Katherine Heigl’s new action comedy, Killers, opens today, without having screened for the critics who will inevitably dislike it. These critics also didn’t care much for her last two films, 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, and they went on to bank a combined $165.7 million domestically, $365.6 million worldwide. While the numbers may spit on Pauline Kael’s grave, they also make it hard to ignore that Heigl is today’s one true bankable rom-com star. And yet, this stature is complicated by her polarizing public persona: While to some she’s a ditzy-delightful movie presence, to others she’s a headstrong, self-immolating, gaffe-spewing, headache-inducing diva freak. Or both.
So where does this leave her? We carefully analyzed her career arc, successes, failures, grosses, and penitent prayer-hands Entertainment Weekly covers, and then spoke to agents, managers, and publicists for their candid, deep-background opinions of the actress. All of this to bring you our definitive take on Heigl’s career and prospects for longevity: If Katherine Heigl were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
NARRATIVE ARC: Heigl started out as a child model at age 9, then played Gerard Depardieu’s 16-year-old daughter (in My Father the Hero) and an alien (on TV’s Roswell in 1999). But now, for better or worse, she is known for three things: (1) starring on Grey’s Anatomy; (2) leaving Grey’s Anatomy; (3) complaining about everything.
After she starred in Knocked Up in 2007, the totally-not-reliant-on-her comedy from Judd Apatow, she derided the film as “sexist.” When the producers of Grey’s Anatomy moved to accommodate her simultaneous shooting of the show and a movie, she complained to David Letterman about her seventeen-hour workdays. And she publicly dissed her Grey’s writers for weak story lines — as explanation for why she hadn’t submitted her name for an Emmy. (Her mother, Nancy, who is also her manager, reportedly told her she “didn’t have a hope in hell of winning.”)
To some, this translates as “refreshingly outspoken.” To others, it translates as ”enormous pain in the ass.” Of course, if you’re Russell Crowe, Oscar eater, you can survive inducing widespread ass-pain. But can Heigl?
CAREER STATUS: In a time when studios have thrown a lot of Jennifers (Aniston, Lopez, Garner) at the wall to see who’d stick, Heigl is the only actress who has. Tracking numbers obtained by Vulture show that interest in her new movie isn’t impressive, with one survey taken last Sunday showing only 32 percent of all potential moviegoers citing “definite interest” in seeing the film; however, that is only three percentage points lower than how The Ugly Truth tracked a week before its release, and it went on to gross $89 million. While Killers features a familiar Heigl — judging from the trailer, she alternately banters with and nuzzles her boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher, who joins Gerard Butler, James Marsden, and the upcoming Josh Duhamel on her list of interchangeable onscreen suitors) — there is more gunplay here than her usual films. As such, it’s scoring lower with her core female fan base, but higher with men.
As a whole, her post–Knocked Up movies have been competent, successful, familiar, and undistinguished — all of which you might say about Heigl herself. There will always be starring roles for pretty blondes who are delightfully ditzy and can chew their lips emotively on cue. However, there will also always be blondes like that, too.
Knocked Up (2007): $300,000
27 Dresses (2008): $6 million
Current quote: $13 million
PLACE ON THE CASTING FOOD CHAIN: Sources tell Vulture that there are only five women today who can get a project green-lit just by signing on: Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon (for dramas), and Heigl. And out of those five, Heigl is the only one who will work in a young romantic comedy. The next tier of hot female stars — Anne Hathaway, Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley — may be offered a lead role, but they won’t get a movie a go just by signing their name.
AN AGENT’S VIEW: “She still green-lights studio movies. And personality aside, she is a movie star. The problem is that it’s getting harder and harder. Look at this project Blended at Warner Bros. that she’s attached to. It’s a two-hander [needing a male and female lead to pull it off]. And the producers are telling us, ‘We can’t go back to any male lead she’s ever worked with.’ And that’s because she’s a goddamn nightmare. It’s a shame, because she’s talented. She has a shot at being Julia Roberts, but she’s headed towards becoming Jennifer Aniston — someone who works regularly, but who could have been a superstar.”
A MANAGER’S VIEW: “So far, [she and her manager mom] have sent this message: She’s expensive, and she’s unpleasant to work with. It looks like they’re going for a ‘quick burn’: Make as much as you can, while you can. I’ve always felt the way to longevity was quality, not a bunch of romantic comedies in a row just because they pay big. I already feel like the audience has tired of her [in that genre]. She needs to make it an event to go see a Katie Heigl movie. I don’t know if she has the acting chops to do other things, but she needs to do other things, and to work with great directors.”
A PUBLICIST’S VIEW: “She’s almost her own worst enemy. You have to be so careful which outlets you’re going to put her with. Always do the safe stuff: Leno. Today. You need someone on your side. Because Katie’s just a risk.”
THE RUNDOWN: Is Heigl worth the headache? The positive spin is that, despite all the controversy she’s generated and apparent ill will she’s inspired, she has remained a lock-tight moneymaker, at least for a certain audience. But the rom-com audience is notoriously fickle, or at least brand-resistant, lured more reliably by high-concept pitches and great trailers than over-the-title stars. (The double-dip of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway could not breathe life into Bride Wars, for example.)
Since Heigl is unlikely to ever land another network series or Judd Apatow comedy, she’d better hope her audience loves her in Killers or her next project, Life As We Know It, about a couple that inherits an orphaned baby. If either one hits, she’ll be well-established as this generation’s Meg Ryan, and studios will overlook her drama for a while. (Though if she then tries to do a dark, psychosexual drama to break free of the “this generation’s Meg Ryan” mantel, she’ll find precious few serious directors willing to take a chance on her.)
But if both films bomb, well, let’s just say she hasn’t earned a lot of get-out-of-flop-free cards in the industry. And there are already troubling signs that she’s priced — and talked — her way out of her rom-com throne. She reportedly asked $3 million for a small role in Valentine’s Day and lost the part — to Julia Roberts, who got the same amount. When you’re losing parts to an actor whose career arc you should be emulating, that’s never a good sign.
And as an interesting note, Heigl’s personality clashes could have a much wider effect on 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.
THE BOTTOM LINE: She once longed publicly for better story lines. We should know soon how her own conflict-ridden story plays out.