The Heigl makeover: We're not buying it

With a new movie coming out, the "Grey's Anatomy" star tries for image rehab. But some things are hard to fix

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 4, 2010 3:05PM (EDT)

Katherine Heigl in "Life as We Know It"
Katherine Heigl in "Life as We Know It"

It's hard to feel any measure of sympathy for a woman who is famous, beautiful and commands $15 million a picture. But does Katherine Heigl deserve a break? After enjoying five minutes of public goodwill three years ago, for her support of her "Grey's Anatomy" costar T.R. Knight during the whole Isaiah Washington debacle and a movie star-making turn in "Knocked Up," she seemed poised to assume the role of America's newest sweetheart.

But that refreshing candor that so endeared us to her when she was telling Washington to shut his hole quickly wore out its welcome. She told Vanity Fair she found her Judd Apatow vehicle "a little sexist," adding, "It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you’re portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie." And then, after winning an Emmy for her role as Dr. Izzie Stevens, she withdrew herself from consideration in 2008, explaining, "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I withdrew my name from contention. In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials." Burn!

Run-of-the mill celebrity bad behavior -- the kind where a performer picks a fight with David Letterman or wanders naked on the freeway -- is almost understandable. Look at the crazy creative type cracking under pressure! But snooty, nothing's-good-enough-for-me self-righteousness? That doesn't sit so well with the public -- as Sean Penn could attest. While Heigl has continued over the last two years to forge an unimpeachable personal life -- adopting a special needs child, advocating tirelessly for animal rights -- she has not been able to shake the image of uppity little priss. Somewhere, Gwyneth Paltrow is wiping her brow in relief.

But as Heigl prepares for the release of her latest rom-com, the ubiquitously advertised "Life As We Know It," the attempt to rehab her persona has been revving into overdrive. She graces the cover of the current InStyle, where she self-deprecatingly speaks of her nervous days as a new mother. And in a Sunday New York Times profile so puffy it's a wonder it doesn't float, Brooks Barnes butt-kissingly surmises that Heigl "unwittingly created her image problem by being honest in interviews ... because she didn’t just mouth promotional platitudes about her projects." Heigl, unsurprisingly, is with Brooks on this one, explaining, "I’ve been told I’m too forthright with opinions. Well do they want a fierce woman or milquetoast? Should I be me, or should I pretend to be something I think people want? Pretending seems pretty ridiculous to me. I didn’t think that what I was was so bad that I needed to hide it."

Why can't you handle Heigl's truth bombs, America? Why can't you join the critics who, Barnes writes, "cheered the natural way she has inhabited roles like the pathological bridesmaid in '27 Dresses'"? Not sure if that's what the Times review of that film meant when it acknowledged her "impressive gift for mugging," but duly noted.  Why can't you see she's a down-to-earth gal who is "fun-loving and relaxed? She enjoys a good cocktail and a dirty joke, but she also knits and reads Martha Stewart Living." Did he mention she's a mom, struggling to "balance work with family"? Oh right, he did, right after calling her "gracious and funny."

Heigl may indeed be all of those things. She's an attractive woman, a reliable performer, and a lady who seems eager to create a life beyond the Hollywood fame factory. But it's one thing to express disdain for the paucity of challenging roles out there if you are Sean Penn, and you're actually holding out for those blow-everybody-out-of-the-water films. It's another thing altogether when you publicly put down the "quality" of work you've already received payment for. And it's a real whopper when you don't walk away from "Grey's Anatomy" into risky indie fare. Heigl's recent body of work so far consists of unremarkable fare like "Killers" and "The Ugly Truth." The movie she's promoting so heavily now isn't a labor of love she toiled for years on, working for scale to get it released. It's a big-budget, Harlequin-ready romance about an unlikely duo who inherits an orphan baby. The trailer features jokes along the lines of "You have poo on your face."

And you see, that's what makes the sanctimony seem a little misplaced, like those friends who roll their eyes at what everyone else is ordering for dinner or insist they just can't wear unnatural fibers. If you want to play like you're striking a blow for mouthy women, believe it, there are plenty of mouthy women out there who'd have your back, Heigl. There are plenty of men who'd stand up and cheer, too. But if you're going to crank out tepid rom-coms and applaud your own strength of character, we must call shenanigans.

When and if Heigl decides to play a character other than the uptight lady who gets taken down a peg by life's funny twists and a dashing, slovenly rake, we'll be happy to assess her range and applaud her courage. In the meantime, three years after griping about a movie that portrays women "as shrews, as humorless and uptight," it seems like she's still busy congratulating herself enough for all of us.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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