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Take Three: Catherine Keener

Craig from Dark Eye Socket here with this week's Take Three. Today: Catherine Keener

Take One: Being John Malkovich (1999)

Do you think it’s possible to admire an actress’ immense talent yet still be somewhat immune to her overall allure or effectiveness? Or perhaps it’s fair to acknowledge their greatness, but have issues with many of their performances? It’s been this way with me and Cathy K for eleven years. It was very likely Being John Malkovich that kick-started my general viewer/star incompatibility with Keener. I did, however, enjoy her sarcastically dry, bolshy, personality-destroying task master Maxine Lund in Spike Jonze’s breakthrough film a great deal. But in the film – and in many things since – she’s baffled, transfixed, annoyed and intrigued me in equal measure. Watching one of her films is a tug-of-war filled with both appreciation and irritation.

Objectively I can see just how good a performance Keener gives here (something evident to anyone watching). She has her eye on the ball at all times. Maxine’s never less than alert to her surroundings and ready to manipulate any sad interlopers who infiltrate them to her advantage. While sympathetic to protagonist John Cusack’s plight, I didn’t blame Maxine for maneuvering every event to her betterment. Malkovich was the key film in how I came to view Keener as an oddly awkward yet undeniably captivating screen presence. Maybe her interpretation of this adversely egoistical role was too successful and the character and actress detrimentally intertwined in my mind.

Keener herself apparently didn’t originally think she was right for the part because of her dislike of Maxine. Regardless, her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod was well deserved. Unlike her second one...

Take Two: The 40-Year-Old-Virgin (2005)
...or should I say her second Oscar nomination was misplaced?

Her performance in 2005’s Capote (a dry, awards-baiting affair, in my humble opinion) secured her a second supporting Oscar nomination, but in my estimation she was underused and underwhelming. But she shone brightly as Trish Piedmont in The 40-Year-Old Virgin that same year. If only Oscar embraced the funny more readily, and more frequently, vivacious roles like this one might get due recognition. She was full of energy, spirit and, significantly, character: Trish was a grandmother before her time, with a messy love life, and making a living selling second-hand eBay goods.

Keener worked her odd magic. She managed to easefully instill Trish with both maternal drive and sensual vibrancy. Her romantic scenes with Steve Carell made for some of the most refreshingly amiable, out-of-the-blue moments in a rom-com in years. Instead of the usual youth-orientated teen-love tribulations, here was a grown-up love story with infinite good will and a smattering of kind-heartedness. I’d say that Keener worked harder in creating a fully-fleshed-out performance from an original script here than she did with the real (and therefore easily-researchable, yet ultimately rather two-dimensional) figure of Harper Lee. We can’t go back in time and alter the Oscar voters’ minds, but we can recalibrate our viewing habits and put our hearts and funny-bones first to celebrate Trish more.

Take Three: Please Give (2010)

To my eyes and ears at least, Please Give is Keener’s most fully-rounded, intricate and emotionally spot-on performance to date. It’s a close-to-perfect piece of acting. There’s an built in disparity, an imbalance, within Keener’s trendy-antiques dealer Kate: she repossess the recently-deceased’s wares and sells them on at a higher mark-up (like Virgin, Keener’s again selling other people’s stuff), yet she also doles out any spare change she has to New York’s homeless without a second thought. The journey Kate takes over the course of Nicole Holofcener’s film is, of course, all about the act and exploration of giving. But Keener’s acting is never simplistic or easily-fathomable. Her work is bold yet accessible, and full of directional pulls and emotional bumps which resonate beyond the film’s duration; it makes us question our own charitable ideologies. Misplaced empathy and foolhardy ingratiation are tricky emotional states to pin down, but Keener nails both.

Two moments illustrate this best. In one memorable scene she visits a group of learning-needs children to volunteer help, but immediately breaks down in tears of knee-jerk empathy, and is told to leave by the manager. She plays this with a matter-of-fact kindness which is plainly transferable, recognisable to anyone who’s ever attempted to give something but has never been exactly sure why. In another moment, when she's deeply contemplating her lot in life and her atttitude of 'give and take', she glances over at a newly-acquired antique chair and envisions the dead owner sitting in it. This series of simple actions, beautifully directed by Holofcener and seamlessly carried out by Keener, tell us everything about Kate’s emotional state at that crucial point in the film, without fuss or words. It’s a well considered and perfectly executed example of how acting can directly translate unspoken emotion with quiet power. After eleven years of curious uncertainty, under a minute of screen time aroused a new level of Keener keenness within me.

Three more films for the taking: Living In Oblivion (1995), Death to Smoochy (2002), Into the Wild (2007)

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Reader Comments (20)

One more to the list: her brilliant, blunt and dark performance in Synecdoche, New York!

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertomasbuenosaires

And don't forget her great performance in "Friends With Money!"

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBill_the_Bear

She's one of my favourite actresses. I don't understand how you could not like her at first (although this happens to me with some actors, it could never happen with Keener). I think she's great but agree on that Capote nomination. That was weird and underserved. Let's pretend she got it for The 40 Year Old Virgin

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLucky

Loving the spotlight on 40-year-old Virgin. She really did shine as the comedic love interest. Too bad she doesn't get those roles more often.

I actually like Keener best in Your Friends and Neighbors. I don't know if I could say it was her best performance (the woman is flawless in my world), but that character was so interesting and she drew out her intricacies. I also think Holofcener brings out Keener excellently. I don't think I could choose between the four films they have done together.

I can't believe that I completely missed TRUST. I know I was overwhelmingly busy around the release time, but I really think that it never came to my market.

