecognizable, but that Keener was someone to watch for the future.

    1. Definitely. At the time, it seemed like Diaz's unrecognizable performance was a main attraction, but Keener really stole all of her scenes.

  4. Fuck yeah man! Keener is so amazing. She's easily one of my favorite actresses working in film today, so talented and beautiful. I haven't seen a performance from her that I've disliked... she's just always on point. Even in subpar films like The Oranges or S1m0ne she's fantastic, so, perhaps more than any other actress you've done one of these posts for, I understand how hard it can be to narrow down a select few of performances as her "best".
    Although I do enjoy Being John Malkovich, I don't think I'm as big a fan of it as a lot of people are (I prefer Kaufman's later work to that film personally, just in terms of writing), but I certainly agree that Keener is fan-FUCKING-tastic in it. Another, perhaps underrated role, and film for that matter, I think is Genova - the Winterbottom film with her and Colin Firth. I think you might actually dig it more than some others because it's less plot driven and more character based (I actually think it's one of Winterbottom's best films) and Keener is just great in it.

    Any time Keener comes up in conversation I will always say, and I hold it to be true, that any movie with Keener is worth seeing and that I wished that more movies had Keener in them, because it could only improve with her presence.

    1. I love all the Keener praise here. Genova... I need to seek that one out right away. The way you described it makes it seem like a necessary watch for me.

      And I agree, I haven't always liked the movies Keener is in, but I always like HER in them.

  5. Maxine is one of my biggest cinematic crushes. LOVED her.

  6. I just love her. I especially love the "fuck your mother" line she ends a call with in The 40 Year Old Virgin. I didn't really care much for Capote, but the more I think about it, the more I'd like to revisit it. I remember when she got cast in An American Crime, my first thought was "She's way too beautiful to play Gertrude."

    1. I LOVE that "fuck your mother" line. So perfect.

      I'm actually not a big fan of Capote either. But its performances are solid. Not sure Hoffman deserved the Oscar over Ledger or Howard, but oh well. Either way, Keener is very subtle and very thoughtful in it.

  7. Yes! I completely agree with Maxine at #1. She steals that movie. I haven't seen Full Frontal yet, so you might not be as alone on loving it as you think you are. ;)

    1. Awesome, love the praise for Maxine.

      Ha, well, I'll take what I can get with Full Frontal!

  8. I really like Keener's style and think she brings an interesting approach to almost all her parts. The 40-year-old Virgin is interesting because it's actually a bit of a departure for her. I really like her work in Lovely & Amazing in particular. It's my favorite performance of hers and makes complete use of her talents. Great job, Alex!

    1. That's exactly why I like her work in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, because it does feel like a departure. So glad you like her work in Lovely & Amazing, I love her there. Thanks so much for reading, Dan!

  9. Haven’t watched all of your picks. My favorite performances by C Keener are in Please Give (2010) and Lovely & Amazing (2001), which I’m glad you included. I feel she gets to display her range in those Nicole Holofcener movies. Not every day women get to play complex roles like that.

    1. I agree that not many women have a chance to play roles like that, and that's a damn shame. Still, there is no better actress to bring Holofcener's characters to life.

  10. I love her!
    Although I wasn't a fan of her performance in Capote. I do love when she works with Philip Seymour Hoffman though. He's my favourite actor.

    1. She's great, isn't she? Her and Hoffman really do work well together. Two of our best actors currently in the game.

  11. I like Catherine Keener. She's great in everything she does. I also agree with you that Being John Malkovich is her best work. I personally would still give the Oscar to Angelina Jolie that year, but I'll be damned if Keener wasn't as deserving. Tough year for supporting actresses.

    1. Damn tough year. So many strong choices to choose from. Honestly, they could've given it to any five of those nominees and I would've been happy.