A Salute to Actress Catherine Keener

Catherine 1If there were awards given out for Most Valuable Players in movies, Catherine Keener would be up for it every year.

Even though the Hialeah, Florida-born actress has been nominated twice for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (for her roles in Being John Malkovich and Capote) and has been given other honors for her work over the years, she still manages to fly under the radar, quietly playing strong-willed women, quirky in their behavior yet often so set in their ways that they come off as being stand-offish.

Said Keener: “I… had guys on the set who didn’t like me… they weren’t interested in the cold character.”

As to how the characters she plays relate to herself, Keener explained that “I don’t think I’m very ambitious at all. But I seem to play people who have that quality.”

Keener, now 53 years old, is at an age where actresses typically slow down, finding the type of parts they once played handed to younger performers, or seeking greener, steadier pastures taking roles in TV shows. Not so for Keener, who has several projects floating around now, and even more on the way.

For starters, she is one of the leads in The Oranges, an independent dramedy in which she and Hugh Laurie play Paige and David Walling, an unhappily married couple living in West Orange, New Jersey. Paige is a Christmas carol-obsessed control freak, which may be the reason the disgruntled David, a wine-swilling advertising executive, seeks solace in the arms of Nina Ostroff (Leighton Meester), the self-absorbed twentysomething  daughter of their good friends and neighbors, the gizmo-addicted Terry (Oliver Platt) and the perpetually angry Cathy (Allison Janney). Complicating matters even further during the hectic Thanksgiving season is the fact that the Wallings’ daughter Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), the narrator of the film, is Nina’s childhood best friend. The affair between David and Nina, which quickly becomes known to members of both families, opens the door for everyone to reassess their lives. Keener’s Paige isolates herself from everyone, then focuses on delving into charitable deeds by helping those less fortunate than her.

The fine ensemble, under the direction of Entourage regular Julian Farino, scores nicely with this satiric story of infidelity and dysfunctional families given an added edge by being set in the holiday season. There are elements that will remind viewers of the Jodie Foster-Robert Downey, Jr. film Home for the Holidays, American Beauty, and, yes, The Graduate, but The Oranges, thanks in part to some smart dialogue by writers Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss as well as the game cast, make this saga of suburban and midlife malaise click for most of its running time.

If time has caught up in any way to Keener, it certainly isn’t showing in the demand for her. She appears to be perpetually working.

Also to her credit in quick succession are:

Maladies, as the emotionally distraught sister of depressed actor James Franco.

Captain Phillips, a higher profile project for director Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum), with Tom Hanks as the real-life Naval officer Richard Phillips, who battled Somali pirates in 2009. Keener portrays Phillips’ wife Andrea.

The Croods, an animated feature set in prehistoric times from one of the directors of How to Train Your Dragon. Keener adds her voice to the proceedings, along with Nicolas Cage and Ryan Reynolds.

A new romantic comedy from director Nicole Holofcener, who has frequently cast Keener (Please Give, Friends with Money, Lovely & Amazing, Walking and Talking).

A Late Quartet, in which she plays the viola-playing wife of second violinist Philip Seymour Hoffman, members of a string quartet along with Christopher Walken and Mark Ivanir.

A Late Quartet

And that’s not to mention the recent DVD release of Peace, Love and Misunderstanding, in which Keener assays the role of an uptight, recently divorced New York City attorney who takes her two kids to visit pot-smoking hippie grandmother Jane Fonda in Woodstock, New York.

Of course, the actress has made a specialty of appearing in “indie films”– forging relationships with filmmakers such as Holofcener, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are), Stacy Cochran (My New Gun, Boys), Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, Full Frontal) and Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion, Box of Moonlight)–   although the line is blurred as to what even constitutes an indie these days.

“The movies I usually do are maybe three or four weeks because they don’t have a lot of money,” she’s said about her body of work. “The movies I’m in, not a lot of people see, but it’s alright.”

Keener didn’t start out as an indie queen. She can be found in small, early roles in the Brat Pack rom-com …About Last Night, Blake Edwards’ gender-shifting farce Switch, and TV series like L.A. Law and the short-lived 1987 show Ohara, for which she was a regular police presence next to star Pat Morita.  In fact, it was during the shooting of the actioner Survival Quest that Keenan met and eventually married actor Dermot Mulroney. The two shared the screen in a few films and had a child, but separated after 17 years of marriage in 2007.

The actress’s biggest early recognition, however, may have come from a one-shot in a TV sitcom. It was Keener who played “Nina,” the plaid shorts-wearing artist girlfriend of Jerry Seinfeld in the 1992 episode of Seinfeld called “The Letter.” It was, in fact, Keener’s character who painted the picture of Kramer (Michael Richards), and wrote Jerry a sensitive letter he later learned was cribbed from Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.”

Of the more high profile films (i.e. studio efforts) Keener has appeared in, there’s 8mm (1999) as the wife of Nicolas Cage, a detective investigating snuff films; the underrated satire Death to Smoochy (2002), with Keener as a TV executive; Sydney Pollack’s thriller The Interpreter (2005), as the determined Secret Service agent partner to Sean Penn; The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), as the understanding E-Bay consigner who takes a liking to Steve Carrell’s title character; and The Soloist (2009), playing the wife and boss of real-life Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey, Jr.).

But even with that array of credits, who can forget Catherine the Great’s knockout indie turns? How about Maxine Lund, the lust object and entrepreneur who attracts men and women and Malkoviches alike in Being John Malkovich?  To say nothing of Harper Lee, the “To Kill a Mockingbird” author and confidante to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote?  There’s her indelibly etched middle-aged hippie that befriends societal dropout Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. She also  made a strong impression as the woman who comes between daughter Camilla Belle and father Daniel Day-Lewis, living on an abandoned commune, in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Let’s not forget the guilt-ridden Manhattan antiques dealer in Holofcener’s Please Give, or John C. Reilly’s too-understanding ex-wife and best friend in Mark and Jay Duplass’s Cyrus.

Keener has looked at her career trajectory clearly and accepted where she is with her work and life. “Well, for one thing, I like being a supporting actress,” she has stated. “I like to come and go in the film.

“The interesting characters are very few if you want to be the lead, and they depend on you being beautiful. Since I`m not interested in those parts, the pressure`s off, in a way. I`m not cast for my physicality. I find that playing so many characters in so many films is a way to be in the moment.”