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.
Lovely & Amazing (2001)
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.
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)
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)
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)
A Late Quartet (2012)
Enough Said (2013)
Captain Phillips (2013)