Midway through Spike Jonze’s ADAPTATION (2002), Nicholas Cage stepping in for the real screenwriter of the film, Charlie Kaufman, speaks to his fictitious brother Donald (also played by Cage) on the phone. Donald mentions to the forever frazzled Charlie that Catherine Keener is hanging out and wants to play a role in his just optioned movie project.
“Catherine Keener is in my house?” Charlie asks with all of his wide eyed angst. Playing herself at the time of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, Keener is only briefly in ADAPTATION (it’s an uncredited walk on), but it marks the beginning of her high profile in film – Keener, after over 15 years in the business, was finally a “name.”
That was nearly a decade ago and Keener’s profile is still high with 2 independent films out this summer – PLEASE GIVE and CYRUS. She was also recently seen in big budget studio fare like PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS – THE LIGHTNING THIEF and last year’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE of which she also was an associate producer.
Keener has built a sturdy career playing a series of sassy yet cynical women who taunt their romantic partners and many times leave them. A few examples of this include SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and HAMLET 2, both very different films that dealt with a similar subject – personal artistic struggle. Keener’s characters symbolized dissatisfaction coupled with a yearning for freedom away from the obsessed ego of a lousy life partner.
Keener has played this type of part perhaps too often. In the 4 films (WALKING AND TALKING, LOVELY AND AMAZING, FRIENDS WITH MONEY and PLEASE GIVE) she’s made with Nicole Holofcener, she’s perfected the role of a New York intellectual suffering with liberal guilt and seething hostility. It’s a character that’s obviously close to her heart, but it lives or dies on the strength of Keener’s acerbic line readings and lately, in PLEASE GIVE it died.
Initially her role as Steve Carrell’s love interest in the uber commercial hit THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN appeared to be severe miscasting. Her style seemed better suited to the edgier indie worlds of Holofcenter, Steven Soderbergh, or, of course, Charlie Kaufman, than the raunchy boys club milieu of Judd Apatow, yet it was refreshing to see her having fun in a less stressed comic identity.
Keener’s Oscar nominated role as Harper Lee in CAPOTE (2005) was also a bit of a change from her patented snarky persona. Another out of character part came in a little seen TV movie produced by Showtime based on a true story - “An American Crime”. Although she played yet another divorcée, Keener’s acclaimed performance as Gertrude Baniszewski, a Indiana woman who tortured and murdered a teenage girl, was definitely a different stroke for the active actress.
So Keener keeps her indie cred although she often pops up in mainstream movies usually playing a hip single mother like she did in PERCY JACKSON and WILD THINGS. She’s got a healthy crop of films coming up including David O. Russell’s political romantic comedy NAILED in which she plays the fictitious Rep. Pam Hendrickson. It looks to be another welcome change of pace. Keener may not be an A-list star, but she’s a familiar face and name to movie lovers no matter the genre or budget of her films.
For nearly a decade she’s replaced Parker Posey as the queen of independent film, one who can survive the crossover and come back again to her home turf. As her reign continues here’s hoping she’ll aspire to do more with her crown.