In January 2008, Vanity Fair's cover girl was Katherine Heigl. "Hollywood's hottest blonde," as they called her, was stunning—a soothing dollop of peach gelato poured into a column gown, brows intelligently arched, lipstick perfectly applied. Inside the magazine, she smiled regally behind the wheel of a Rolls, stretching her arms in silk opera gloves. The accompanying text told a different, less rosy story: the Grey's Anatomy star detailed the shocking death of her older brother Jason, chatted about her Mormon childhood, and discussed her struggle to break out as an actress. She projected a kind of loose-cannon candor, blasting the film that launched her stardom, Knocked Up, as "a little bit sexist" and her character, reporter Allison Scott, as "a shrew." Back then, it read as refreshingly daring: That Heigl! She's a pistol.(Story continued below...)
Today, that issue looks like a yellowing relic ready for a Planet Hollywood display case. Heigl's biggest accomplishment of the past 18 months, if you buy the blogs, has been to fully squander her prime position, dropping from a cherubic, popular new actress with a brain to a diva-like shrew. The tables have turned so dramatically that celebrity sites now routinely pad pageviews by blasting her foibles. On Google, "I Hate Katherine Heigl" (27,000 hits) outpaces "I Hate Sandra Bullock" (14,000 hits) and even "I Hate Tara Reid" (13,100). Perez Hilton used to adore her; now he draws devil horns on her curls. TMZ calls her primary occupation "chain-smoking," slamming her for "spend[ing] as much time with her cigs" as she does "with her husband, Josh Kelley." Celebuzz terms her an "uppity bitch" who spends her days "sucking down cancer sticks."
It's so vitriolic that they're laying a revisionist lens over her early career. Before everybody turned on her, Knocked Up earned praise for her "lovely" portrayal of a "competent, attractive young woman," (The New York Times); for "bringing a compelling edge" to the role, in a "ferociously funny" way (Variety); for being the pleasant "Alice in this wonderland of loons" (New York). Dr. Isobel Stevens, her character on Grey's, is sweet-natured with sad brown eyes—the role earned her a best-actress Emmy. Younger Heigl had the most promising movie career of all Grey's girls, but she's remembered far less fondly.
How did Katherine Heigl fall so far and so fast in esteem? Part of it is pure sexism. Every decade has a Most Annoying Actress (not that long ago, Jennifer Love Hewitt was the object of tabloid disaffection), never an actor, and it's a distinction doled out via a caveman's principles. Heigl violates every archaic, unspoken rule of being America's box-office sweetheart. A lot of actors smoke, curse, drink, and mouth off, but she gets the most grief for it. Last summer, when she was caught flicking a finished cigarette onto the sidewalk, Star magazine quickly tarred her as an environmentally unfriendly "litterbug" who inappropriately goaded a nearby police officer into letting her off without a ticket.
But more than simply daring to challenge chauvinistic mores, Heigl has shot herself in the foot with her delivery. Everybody applauded her defense of Grey's costar T. R. Knight after costar Isaiah Washington called him a "fag." But then Heigl kept prattling on and on, even after Washington was fired in disgrace. People started to wonder if Heigl's comments were less about Knight and more about her. Last July, in an attempt to be noble, she removed herself from the Emmy race because, she said, she had not been "given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination." The press again slammed her for the diva attitude (did she really need to issue a statement? And did she have to insult the show's writers and producers while she was at it?). When she resubmitted herself in the race this year, Emmy voters failed to nominate her—even though she's done her best work on the show this season as cancer-stricken Izzie. But forget about Izzie and her eroding brain. Heigl wants all the sympathy for herself. This week, she carped to David Letterman that she'd had a "seventeen- (dramatic pause) hour (dramatic pause)" workday on set, and that she was "going to keep saying this because I hope it embarrasses them [the Grey's Anatomy show runners]." Embarrass them for what? Keeping her employed? To a country nearing 10 percent unemployment, the remark was tone-deaf.
Heigl has fared pretty well on the big screen—Knocked Up was a smash, 27 Dresses a modest hit. Now she's back with The Ugly Truth, a romantic comedy that hits theaters Friday and does her likability no favors. She plays Abby Richter, an uptight local news producer whose staples are Ann Taylor button-downs and sanctimony. When a boor named Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler) with a smutty dating show joins her morning lineup, Abby kicks the shrillness into overdrive, furious that non-news would invade her pristine segment. But then, before you know it, Mike and his 5 o'clock shadow are leaving beard burn all over Abby's face. Soon, they're floating away to paradise in a hot-air balloon. Good for them.
Except, you don't feel very good for them. It's hard to empathize with Heigl's character, so thorny and shrill for the first half of the movie, so dumb and willing for the second half. (At a recent pre-screening in New York City, at least five people bolted for the door midway through the movie.) Abby fails to see the vast swath of middle ground between buttoning up to the top button and donning vibrating black-lace panties, which she does meekly at Mike's command. Just like real life, in which Heigl seems unable to see the acreage between oversharing and keeping her mouth shut. Heigl might be an actress, but she could work on her act.