Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
There are distinct expectations that arise when you look at the roster for this week’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Guillermo del Toro, the skilled eye that brought us Pan’s Labyrinth, helped write the script, Guy Pearce plays one of the leads, and the eternally image-plagued Katie Holmes appears alongside him. The mix suggests lush, fear-inducing visuals, a chillingly dark offering by Pearce, and another awkward support role for Holmes, who is still trying to find her professional footing. But del Toro’s latest horror film isn’t what you’d expect.
The story of a family remodeling an old, forgotten mansion and being plagued by the demons who live beneath it, the film offers the classic young girl v. demon dichotomy (skillfully executed by Bailee Madison), and certainly elevates the original, uber-cheesy source material. But Dark isn’t a prime offering of del Toro or Pearce; this is Holmes’ moment to shine. Rather than giving another not-quite-right bit of support seen in films like Batman Begins, her performance is assured and comfortable, shining brighter than the not-so-scary antics of the plot and acting circles around a seemingly bored Pearce. It’s the mother in Holmes mixed with the understanding of youthful angst that made her a household name in the ‘90s. She adds a nice sense of reality to rather silly proceedings, which further complicates the Curious Case of Katie Holmes.
I remember the first time I saw her, when I hit the theater in 1997 to see The Ice Storm. Her rosy-cheeked face looked up from her book and her half-curled lips mused about Dostoyevsky and existentialism. Libbets Casey was the lonely, cerebral ingénue who would wax philosophic about literature one moment, and pass out drunk in a poor boy’s lap the next. She made intelligence look alluring, and she was the beautifully accessible heroine destined for Dawson’s Creek and teen fame. But little did we know that her first cinematic role would be curiously omniscient about her professional life: “Her mom, and step-dad, and step-sisters are going to Switzerland to ski over Thanksgiving break, and they didn’t invite her.” Katie Holmes seems to stand alone.
Holmes quickly became the real-life heroine of teen entertainment, while emphasizing a certain sense of solitude. For the first few years of her mainstream career, she balanced fluffy teen starring gigs (Disturbing Behavior, Teaching Mrs. Tingle) with her snarky and supporting smart-girl heroines. In Go, she played the daring Claire, left alone with the drug dealer, fighting to maintain equal footing against his dangerously imposing presence. The next year, she was back to the classroom with Tobey Maguire in Wonder Boys as Hannah Green, “insightful, kind, and impulsively clad in red cowboy boots.” The lone sanity in an insane story, Holmes managed to be a pillar untouched by the film’s chaos.
She stood firm just out of the spotlight, the lonely support to male indie heroes, but she also managed to be the sweet girl next door and youth too smart for her years. She could banter about literature, humanize a dangerous drug dealer, and face old pros like Michael Douglas. She possessed a certain knowing uniqueness that suggested a career transcending Creek fame, but she quickly set up a division of talents at odds with each other. Her interesting work came solely as co-star, including her I-can-be-adult-sexy, skin-showing turn in The Gift, making her breasts a pre-Google internet craze. Mainstream starring gigs like Abandon didn’t hold the same allure. She was in the spotlight, yet out of it, still navigating the terrain while co-Creeker Michelle Williams carefully piled an array of cinematic work only a few steps away from lasting critical love and Hollywood fame.
It seemed as if Pieces of April in 2003 would change things for Holmes. It was a nicely played starring role taking her lonely heroine and thrusting her into the turmoil of family relations. Talent like Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson were there to support her. The film was a critical favorite and even earned co-star Clarkson an Oscar nomination and a slew of other honors. It was engaging enough to inspire a loyal following and solid enough to suggest more success, but rather than the start of a lush career, it’s the lone, front-and-center gem.
Holmes picked the worst possible follow-up she could, her first mainstream starring gig without darkness – First Daughter – playing a girl slightly removed from life again, before Bruce Wayne abandoned her in Batman Begins. And then Thank You For Smoking descended like a dangling option to a career deserted as Holmes’ lonely on-screen heroine seemed to manifest in her real life.
