Dear Katherine Heigl, Please Play More Villains

By
Katherine Heigl in Unforgettable.

The obsessed-woman psychosexual thriller is an underappreciated cinematic subgenre. Think Disclosure, When the Bough Breaks, The Roommate, Swimfan, Single White Female, Obsessed, and the example par excellence, Fatal Attraction. This weekend, Katherine Heigl will join the club in Unforgettable, playing a woman who will stop at nothing to keep Rosario Dawson from moving into her ex’s bed. It’s Heigl’s first starring role in a wide release since The Big Wedding in 2013, and if she’s willing to commit to breaking bad, it could turn out to be her best career move in years.

Ten years ago, Heigl experienced the biggest turning point of her professional life when she starred in the smash hit Knocked Up. The movie not only made a ton of money, it pulled in great reviews and ushered in a new wave of R-rated comedies. Heigl at the time was best known for her roles in Roswell and Grey’s Anatomy, and Knocked Up made her a movie star. She was fantastic as the uptight foil to Rogen’s aggressively lazy inseminator — funny, charming, and as sympathetic as she was grating. Knocked Up was an unqualified success, and it was the absolute worst thing that’s happened to Heigl’s career.

In 2007 that would have seemed like a ridiculous thing to say, but Heigl had the bad luck to become the rom-com star du jour at the exact moment the genre was crumbling. Her first two follow-ups, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, were solid rom-com hits that had her play a variation on her driven Knocked Up character, but from then on the box-office returns and the critical acclaim diminished year after year. From The Killers to Life As We Know It to One for the Money, people literally weren’t buying Heigl as a romantic heroine. The reviews briefly picked up again when she swerved into earnest territory with Jackie & Ryan, playing a single mother fighting for custody of her daughter; hardly anyone saw it. But even that couldn’t stop the tide: Critics dragged Heigl again when she stayed sentimental for Jenny’s Wedding, a movie that saw her play a closeted woman coming out to her family.

Heigl had exited Grey’s in 2010 under a storm of controversy, and her return to TV hasn’t fared much better. Her spy drama State of Affairs got canceled after 13 episodes in 2015. Her latest attempt to shoulder a series, CBS’s Doubt, just got pulled after a mere two episodes. The legal drama wasn’t very good, but seeing a Heigl vehicle get yanked after just a pair of episodes feels borderline personal at this point. Whether she’s an ambitious attorney, a bail bondswoman, a single mother, a queer woman about to get married, no one seems to be rooting for Katherine Heigl. Luckily, Unforgettable offers an alternative path: Why not go full villain?

It’s a trick she’s pulled before. In the middle of her rom-com phase, Heigl snuck in one of the best performances of her career as an obsessive-compulsive, murderously jealous housewife in the black comedy Home Sweet Hell. She was an unhinged treasure: When her unhappy husband breaks the news to his wife that his pregnant mistress is attempting to extort him, Mona plainly asserts that she must be killed. Unable to do the deed himself, he turns the job over to Heigl; watching the actress strip down to her skivvies and a protective smock to gleefully cut Jordana Brewster apart is a true delight.

Two years and two failed TV dramas later, Unforgettable sees Heigl unleash her acerbic edge once more. Her platinum hair is pressed Ivanka-straight, she wields a fire iron while wearing a nightdress, and in the movie’s marquee scene, Heigl catfishes her ex-husband’s new girlfriend while hate-masturbating in a silk robe. She’s never been more fun.

The truth is, Heigl’s always been more Ali Larter than Meg Ryan. (Yes, that makes Unforgettable her Obsessed.) She has the face of the prettiest mean girl at your high school, and considering she started her career playing petulant teens in My Father the Hero and Under Siege 2, petty is in her DNA.

None of this is to say that Heigl is strictly limited to playing smirking, vengeful bitches, but it would serve her well to lean into the madness for a while. Remember: Heigl didn’t excel in Knocked Up by playing nice. The most impressive thing about that performance was Heigl building a character we cared about despite the fact she was preening and uptight. Besides, “likable” is the boring cousin of watchable — Heigl is a hell of a lot more entertaining when she’s out for blood.

Dear Katherine Heigl: Please Play More Villains