If Only Katherine Heigl’s Real Life Were a Rom Com

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Photo: Saeed Adyani/Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Following the announcement that Katherine Heigl will star in an upcoming televised CIA drama, The Hollywood Reporter published a brutal assessment of the "desperately difficult" actress's fall from grace, "from Knocked Up to NyQuil ads." Studio executives and "insiders" took turns describing a spoiled actress so horrid — and a mother-manager so toxic — they would do anything to avoid working with her. The history of Heigl's burned bridges is an encyclopedia of diva antics: "wardrobe issues, not getting out of the trailer, questioning the script," "she can cost you time every single day of shooting."

This article made me like Katherine Heigl more.

I'm not sure whether it's feminist instinct or a cruelly undermining one, but over the last two years, as Katherine Heigl's star quality has fallen, I've found myself rooting for her more and more. The easy — and personally flattering — explanation would be that I am rebelling against sexist double standards that deem outspoken women "difficult" but outspoken men "badass." Back when Hollywood was mad at Heigl for (legitimately) calling her breakout film sexist, defending her felt like a defense of the sisterhood. 

But at this point the irate "insider" smack talking has reached such a volume that it can't all be blamed on misogyny. (Surely Shonda Rhimes isn't part of a sexist anti-Heigl conspiracy.) And so I wonder if my Heigl affection comes from a less high-minded place: Perhaps I like Katherine Heigl because, as her career disintegrates, she seems more and more like a rom-com archetype come to life — you know, the imperious careerist who suffers a humbling fall, forcing her to reevaluate her priorities and start over again. (Usually while making out with a cute slacker.)

She's Reese Witherspoon's character in Sweet Home Alabama, Jennifer Garner's character in 13 Going on 30, or her own character in Knocked Up. The career gal taken down a peg is, as Heigl herself infamously pointed out, an insidious narrative. Ambitious women are soulless shrews made lovable when they abandon success. Romantic comedies trained me to dislike Heigl when she was at the top of her game, then trust her again when she hit bottom and started to rebuild.

Heigl's life already has the makings of a movie. Raised by an aggressive stage mother and in a strict religious household haunted by the tragic death of her brother, Heigl got her start as a child model. Her mother managed her career from day one, and still calls the shots. In this thoroughly Hollywood pressure cooker, the bright little girl who fought her way to the top turns into a heartless diva, losing touch with that special "spark" that made everyone love her, way back when. After a series of humiliations, she seems to lose everything. She curls up in fetal position for a moment. (Literally, in those NyQuil ads.) Then, humbled, she begins anew.

"Can TV save Katherine Heigl's career?" THR asks. Since Heigl's "breakthrough" was Grey's Anatomy, this could be construed as that romantic-comedic staple, "returning to her roots." (Sweet Home Small Screen.) Anthony Burns, the director of Heigl's forthcoming low-budget movie North of Hell told THR he got along with Heigl. Burns speculated that "tak[ing] a step back" with "a movie like mine" may have relieved the pressure, and he noted that he hopes future Heigl collaborators "will get to know her like I did." In the romantic-comedy version of Heigl's life, the "good old girl" personality that Burns describes would be understood as the true Heigl, the one that rises from the ashes to lead a wiser, better, and more fulfilled life. If this were a rom com, she’d find love with a small-screen co-star, maybe one from the past, a fellow former child star, who now has stubble and drives a truck. (For what it's worth, Heigl met real-life husband Josh Kelley on the set of a music video around the time Grey's Anatomy premiered. He's a country-music singer-songwriter and has stubble.) But I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up.