Bring On the New Age of Katherine Heigl
I have seen a grand total of one episode of Suits and zero episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in my lifetime. In that sense, I’m probably the wrong person to ask about Katherine Heigl, since my exposure to her has been through the films she’s starred in and the exhausting discourse that has surrounded her since she entered the Hollywood mainstream. For a long time, way past the point where it felt relevant or necessary to do so, Heigl was the punching bag for a particular brand of Difficult Women in entertainment. Some women are divas, others are bitches, but Heigl was positioned as the snob, too big for her boots and not smart enough to stay in her lane. It’s taken a long time for the general awareness of this train of thought to be seen as sexist, but it was always so. If it were to happen now, things may have unfolded differently, but even now, as she gets a new starring role in a major series, Heigl is still seen as the woman it’s okay to hate.
It was easy to hate Heigl. She was pretty but cold, talented but never a chameleon, happy to call out bullshit but never elegantly enough to make the message stick. She was a T.V. star who wanted to be a movie star, and when that didn’t play out as hoped, it was acceptable to laugh at her stumbled ambition. She found herself on the wrong side of one of the most powerful and beloved women in television, and frankly, it was easier and right to side with Shonda Rhimes, even if Heigl was correct in her dismissal of the work she’d been given to do. Heigl bit the hands that fed her, and she was never the kind of person who could get away with that.
Heigl’s film career put her on a path to being the new rom-com queen. The old age of America’s sweethearts had moved onto pastures fresh and there was a gap in the market. Julia Roberts had won her Oscar and was moving out of the spotlight in her choices of roles. Reese Witherspoon had also won Best Actress and was in a rut between her old persona and new one as Serious Actress (this was long before she became the producer power player she is today). Sandra Bullock followed a similar path but was two years away from The Blind Side. Superhero films weren’t the dominant force they’d become, although franchises were king. Crucially, people still made rom-coms with decent regularity. There was an audience for these mid-budget female-centred romantic stories with jokes and silliness and heart. There still is an audience for them, but for the most part, they’ve been denied satisfaction as Hollywood cares less about anything with less than a 9-figure budget.
There was something for Heigl to build upon. Whether or not it was the right persona for her is a different matter.
In Knocked Up, Heigl is, as many women in bro-coms have before her, positioned as the straight woman. She’s serious, maybe too serious, and ceaselessly irritated by the slacker dude who we are told is actually quite loveable. Eventually, she is won over by him, as happens often in fiction. She’s actually very good in this role, but it’s a limiting part where she doesn’t get to have anywhere near as much fun as the men, or even Leslie Mann. It’s a sexist role in a sexist movie and she wasn’t wrong to call that out. Shia Laboeuf got less flack for shitting on Transformers. Can’t imagine why.
Still, what Knocked Up gave Heigl was a route into the rom-com and that trope of the career woman who is softened by love. There’s coldness but it will be thawed soon enough. The best example of rom-com Heigl is 27 Dresses, where she is not the shrew but the quiet pushover who confuses spinelessness for helpfulness. In this sinfully underrated and genuinely moving film, Heigl plays a perpetual bridesmaid who struggles with the reality of her selfish sister getting engaged to her boss who she secretly loves. Heigl nails the pent-up emotions of a woman who is so used to being side-lined and ignored that she no longer knows what it feels like not to be. When she lets loose, it’s freeing but not as satisfying as she’d imagined. There’s a moment where Heigl’s character discovers that her vain sister has drastically altered their mother’s wedding dress for her own purposes and Heigl’s reaction is heart-breaking. As a rom-com queen, this was Heigl’s zenith: Light comedy, moments of goofiness, and a strong emotional centre.
Sadly, she didn’t get a lot of those rom-coms.
Then there was The Ugly Truth.
There’s no two ways around it: The Ugly Truth is abhorrently bad. It’s the kind of film people use as evidence to the argument that all rom-coms are poison. Even as an ardent rom-com defender, I can’t say The Ugly Truth makes a great argument to the contrary. Heigl is bad in it, as is Butler, and the whole story is so hateful of its heroine that you wonder why Heigl signed on as both actor and executive producer. However, there are glimmers of better performances in a version of this movie that acknowledges how awful its central thesis is. Already, there are hints of Heigl being a darker performer. Imagine that film about two hardened misanthropes who find a twisted version of love while essentially trying to destroy one another by weaponizing society’s outdated notions of gender. Even this early into her movie career, Hiegl was being boxed in. Many pointed out the hypocrisy of her calling out her biggest role for sexism when every role she took afterwards seemed steeped in misogyny, but that doesn’t feel entirely fair to her. Sometimes, you take the work where you can get it. It’s not like 2007 - 2012 Hollywood was a bastion for women in any genre, much less the one dominated by women that was still primarily written by men.