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterfbh

@fbh: Her work in "Your Friends and Your Neighbors" was what first made me take notice of her. Such a gem of a performance.

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H

Agree with the weird nomination for Capote.

When I saw her in Being John Malkovich, I thought, “She looks so foxy here!"

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

My favorite line reading from "Malkovich" (on the phone with the classifieds):

"Ever want to be someone else? No, that's the ad, but we can talk about you later."


May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnthonyDC

I've never had any trouble loving Keener - along with people like Julianne Moore, Emmanuelle Devos and Juliette Binoche, she's one of the actresses whose performances I most look forward to.

While I thought she was solid and weirdly resonant in Capote, I agree that she did infinitely superior work in The Forty Year Old Virgin.

I'd rank Please Give among her less interesting or challenging performances (maybe in part because the film itself is an abortion), though it's a thoroughly credible and detailed one.

My favourite Keener performance is probably her wise, quietly switched-on hippie in Into the Wild, though I did/do find her work in Lovely and Amazing grossly undervalued. In fact, I find the majority of her work grossly undervalued - ever since Your Friends and Neighbours at least, she's been subtly, consistently compelling and remarkably unaffected in quite a variety of roles.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Is it me or did no-one feel she was subtly effective in capote,harper lee is a recluse so she had nothing much to go on,the way she spoke,interacted with hoffman,moved and all the time in her eyes and face there is more going on,the way she reacts to praise for her book and when truman is at her launch party - magic for me!!!

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMARK

Mark, I absolutely agree with each of those points. I just wanted to say that I don't consider Capote among the finest of her performances (which are, you know, basically mindblowing), but that is a hardly a slight on her work as Harper Lee.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentergoran

goran and mark -- i loved her in capote too. This is one of the take three's i've most disagreed with actually because I don't have much trouble relating to her work and Being John Malkovich is my favorite of her performances. I liked Please Give a lot but I did think it wasn't enough of a stretch for Keener at this point and I wish people would challenge her more fiercely to see what else she has in her.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

A terrific actress and a very convincing hippie too.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNina

As a staunch Capote fan who doesn't understand how it lost Best Picture to Crash, I can honestly say I like Catherine Keener in the film. The whole features is such a slow-build low key affair that you don't realize how much work every performer is doing to appear so normal for most of the running time. And then when that ending hits, I'm destroyed every time.

I'd also like to point out her strong limited work in Where the Wild Thing Are, another film where she grounded and controlled the more fantastic elements with a sympathetic smile and caring nature.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I really like Keener in Capote too, and the movie itself grew on me - my clear no 1 of 2005 nominees (Crash, of course, is last). If anyone, it seems like McDormand, who I usually think is great, was the filler nominee that year (Haven't seen North Country yet, but seems I'm not missing much. Already the poster is godawful).

I think she's reliably good, if not groundbreaking, in Please Give and great fun in Malkovich, even if her character doesn't really have depth (Basically my issue with the whole movie, besides Charlie Sheen being in it - still enjoyed it a lot, but I definitely prefer Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine and Synecdoche when it comes to Kaufman). And the scenes with her were my favorites in Wild Things.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan

Her 2005 was one of the best for any actress in a few decades, in addition to Capote (exquisitely restrained and quite deserving of praise in my opinion) and 40-Year-Old Virgin, she gave a complex, lived-in performance opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and actually was much more effective than even need be in The Interpreter, particularly in a late car scene with an African dictator, where her delivery of one line is the film's best moment.

Also check out her brief but very funny appearance in Out of Sight-- expertly used by Soderbergh, who incidentally also directed her in her worst role ever as a screeching hag in Full Frontal.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ

How about her performance in An American Crime
Chilling and unlike her other performances

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPhil

Glad that others are championing her Harper Lee. I agree with MARK above that playing a recluse and having relatively little to go on she was perfect in the role. She was my favourite of the lot after Weisz (although, I know this is a pro-Junebug board). I like her in Friends with Money, but I like all the women in that. Save for Jen.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Forgot to say that I also quite liked her in Into the Wild, a movie that otherwise seriously annoyed me, and she's somewhere in the middle of the supporting actress pack for me in Synecdoche (Wiest is the best, then probably Morton).

Also, since I realized that "besides" can have two different meanings - I definitely meant the one in my previous comment as "in addition to", not "except for" :)

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJan


Very irritating character in 'Being John Malkovich' but I later fell completely in love with her when our school went to the movies to watch '40 year old virgin' (!) I had VERY low expectations of that film, but I was shown otherwise! My brother and me still watch it EVERY time it's on tv! I cannot say much more that it's lovely and charming and one of my favourite Steve-films, too.

I didn't even know she had been nominated for 'Capote' and I honestly like 'Infamous' much, much better, with Sandra Bullock playing Harper Lee (well, and it also has Daniel Craig and Lee Pace (tall!!) and a lot more intimate scenes) but I would still watch every movie which has CK in it even for 5 seconds ('Adaption'?) - like 'The Soloist', 'Geneva', 'Where the wild things are', or even 'Percy Jackson'!
I love 'Into the Wild' because I'm so romantic, and it's a huge bonus that CK is in it, too.

Omfg, 'An American Crime'. I was so stunned by the acting that I forgot to hate her character!

'Please Give' is pure bliss since it not only has Catherine but two more delicious brunettes by the name of Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet.

I have not yet seen 'Synecdoche, New York'. Shame on me. Anyone else massively intrigued by her newest cooperation with that gang, 'A late quartet'?

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEva

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