Defending Katherine Heigl…at the expense of Jennifer Aniston
During what will hopefully be converted into a roundtable discussion about the posters for the upcoming movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting – which quickly devolved into ‘I’d hit that’ speak, much to Kelly Stitzel’s dismay – someone jokingly asked, “How is Katherine Heigl not involved with this?”
It’s a fair question. This would seem to be right up Heigl’s alley. Perhaps she wasn’t interested in playing another pregnant woman after her breakout performance in Judd Apatow’s 2007 hit Knocked Up. Indeed, you could make an argument that she resisted the project for that very reason, that doing the movie would give people the impression that she’s trying to cash in on her former glory. The most likely reason, of course, is that the scheduling didn’t work out.
It’s also quite possible that they simply didn’t want her.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Heigl is on a bit of a skid at the moment. Her last three movies, Killers, Life As We Know It, and New Year’s Eve, were loathed by critics and died mercifully quick deaths at the box office (though Life As We Know It somehow managed to break even). The two movies before them, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, were commercial hits, if not critical ones. (I, for one, like 27 Dresses.) The Heigl backlash even popped up in Friends with Benefits, when Mila Kunis saw a poster for an upcoming romantic comedy and shouted, “Shut up, Katherine Heigl!” (This joke actually works on two levels, since Heigl beat out Kunis for the part of Alison in Knocked Up.) This string of bad luck does not look as though it’s about to be broken, either; Heigl’s latest film One for the Money, in which she plays literary gumshoe Stephanie Plum, was not screened for critics. Groupon is also running a discount ticket deal for the movie, a la The Lincoln Lawyer. That’s some bad juju right there, and the strange thing is that the trailer for One for the Money actually makes it look like a decent flick. If anyone can fill the shoes of the wise-cracking Stephanie Plum, you would think it’s Heigl.
Perception, however, is nine-tenths of the law when it comes to Hollywood stars, and right now, the perception – and therefore, reality – is that Heigl is nearly finished, from rom-com darling to box office poison in a mere four years, a precipitous drop in comparison to movie princesses of the past (Meg Ryan had a good 12 years as America’s Sweetheart™, which included her share of bad films along the way). Now, I know that there are several instances in which Heigl did not help herself (we’ll get to those, I promise), but overall, this seems wildly unfair. Does the backlash stem from the general lack of quality of her movies, her willful personality, or a combination of the two? If it is any one of those three, then there is someone else who by definition should be riding this train alongside her, but to date is not.
Let’s review: both are rom-com actresses with spotty box office track records. Both are tabloid fodder. (Heck, Aniston has her own wing in the Tabloid Hall of Fame.) The one key difference is that people love Aniston, while Heigl is viewed as being difficult. And why is that, exactly? That’s the funny part, because if anything, it should be the other way around.
Let’s have a little fun here, shall we? Let’s break down Heigl’s best and worst qualities, and see how they stack up against Aniston’s. Let’s start with the one big pro, and then the cons.
She is very good at what she does
There isn’t a single actress on the planet who plays angry funnier or cuter than Katherine Heigl. There is a scene in The Ugly Truth where she’s directing Gerard Butler to get off the set after shooting one of his chauvinist rants, and she’s positively hilarious. If you don’t value that as a skill, you should; doing the angry/cute thing is not as easy as it seems. Take, for example, Leslie Mann – of whom I’m quite fond, for the record – in Knocked Up. When she flips out on Paul Rudd, it’s not funny – it’s sad, because you walk away from the scene thinking that his character is trapped in a marriage to a nasty human being. But more on that later.
That is not Heigl’s only skill, though. Towards the end of The Ugly Truth, she’s won the man of dreams, only to realize he doesn’t really love her; he loves the woman Butler’s character suggested that she pretend to be. Heigl then describes what she’s really like to the man, in all of her neurotic glory, then says, completely demoralized and broken, “And who would love someone like that?” It’s a heartbreaking scene in an otherwise unwatchable movie. You had to think that even Heigl knew that she was not making a masterpiece when she saw that she had to shoot a scene where it looked like she was giving a guy a blowjob in the bleachers, but she still gave this movie everything she had.
Aniston, meanwhile, is rarely the best thing about any movie she does. In fact, someone should invent a drinking game around Aniston grabbing her rack, a move where she’s essentially saying to the world, “As long as I’ve got these, I’m still going to get work.” (To be fair, that philosophy has worked well thus far.) Instead of making a bad movie better, she is often the source of the problem (ahem, The Bounty Hunter). She knocked it out of the park in Horrible Bosses, but where Heigl will at least try to rise above bad material, Aniston seems content to wallow in the muck.
So there’s the pro. Now Let’s look at the cons.
