In Defense Of Katherine Heigl & The “America’s Sweetheart” Problem

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a fan of Katherine Heigl movies and I probably won’t see her new film “One for the Money” unless I’m forced. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think she’s gotten a raw deal in the media. A new article from New York magazine asks, “Is It Over for Katherine Heigl?” and examines the former “Grey’s Anatomy” star’s relative bankability compared to her position a few years ago. What it finds is that Katherine Heigl is guilty of a couple of major things, among them:

  1. Being demanding and high strung — incurring the nickname “Hurricane Heigl.”
  2. Having opinions about the projects she does.

But the real core of Heigl’s problem — and why she’s the object of such grating analysis, is that she’s a woman — a woman who’s done and said some unlikeable things. Call it the “America’s Sweetheart” problem, something Heigl seems acutely aware of. “I’ve never really been America’s sweetheart, but for a minute I think that’s what they wanted me to be,” she told Elle this past December. And I had ‘em for a second thinking maybe I was. And then I opened my mouth and it was clear I wasn’t.”

And none of these things would really matter if she was a man.

She’s Opinionated.

Heigl left “Grey’s,”  the show that made her famous, in 2010, after fighting to be let out of her contact for several years. She reportedly frequently butted heads with “Grey’s” creator Shonda Rhimes, and felt that the show’s writing was subpar, though her official reason for leaving was to spend more time with her family. She famously refused to submit her name to the Emmys in 2008 because she felt her “Grey”‘s work wasn’t worth it. “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,” she said. “In addition, I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.”

It was this early conflict that branded Heigl as “difficult” — but it was her comments about her role in Judd Apatow’s “Knocked Up” that sealed the deal. Of the 2007 film, she said, “[It’s] a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. … I had a hard time with it, on some days. I’m playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy?”

And yet male actors have often publicly criticized their projects with few repercussions. Remember when David Cross spoke out earlier this year against his “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” movie?

“In all honesty it was the most miserable experience I’ve ever had in my professional life,” said Cross. “If you see the movie – and don’t! — [it’s] a big commercial for Carnival Cruise Lines.”

And nobody seemed to care when Brad Pitt called his 1997 film “The Devil’s Own” “the most irresponsible bit of filmmaking — if you can even call it that — that I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it.”

And yet! Now that Heigl dared to make public her discontent with both a TV show with notverygoodwritingsorryguys and a movie with stereotypical tropes about uptight shrewish women and loserly pot-smoking dudes, she’s suddenly a problem personality.

She’s Difficult.

As one studio exec noted, her difficult, outspoken lady ways have cost Heigl her career. “She’s on a respirator. She’s not the girl anymore.” And that’s partially because she’s reportedly difficult to work with, so much so that her previous male coworkers refuse to work with her. Her industry nickname is allegedly “Hurricane Heigl.”  And that might just cause a major crisis in Hollywood: 

As one agent explains, male actors are more powerful than actresses in attracting moviegoers. So while Heigl can get a movie green-lit on her own, studios still want to hire a notable male co-star. However, as the other agent noted above, none of the actors who have worked with Heigl want to repeat the experience, which further shrinks the pool for every subsequent project she does, and slows down the development process. So if one of the only five actresses who can get a movie made can’t find a co-star, it markedly shrinks the number of movies that Hollywood can make. So much for sisterhood.

So everything is Katherine Heigl’s fault.

And, OK, Maybe She’s A Bitch.

So what? New York magazine seems to believe that her spotty box office record (and by the way, none of her films have actually done that poorly) is caused by “a cognitive dissonance caused by Heigl’s public persona: She was playing a relatable love interest, and yet moviegoers increasingly thought of her as tough and snappy.”

But whether Katherine Heigl is a nice person off-screen shouldn’t matter — we don’t have to play bridge with her or live next door to her, or  run into her at the supermarket. So why is Heigl’s “niceness” even a factor? Well, part of that has to do with internalized misogyny that women viewers seem to be directing at the star, since her core demographic is her former “Grey’s Anatomy”-watching audience, and it’s that base, say studio execs, with whom Heigl is scoring so low. The exec noted that fewer than a third of women over 25 — her core constituency — expressed interest in seeing her latest film “One For the Money.” But why that’s Heigl’s fault — and not the studio who produced and marketed the film’s fault — is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it’s because there are a lot of expectations placed on female actresses to be “nice” and project a certain image of humble accessibility. But why? No one sits around and wonders about the massive cavern between who Brad Pitt is and the guy he plays in “Moneyball.” There’s a higher premium put on actresses to follow a certain prescribed way of being — to be non-threatening, docile, spunky but also genteel.

As Entertainment Weekly writer Mark Harris notes, there are literally dozens of rules for actresses. Among them (emphasis mine):

Have a ”positive body image,” but also a killer body. Stay within the two-pound weight range that will not reveal you as either anorexic or a pig. Age gracefully, but never get older. Don’t have wrinkles, but don’t use Botox. Be modest, but when you win an award, weep as if a gold statuette is a personalized gift from heaven. If you get pregnant, be prepared to let a dozen news outlets act as your ob-gyn. Express concern about your carbon footprint, but don’t be ”political.” Talk about how living a normal life is important to you, but smile while every aspect of it is scrutinized. Criticize no one. Never speak off the cuff. Smile for the cameras. Don’t cross those women on “The View.” And above all, maintain a stance of deep gratitude for everything while expressing opinions about nothing.

And if you don’t, well, you’re a bitch. You’re Katherine Heigl. As my friend Matt says, “One wonders if Katherine Hepburn would have survived these days had there been, say PerezHepburn.” Probably not.