Last night I finished watching a new straight-to-video comedy called Falling Up. It was pretty mediocre, but I watched it mainly because it had a good cast: Annette O'Toole, Mimi Rogers, Joe Pantoliano and Snoop Dogg. OK. I didn't watch it for them, entirely, but because of Rachael Leigh Cook. I have had a movie crush on Rachael for years and this will be the fourth straight-to-video movie I have endured just for another glimpse of those amazing eyes. But the question is: why is she in all these straight-to-video movies? If my adoration for her has endured, why has her career not done the same thing? But the scariest thing of all is that Rachael is not the only movie crush of mine that has seen a marked dip in her career. Are my affections somehow cursed? Am I a career killer?
Rachael first made a splash as the young Jackie O in The House of Yes (1997), and then starred in a genuine hit, She's All That (1999), as the nerdy girl who gets the question: "do you really need to wear those glasses?" Following that was a flurry of five major films in two years, all of which landed with a giant, collective thud. There was Sylvester Stallone's remake of Get Carter, the lame comedy Blow Dry, and the tepid Western Texas Rangers. The paranoid thriller Antitrust may well qualify as a guilty pleasure, at least, and Josie and the Pussycats is definitely a guilty pleasure. I loved that film; I loved the punk/pop music and its cheerful parody of the music business. But of course, everyone else hated it.
I think that small window of releases was Rachael's big chance. She needed to use that time to establish a screen persona, and couldn't do it with those five roles. It has nothing to do with her talent or presence, and certainly she has a unique combination of porcelain beauty as well as an adorable, approachable quality, matched with a tough tomboy matter-of-factness. I think she needed either to work with a great director or to score a big hit, or at least a cult classic. After that I saw disease-of-the-week movie Stateside (2004) at a press screening, which then never opened theatrically. The terrific little movie 11:14 was rescued from video oblivion and given a small theatrical release in 2005. And she appeared in Nancy Drew (2007), and that's about it. Fortunately she works a lot, and her IMDB resume has more than 60 films and TV shows on it over the course of 15 years.
Another crush I feel bad about is Shannyn Sossamon. She, of course, was discovered in that famous and slightly annoying way at Gwyneth Paltrow's birthday party (she was helping the D.J.). She made her movie debut in Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale (2001), which was one of those movies that charms you, even though you should probably know better. I thought she was fine in that film, but I wrote that she looked a little like a second-tier Angelina Jolie. One thing that holds true for my movie crushes is that I tend to like their movies better than most other people; it's as if the women give me an instant connection to and understanding with the material. I liked Shannyn much better in her second film, 40 Days and 40 Nights (2002), from cult director Michael Lehmann (Heathers), which -- of course -- most people hated. Shannyn became her own actress in this film, becoming sexy and smart and unique all in one fell swoop. I dare anyone not to be moved by that scene with the feather.
The Rules of Attraction followed, and -- surprise -- it was yet another one I liked that no one else did, and I liked Shannyn even better than before. Sadly, that was it. She had been given an even smaller window than Rachael, and her time was up. She re-teamed with director Helgeland and star Heath Ledger for The Order (2003), but everyone knows what happened with that one. She had dinky parts in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) and The Holiday (2006) and a lead role in another universally hated horror film, One Missed Call (2008). I loved Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), and hoped that it might catch on as a cult classic, but I'm not sure that has happened yet.
Besides Rachael and Shannyn, there are a dozen other actresses with the same or similar fates. In the old days, stars were given a chance. Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne were both in films for decades before their screen persona emerged and they became leading men and stars. Nowadays, no one has any patience. We need immediate payoff. If an actor doesn't deliver in 18 months, that's it. Of course, though these girls chose their own material and directors, it's not entirely their fault. How can anyone know how a movie turns out? It's a rule in Hollywood that no one ever sets out to make a bad movie. And in the case of women, too many roles are passive and uninteresting, and all my movie crushes have been forced to play them at some point.
Another movie crush of mine is Neve Campbell, who looked like she was on top of the world after leaving "Party of Five" and landing the lead role in the Scream franchise. She starred in Robert Altman's great, underrated The Company (2003), and even snagged story and producer credits on that film. I interviewed her at the time, and she effortlessly charmed me with her freckled beauty. Later that day, there was some buzz that she might be playing silent star Louise Brooks in a new biopic. I had high hopes, but to this day I have only seen one other Campbell film in the theater: James Toback's When Will I Be Loved (2004). True to form, I liked it and no one else did.
It seems as if Neve did everything right; she worked with top directors, appeared in some huge hits and clearly established herself. And then... what happened? Perhaps it's that all three women came off as smart and self-reliant. Who knows? Perhaps it's just the turning of the tide. Look at Scarlett Johansson, who may or may not be the greatest actress on the planet, but happened to choose a long string of fascinating projects and became a bankable star. Then look at Penelope Cruz, who was another crush of mine many years ago. Her move from Spanish films to Hollywood films didn't immediately click and it looked as if she was going to fade away forever. But then, slowly, carefully, she landed the right roles at the right times, and now she's back in a big way.
I wish I could see my crushes Rachael, Shannyn and Neve around more often. But I hope they're happy and working often enough to pay the rent. I hope they're not too upset about the twist of fate that took them away from the limelight. I hope they don't take it too personally. They really shouldn't. And if they don't take it personally, then I won't either.