We all know the Tom Cruise whirlwind. Suddenly she was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. She married, had a child, and was a silent figure in the spotlight, a fashion icon and tabloid darling who once again seemed like a pillar standing in chaos, but this time without the authority. She seemed to be, at once, both a silent controller trying to reign in her boisterous husband and as Pajiba put it, a Stepford Wife manipulated by the secrecy of Scientology, “a cipher, an unrealizable mystery that will always exist beyond our reach and understanding, but never truly vanish.”
Moving forward into a life with Cruise seemed to thrust her into stagnant limbo. She tried new looks, new manifestations of her career:
But ultimately, she came back to the habits of the past. Her first post-marriage film was the panned mainstream schlock Mad Money. Another break descended, and then two indies, The Extra Man, offering little to her roster, and The Romantics. As Laura Rosen, she was once again alone amongst chaos, harboring secrets the rest of her world wasn’t privy to.
It was also a daring choice, not for continuing this dance with solitude, but rather for attempting to come back to the spotlight with affairs and secrets, as the woman who cannot be trusted. While husband Tom got silly in Tropic Thunder and attempted to reclaim his stardom with the action movies that helped put him on the map, it seemed as if Holmes was trying to succeed by stoking our feelings of dislike. It didn’t help, but is still curiously honorable for a woman daring to try anything, no matter what the response.
Or is she? There’s a romanticized feeling behind Dark, especially since Holmes has noted that she was drawn to her character’s power: “She really comes into her own and she finds her strength.” Yet her cycle continues. She’s a woman who is still struggling to find secure footing, who hasn’t had nearly the success of women like Drew Barrymore and Angelina Jolie, who danced right out of their controversy and into lasting success. Now, following the disastrous outing of The Kennedys, she’s playing supportive wife – to Channing Tatum in Sundance shmeh-fest The Son of No One, and even more painfully, to Adam Sandler in the upcoming Jack and Jill. ... This:
Is it the movie for money? She doesn’t need it. Simply bad judgment? She seems smarter than that; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discern that Adam Sandler cross-dressing is a problematic recipe for success. Professional roulette? Scientological planning? Hot potato? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?
It almost feels like it’s time for Ms. Holmes to grab an ass-kicking action role, something that will let her “come into her own” and find “her strength.” If anything, to use her world with Cruise, her stage, and fashion side-gigs to be picky, to stop playing the support, break out of this lingering cinematic solitude and take a genuine artistic risk. To find the director who can perfectly match her talents, rather than watch her try to morph said talents. If Lars Von Trier can, in one film, make you forget every questionable bit of Kirsten Dunst’s career and turn the young Claudia into the troubled Justine in Melancholia, there’s some place for Katie Holmes.
Or is she destined to be the mysterious and solitary girl, forgotten, with no real place?
Girls on Film Pick of the Week: 'Higher Ground'
If there was any actress primed to jump behind the camera, it's Vera Farmiga. She thrives portraying women of depth, and gives complicated, problematic characters a palpable sense of identity. Inspired by Carolyn S. Brigg's memoir, she becomes director/star of a new challenge -- portraying the battle between spirituality and practice.The film follows Corrine, from her early moments in the Midwest, to entering a "Jesus Freak" (self-identified as such) church, questioning it, and dealing with the ties and fears that bind her to it. Mixed with aspects of spirituality are Corrine's experiences as a woman -- her sexuality, her desire to be heard.
The film has been rather well received since it screened for Sundance audiences earlier this year, and is currently courting an 82% fresh rating. In her review, Leslie Stonebraker noted: "Farmiga’s film does not preach. Instead, she embodies Corinne’s struggle with such gentle sympathy that the viewer cannot help but to see themselves in the mirror she holds up to the unfulfilled desires littered along the wayside of their own lives."
The film is kicking off this week in Los Angeles and New York City.