Let me begin with a confession: I have not been able to stand Maggie Gyllenhaal as an actress for years. I'm not sure where I got turned off. Maybe Casa de los Babys. Maybe later, with Happy Endings. I definitely couldn't take her in SherryBaby, and by the time she showed up in The Dark Knight, I had decided she was the worst part of most movies in which she appears.
Basically I feel she tries too hard in really dramatic performances. I also think she's completely ill-fit for characters with power or demanding professions, such as Rachel Dawes in TDK. Yet I also didn't wholly believe her right for the flakier, manic-pixie-dream-girl type she plays in Stranger Than Fiction. Honestly, I had some hope for her after seeing her in World Trade Center, but maybe it was just that I find her to be a good crier. And more tolerable when she's not in the lead.
This was not always the case. My introduction to her was with John Waters' Cecil B. Demented. I despised the movie, but I developed a crush on this young actress playing the Satanist obsessed with avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger. And I continued to think she was fine in small roles in Donnie Darko and Adaptation. So it was pretty upsetting after eight years for her to go from being the best thing in a movie I hated to the worst thing in a movie I loved.
It's no wonder it took me so long to see Crazy Heart. I was even less interested when she earned the Oscar nomination. It pained me witnessing so many groups praise her for SherryBaby, in which she reminds me of so many bad high school drama queens hamming their way through Miller and Williams -- only it's worse because she's working with far weaker material. And I thought it was going to be more of the same with this acclaimed performance.
But she's actually fairly decent in Crazy Heart -- particularly in the second half -- considering the character is so underwritten. Gyllenhaal is not a strong enough actress to bring her own substance to a part this underdeveloped. Initially she comes off as too much of a blank slate. And it's hard to buy her relationship with Jeff Bridges' character (though more acceptable to watch than her and Tom Arnold in Happy Endings ). Once the film enters into her home and shows us with her son, though, she's pretty good.
Not great, however. For her one truly great performance, we have to go back a number of years to 2002's Secretary. Actually, her greatest acting ever can be seen, I think, in the first few minutes of the film. Well, after the opening sequence with the neck-to-wrist restraint, that is. From the character's discharge from the hospital to the introduction to her box of self-harming utensils. Gyllenhaal has never inhabited a role better than in that setup.
For those who haven't seen the film, she plays Lee Holloway, a mousy cutter who gets her first job, as the secretary of an odd and irritable attorney (James Spader). He helps her loosen up out of her dowdy, meek and, most importantly, self-abusive ways, and the two eventually become involved in an S&M relationship.
The performance was not overlooked in the least. Gyllenhaal earned her first Golden Globe nomination, as well as recognition from multiple awards and critics organizations who either nominated or named her as best actress of the year. Other groups acknowledged her promise as a young actress. And it wasn't only the highbrows who spotlighted her in this specific role. She was nominated for an MTV Movie Award for best breakthrough performance, but she lost out to Jennifer Garner (for Daredevil, of all things).
She should have also been nominated for an Academy Award for Secretary. Maybe in the slot that went to Diane Lane that year. Was she ignored because it seemed easy to play so submissive? Was it because the movie is only interesting for about an hour, and all the voters stopped paying attention and didn't notice that Gyllenhaal shines all the way through in spite of being stuck in a plot that's moving molasses-slow? I think that's what I did the first time I watched the film years ago.
My lack of appreciation then may have actually contributed to my ultimate dislike of the actress more recently. I re-watched Secretary over the weekend, and while it still felt like hours before the film ended, I really did love Gyllenhaal's performance to the end. And I had a better sense of what she's best at. Not crying. Not being a sad-sack. Or being a submissive type in general. She's best at acting naturally.
There are still a few moments in Secretary when you can see her trying a little too hard. When she seems like an actress playing a part, as has been her major problem in roles since. But most of the time she appears to be overpowered by the character rather than vice versa, and you believe in her sadness and her newfound passion and her ultimate happiness. Just watch the (slightly NSFW) scene where Spader first spanks her. Gyllenhaal displays real change in what we understand of her character.
If only she could do that again, she might regain my interest completely.