Friday, February 03, 2012

Catherine the Great

I was thinking about Catherine Keener the other day and about the films that I’d seen her in before The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and I drew a blank. Then I kicked myself for having temporarily forgotten her unforgettable (ironic, eh?) role in Being John Malkovich and her fine work in Lovely and Amazing. Then I drew another blank trying to recall any films I’d seen her in before those.

When I looked up her filmography, I saw that Keener had made a slew of films before her Oscar nominated turn in 1999’s Being John Malkovich, and I’d actually seen a few – The Real Blonde, Out of Sight and 8MM. Given how little I remember of her actual roles in those films, I’d wager that they were either minor roles or roles that didn’t allow her to shine. Keener was also, throughout the 1990s, the queen of American independent cinema and appeared in smaller films that weren’t distributed widely or seen by larger audiences, including myself. For me, Keener burst onto the scene in a big way and impressed me so much in the unlikeliest of vehicles – The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

It’s one of my favourite Judd Apatow films because it’s not merely a crude sex comedy. It’s well written and surprisingly smart, insightful and sincere. On the surface, the film could easily be labeled a raunchy buddy comedy, but it delves so much deeper and offers so much heart and humanity amidst the sex talk and crude humour. But the best reason the movie works so well is because of the incredible chemistry between Steve Carell and Catherine Keener. They both have such a deep understanding of their characters and thus create between them a believable bond and a relationship that we care about. Keener is natural as Trish, and never for one moment do we question the authenticity or sincerity of the things she says or does – she’s a vivacious, single-mother and she really likes Andy. She doesn’t get lost or overshadowed amidst all of the testosterone in the film, but delivers perfectly-punctuated punchlines with glee, adds class to the film, and bookends both with her authentic and endearing laughter. In Virgin, she displays her versatility as an actress and her gift as a great comedienne.

Keener has appeared in 14 films since 2005, among them Capote and Into the Wild, two fantastic films. She’s a versatile character actress, who brought to the roles of literary icon Harper Lee in Capote and hippie Jan Burres in Into the Wild, what she succeeds in bringing to every character she portrays – freshness and a faceted characterization that creates engrossing appeal. Consider how different the roles of Trish, Harper Lee and Jan Burres are and how successfully Keener sets each apart from the other. I’ve never been able to simply say, oh, it’s Catherine Keener in another movie, but rather, Harper Lee is played brilliantly by Catherine Keener or, in Trish, Catherine Keener has created such a cool chick. The character always comes first because Keener gets lost completely in every role she plays. She’s among my favourite actresses because she’s so captivating and exciting, and because she always makes me think when I see her name attached to a film, “Awesome, Catherine Keener’s in this!”

What are your favourite Catherine Keener films? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. Tough to pick an absolute favourite, as she has done so many great roles, but my top five would be (in no particular order):

    Your Friends & Neighbors
    Living in Oblivion
    Being John Malkovich
    Lovely & Amazing

    films like Walking and Talking, Capote, 40 Year-old Virgin, Friends with Money, and Jonny Suede (not a great film but she is good) would be in the top ten.

  2. Great to see a post on this teriffic actress! Like you, I first noticed her in The 40 Year Old Virgin, but then I set out to watch some other films on her filmography. I agree with everything you said in your post about her qualities as an actress.

    Some of my favorite Keener performances have been in the already-mentioned Virgin and Malkovich. Three others I'd like to mention, though. One is her supporting part in Cyrus, playing a believably understanding and human ex-wife. Another is in the underseen indie meta-film Living in Oblivion, where she plays an actress in multiple realities and has to do the dreaded "act like you're acting" thing (flawlessly, of course). Last but not least, her turn in An American Crime, where she plays an abusive single mother. A harrowing movie, and one hell of a chilling performance by Keener.

    Teriffic post! Keep up the great work.

  3. My top 5 Catherine Keener Performances:

    1. Lovely & Amazing
    2. Being John Malkovich
    3. The 40-Year-Old Virgin
    4. Walking & Talking
    5. Living in Oblivion

    I loved her work with Tom di Cillo (when he was doing good movies back then) and of course, Spike Jonze and Nicole Holofcener. In fact, I'm going to be posting and re-editing my old Nicole Holofcener reviews in a few weeks as well as watch the 2 films of hers I haven't seen. She is awesome.

  4. I too haven't seen her in that much. Looking at her IMDB page, I'm mostly stunned at the amount of films she has played in. then again, she's often the supporting actress, so I guess she spends less time on sets and may hence move on to other projects rather quickly.

  5. My favorite Keener role is probably still the first movie I saw her in: Being John Malkovich. As soon as Keener appeared on screen I knew she'd be an actress I'd seek out in other films.

  6. Being John Malkovich is my favorite Keener movie.

    In Out of Sight she played the former magician's assistant connected to Clooney's character. She's the one the escapee played by Luis Guzman risks all to visit just so he can find out how a magic trick works.

    A comedic role of hers, that was quite good, was in Hamlet 2.

  7. Catherine Keener is one of those underrated (or, perhaps more to the point, under-appreciated actresses). I think she probably gets the praise she deserves but still seems behind other actresses of her generation. For some reason I'd include Laura Linney is this group as well.

  8. @CS – I’ve only seen three out of five of your favourites. I will have to check out the other two at some point. Keener is great in everything, even if the film itself isn’t very good.

    @Enmil – thanks for the kind words. Cyrus is on my list of films to see (also because it stars John C. Reilly, my subject of last month’s underrated actors feature.) Thanks for the other film recommendations. ‘An American Crime’ sounds like a good one.

    @thevoid99 – I’ll have to make a point of seeing ‘Walking and Talking’ and ‘Living in Oblivion.’ She is awesome, indeed. With all of the Keener films that have been mentioned in response to this post, it looks like a Keener movie marathon is in my future.

    @edgarchaput – she’s got quite a catalogue of films. I think she may fly below the radar more than other actresses because she doesn’t put herself out there as much.

    @Dave Enkosky – She definitely hit it out of the park with ‘Being John Malkovich’ and she has yet to disappoint or underwhelm me.

    @Chip Lary – ‘Being John Malkovich’ is one of my faves, too.
    Right – I remembered her role in ‘Out of Sight’ after I thought about it for a little while.
    I haven’t seen ‘Hamlet 2,’ which I’ll add to my ever-growing list of films for a future Keener movie marathon.

    @Dan – Well said. She’s phenomenal, but I find I don’t hear much about her or the work she’s doing unless I actively seek it out, or unless she stars in a mainstream film. Laura Linney’s career does share similarities with Keener’s. Actually, Laura Linney is a great subject for a future underrated actresses post – thanks!

  9. I love Keener, Your Friends & Neighbors, Being John Malkovich, Out of Sight - all great, bitchy Keener performances. But I'm particularly taken with her work in Nicole Holofcener's films.

    Holofcener has described the characters she writes for Keener as her doppelgängers, which I think is interesting. Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, and especially Please Give. Keener has a scene in Please Give (that takes place in a school gym) that will break your heart.

  10. Yea forever the underrated actress. She is awesome in 40-Year Old Virgin but I would say her best was in Being John Malkovich.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.