The films that followed didn’t do much good, although it made sense why she would sign onto them: Killers is a seriously diluted version of True Lies and who doesn’t want to homage Jamie Lee Curtis; Life as We Know It has a strong arc but is too derivative to make an impact; Heigl is perfect casting as Stephanie Plum in the long-awaited adaptation of Janet Evanovich’s romantic-adventure series, but the film has no idea how to translate the madcap nature of the books to the screen. These films didn’t make money, didn’t get great reviews, and helped to cement this notion that Heigl had, to use the professional term, fucked up.
Spent the weekend with family in Buffalo. Just a two hour drive from our home away from home in Toronto. ITINERARY: Saturday: 1. Wake up no later than 7am to watch the royal wedding with mimosas, bloody Mary’s and scones with clotted cream cause that’s what the English eat! 2. Nap at noon 3. Dress up in our fancy attire for dinner at the Country Club of Buffalo where we pretend we’re attending the royal reception! Sunday: 1.Sneak into Aunt Deb’s candy closet and fill paper lunch bags full of candy. 2. Run around the glorious back yard looking for fairies and building them special homes. 3. Sit in our P.J’s chatting in the living room till noon. 4. Dress up in our fancy attire again for a very special party celebrating Deb and Larry’s granddaughters baptism! 5. Stay up far too late, have one too many ring pops and one too many glasses of champagne. Monday: 1. Recover… Thanks Aunt Deb and Uncle Larry for the most wonderful time! #thoseheavenlydays are long weekends spent with your favorite people! ❤️ #jacadi #proenzaschouler
It made sense for Heigl to then return to television. Frankly, for women, T.V. was offering more than movies, and nobody wanted to put any real money into rom-coms anymore. There were two dramas that Heigl headlined - State of Affairs and Doubt - both of which brought her back to the soapy dramatic routes of Grey’s Anatomy. State of Affairs was not well reviewed across the board, with the exception of Alfre Woodard’s performance, but it feels notable how many of those reviews make mention of Heigl’s character being unlikeable. While the criticism is levelled at her character, you can’t help but think it’s really being said at Heigl herself. That ability to convey appealing coldness had become reason to dismiss her. A similar fate befell Doubt, which was cancelled after 3 episodes, but is a much better show. Heigl gets to be abrasive and tough to love but in a soapier context.
Now, Heigl is on Suits, a show that feels tailor-made for her sensibilities. In real life, Heigl is a mother to three children and has a highly visible social media presence, wherein she documents a filter-heavy version of heavenly family life. Her website, titled ‘Those Heavenly Days’, is a super earnest document of family times, packing lunches, taking trips through Toronto where she now lives, and praise-filled pieces on local artisan goods. It’s like Blake Lively’s failed Preserve website but with better focus. It’s cute or cloying, depending on who you ask, but even this cynic can’t help but smile at the photos of her exceptionally adorable family.
For me, this isn’t Katherine Heigl. That’s not to say that she’s lying or being fake in this image. I imagine this is the life she loves and the one she wants to present to the world. However, for me, it can’t help but read as a deliberate reply to the years she’s dealt with being called a bitch. How do you combat a public perception that you are the worst of unruly womanhood - cold, bitchy, ungrateful, demanding too much? You swing in the other direction and embrace the glow of picture-perfect motherhood? You share recipes and talk about knitting and take photos in the show while wearing a ballgown and wellington boots. It’s not all sunshine. In one blog post, she talks candidly about going back to work after the birth of her son, how painful domesticity could be, and how pissed off she is that going back to her job means she’ll miss important moments in her children’s lives. It’s a well-choreographed website but not without an emotional core, and she has plenty of readers who love that image.
For me, I would love Heigl to own her abrasiveness. In films like Home Sweet Hell and Unforgettable, she is having the time of her life playing grotesque exaggerations of unruly womanhood. She chews scenery, embraces the soapiness and gets ugly with zeal. She’s been great before, but seldom has she dug into a role with such relish. The default mode for women in public is still to be likeable, whatever that means, but the alternative is often more fun and fulfilling.
I’d love to see Katherine Heigl do a role in something like a Liane Moriarty adaptation, akin to Laura Dern in Big Little Lies. She was still my dream casting for the upcoming English language remake of Toni Erdmann and I maintain whatever movie Adam McKay ends up making about Ivanka Trump, Heigl should get the main role (Jim Parsons for Jared Kushner).
I’m not asking anyone to unabashedly love Katherine Heigl all of a sudden. I’m aware that, for many of our readers, she remains the chief Bitch Eating Crackers. Still, we have an interesting actress who deserves better than what she got, then had the audacity to say so out loud, and we could use more of that. I hope Heigl digs her teeth into her new role on Suits and lets everyone know what they’ve been missing. If nothing else, I hope her return allows some people to reconsider why they were so virulent in their hate towards her.
And yes, Knocked Up was sexist.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)
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