She has a big mouth
Guilty as charged. It does appear that the comments she made on David Letterman’s show about the long work hours she endured on the Grey’s Anatomy set were out of line (the producers insist those long hours only existed because they accommodated her request to do press for a recent film), but the bit that seemed to seal her reputation as a loudmouth diva was when she dared to suggest that Knocked Up is perhaps just a wee bit sexist. And come on, where the hell does she get off saying bad things about the movie that made her a star?
There’s just one small thing: she’s absolutely right.
The female characters in Knocked Up (I’m referring to Heigl and Mann, who’s married to Apatow) are shrill, humorless succubi. In fact, I’d argue that most of Apatow’s female characters are underwritten and oversexed, but that’s another column for another day. What Heigl said about the movie wasn’t untrue, but she came across as ungrateful, and no one likes an ungrateful movie star…unless he’s a dude. Guys talk trash about their old movies all the time, and no one bats an eye at it. If Heigl’s Ugly Truth costar Gerard Butler came out and said that 300 was crap, would anyone make a big deal out of it? No, they wouldn’t. Seems a little…sexist, don’t you think? Yes, well, now you know how Heigl feels.
Aniston, meanwhile, has never taken heat for saying anything out of turn in the press. She has always been very careful to maintain her image as an American Sweetheart™, and she has been rewarded for this by an adoring public. This is hilarious, because in reality Aniston is a ruthless, cunning, stone-cold killer when it comes to promoting her “brand.” If Heigl wears her heart on her sleeve, Aniston’s is secured behind six inches of steel in a vault surrounded by a moat filled with crocodiles. She doesn’t make a single move without first analyzing it from 17 different angles for its potential impact on her Q factor. Look up each time the tabloids went nuts over Jen’s new boy toy, and you’ll see that each one of them lines up with the opening of one of her films. Aniston hasn’t had an unguarded moment, or made an uncalculated move, in over a decade. This makes her arguably the fakest celebrity of all time, which is saying something considering the asshats that we call celebs today.
Her characters are high-maintenance pains in the ass
So were Reese Witherspoon’s, for the most part, and no one’s held that against her. Also, women are complicated. It’s actually nice to see one refuse to play the bimbo or the fool. As for her role in Killers, well, that was just bad casting. She had no business playing a naive shut-in with no self-esteem.
She’s hell to work with
I wouldn’t know anything about that firsthand, and even if she were, using that as a measuring stick to determine which actors to like or dislike is a hypocritical copout. (Psssst: Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise, Edward Norton, Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Christian Bale thank you for not holding this quality against them.)
Her movies are bad
This is mostly true. However, Aniston’s made five times as many bad movies as Heigl has, and she continues to be forgiven. And it’s not as if there are great romantic comedies being made all around Heigl; the genre is suffering a drought, and a girl’s gotta work.
I am not saying that Jennifer Aniston deserves to suffer what Katherine Heigl is going through at the moment. Ideally, both actresses would be treated equally; they are paid to entertain us, and that is all that should matter. But let’s get some proper perspective on them: what Heigl has said and done, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty innocuous, while far greater Hollywood crimes have, for the most part, gone unpunished. Not to mention, the Heigl backlash sends a dangerous message to little girls everywhere that if they want to succeed in life, they should keep their mouths shut. Aniston, meanwhile, is being rewarded for her steely grasp of the media machine, and how she worked the power of her image into a sustainable brand, long past her career peak. She’s not even known for being an actress anymore – she’s known for being a celebrity, and with an entire generation of kids who crave fame more than love, achievement, or happiness about to overtake the entertainment business, that sends an even worse message than the one about keeping quiet.
When it comes down to it, I think the reason people dislike Katherine Heigl is because they’d be scared to death to be friends with her, because if they were doing something she disapproved of, she’d make sure they knew it. Most people don’t want to be friends with that person, but the fact is everyone needs at least one person like that in their lives, because it works both ways. If you were being a bully, she’d tell you to step off. If you were being too passive, she’d tell you to stick up for yourself. She could use some work in the diplomacy department, yes, but who do you want on your back in a bar fight, the person who says the right things in order to please everyone, or the one who will fight to the death to defend your honor? (See: Heigl’s public shaming of Isaiah Washington after he called Grey’s co-star T.R. Knight a faggot.) Heigl may be neither of those people in real life, but based on her comments to the press, she’s far closer to the latter than she is to the former, and I find that admirable. Aniston, meanwhile, is still an enigma, 17 years after most of us met her for the first time. Oddly enough, this earns her a few bonus points for keeping her private life private – at least until such time as it’s convenient for her to sell this or that scoop to a tabloid in order to advance her career – but that raises the question: why do people like her so much, when after nearly two decades in the spotlight, we still know next to nothing about her?
Fight the good fight, Katherine. In an industry that is referred to as high school with money, it’s nice to see someone on the fringe of the popular clique look at the other popular kids from time to time and say, “Wow, you guys are douchebags.” If you ever find yourself in a bar fight, I will totally have your back.