True Detective is back and already an abundance of ink has been spilled on a variety of topics: the show’s location change, its distracting new theme song, Colin Farrell’s moustache, Vince Vaughn’s turn against type. All worthy subjects.
And yet, much like Rust Cohle’s search for the Yellow King, the true story is staring us in the face. For me, the most noteworthy cast member is clearly Rachel McAdams, one of Hollywood’s unsung female character actors. I use that term fairly loosely, given McAdams’ celebrity status, frequent lead roles and natural beauty – all unlikely characteristics for a character actor. (Think Harry Dean Stanton, or the recently departed Christopher Lee.)
Still, McAdams has quietly developed an impressive body of work since her emergence in the mid-aughts, beginning with her iconic role as Regina George in Mean Girls (2004). From there, she’s appeared in a wide array of films, seemingly at ease in whatever project she tackles.
Near the beginning of 2006, moviegoers could watch her play a bitter daughter as part of a family ensemble in The Family Stone, then go home and see her as a terrified hotel manager in Wes Craven’s Red Eye. In recent years, she’s appeared in films by Terrence Malick, Wim Wenders and Woody Allen. Wenders’ film, Every Thing Will Be Fine, is her fifth slated project this year alone, not counting her appearance in True Detective. (Next month, she will be seen as the doomed wife of Jake Gyllenhaal’s boxer in Southpaw. This fall she will be seen in as Boston Globe journalist Sacha Pfeiffer in Tom McCarthy’s Catholic Church sex scandal film Spotlight.)
But it’s her initial trio of high profile roles – Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers – that demonstrates her range. (For the purposes of this piece, the less said about The Hot Chick, the better.) As mentioned, Regina George continues to live on in popular culture, courtesy of both social media and the wild imagination of girls who came of age in 2004. Likewise, her subsequent role as Allie Hamilton in The Notebook was arguably just as impactful at the time.
Mean Girls was released on April 30, 2004. The Notebook came out roughly two months later. For a generation of high school girls, these two films had a profound impact on their adolescence, specifically Mean Girls’ reflection of teenage tribalism and The Notebook’s depiction of true love. McAdams, a then-unknown Canadian actress whose single Hollywood credit was in a Rob Schneider comedy (sorry), was thrust into the position of being both the character girls aspired to be (Allie), and who they really were (Regina). Few actresses have been in a zeitgeist-defining film, let alone two in a two-month period.
For what it’s worth, 2004 garnered McAdams three MTV Movie Awards: Best On Screen Team and Best Breakthrough Female Performance for Mean Girls, and Best Kiss for The Notebook. She was also nominated that year for Best Villain for her work as Regina, and Best Female Performance for her role as Allie.
The contrast between Regina and Allie could not be starker and McAdams wisely avoided following up her iconic role with a series of Regina-type retreads. (This could be the reason she has the best post-Mean Girls career out of all the plastics, save for a recent surge from Amanda Seyfried.) Instead, McAdams has capitalized on that dichotomy throughout her career; it is the clearest sign that she can play multiple types: sweet, polite, conniving, bubbly, earnest, warm, manipulative, strong-willed.
Of course, beyond the memes and Facebook statuses, Regina George’s legacy is forever linked to her creator, Tina Fey. By extension, McAdams’ comic turn in Mean Girls can be linked to the broader trend of “Women in Comedy,” as McAdams’ onscreen mom Amy Poehler recently joked about during the AFI Tribune to Steve Martin. Perhaps due to the fact she’s sought more dramatic work since Mean Girls, McAdams’ contributions to the rise of the Amy Schumer’s and Kate McKinnon’s of the world has been overlooked. Regina George is not only a great, shaded and complex villain, but also deeply funny.
McAdams’ romantic turn as Allie has since been revisited in films like The Vow, which is understandable given the lucrative nature of romance films and the fact Allie is a far more malleable performance than the seminal Regina George. If McAdams’ has risked being associated with romantic parts opposite the likes of Channing Tatum, it’s only because her Regina George is so blatantly different from anything else in her oeuvre, and remains a part she’s unwilling to touch on again.
The following summer saw McAdams in another hugely popular film: Wedding Crashers. Although she’s severely underutilized – this is a frat pack film, after all – her Claire is a different beast from both Regina and Allie. Altogether, all three films make for a helluva run. In a one year span, McAdams appeared in three modern film classics, contributing a different version of her versatility each time. Combined with her parts in Red Eye and The Family Stone, she typifies what being a Hollywood “It” girl in 2005 was all about.
Since then, she’s appeared in blockbusters (Sherlock Holmes) and attempted to headline her own films (Morning Glory). Her supporting work is still most compelling: State of Play, her horrid fiancé character in Midnight in Paris (reteaming with her Wedding Crashers co-star, Owen Wilson), and A Most Wanted Man, appearing with the indomitable Phillip Seymour Hoffman in what would be the last of his completed roles. She’s sometimes been referred to as a light actress, but that’s a tremendous disservice to the sorts of projects she’s appeared in, and more a testament to Hollywood’s tendency to typecast young attractive actresses. It’s as if movies are insistent on letting her put Regina George aside, but forcing her to choose between Nicholas Sparks’ knockoffs or return to flounder in projects like Aloha.
So far, her work on True Detective has received mixed reviews; nevertheless, her role as the tough, yet vulnerable Ani Bezzerides is a fitting parallel to McAdams’ own efforts to distinguish herself as an actress with broad appeal and a reservoir of talent. (Fittingly, she appears on the show against her old Wedding Crashers cast member, Vince Vaughn. On a meta level, it’s as if his presence here is her facing her past, or at least Hollywood’s desire to see her typecast as a Jennifer Aniston-like second banana.)
Much like a decade ago, 2015 finds her being quietly prolific, as well as diverse in her output. True Detective may not be enough to finally shed her from her more iconic performances, particularly the one-two-three archetypes set in Mean Girls, The Notebook and Wedding Crashers – but it’s a bold-faced reminder of her ambition. Once she wraps there, she has the Catholic Church to take on. I look forward to seeing what she does.