At 31, Anne Hathaway has been appearing in movies for over a decade. That's usually time enough for people to make up their minds about an actress, even though this one is better known for adding charm to trifles like The Devil Wears Prada and playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises than for her rare forays into emotional depth—chiefly, as the sister in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, which earned Hathaway her first Academy Award nomination in 2008. Yet one sure way to start a fight among movie reviewers and other serious film buffs is to wonder aloud—well, online, since most of us have the social skills of shellfish—whether she's got any talent.
The churls among us didn't have this problem with Julia Roberts in her heyday. (Answer: not a Maxwell House drop. Sorry, America.) For opposite reasons, we don't have it with Meryl Streep, even if we wish Dame Meryl hadn't waited so long to take her own brilliance for granted and loosen up some. Hathaway is in another category—and in that category, the old-fashioned magic of movies, such as it is in 2013, may reside.
If she doesn't win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar on Sunday night for her performance as Fantine in Les Misérables, bookies worldwide will lose their shirts. Yet that only begs the question of whether her maddeningly indeterminate acting chops are relevant to her appeal. Some of the reasons for that are built into Hollywood's nature; ask Sir Alfred Hitchcock's stately, plump ghost what a reliable certification of genius the Academy Awards are. But some are case-specific. Whatever you think of either Les Mis as a musical or the movie version as a movie—"abomination" and "endless" would do it for me—Hathaway owes her nomination to the essentially athletic feat of singing "I Dreamed A Dream" in one uninterrupted, undeniably affecting live take.
Since Bruce Willis has recorded more tunes than she has, and so did Robert Mitchum, this caters to the industry's penchant for rewarding people doing something they're not already famous for. Cf. Kevin Costner, recipient for 1990's Dances With Wolves of the Best Director Oscar that Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, and Orson Welles, among others, never nabbed.
A part like Fantine also caters to the industry's weakness—shared by most actors, male or female—for flagrantly masochistic martyrdom. Since Hollywood's definition of "winning ugly" is different from the NFL's, it doesn't hurt that Hathaway starved herself silly to play Victor Hugo's tramp with a heart of lead. Then she consented to having her hair done by the guy from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She may shill for Lancome in "real" life, but in Les Mis, she looks and carries on like the spokesmodel for a pricey but pungent new fragrance named Nostalgie de la Boue.
That only calls more attention to the real issue. At least in movieland, though not only in movieland, nothing makes skill harder to judge than beauty. With one fabled exception—Greta Garbo—the most beautiful women in movies generally haven't been ranked among the medium's greatest actresses. Which may just go to show that straight men, who have traditionally done most of the judging, are unnerved by what we unconsciously (yes, I'm being kind to my peeps here) see as a confusion of realms.
A lot depends on whether beauty is what the actress in question is renowned for. As attractive as Joanne Woodward or Shirley MacLaine could be, that never got in the way of recognizing their gifts. As for Judi Dench, she must have days when her mantel of trophies makes her bless providence for not giving her a pinup's distracting physique. But silver-screen peaches like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry? We know we've been seduced into awe of some sort. We'll just never be sure of our motive's unimpeachable nobility.
Incidentally, what every woman mentioned in the previous paragraph has in common is that they've all won an Oscar. Or, in Taylor's case, two. Yet as far as the final half dozen are concerned, "talent" isn't the first encomium to spring to mind. You remember how the great Liz's obituarists dwelt on her acting ability.
Like her predecessors, Hathaway expresses her time's ideal of beauty by departing from the classical version. In the '40s and '50s, she'd have been tagged as too equine to play more than the heroine's best friend. In most other eras, she'd have been too unclassifiable or just too brunette to qualify in the screen-goddess sweepstakes. Even her gaucheries, which would have appalled Grace Kelly—the day Hathaway finally makes up her mind whether she'd rather be poised or insouciant in public is bound to be a disappointment either way—reflect an incoherence about what anyone's standing is good for that's peculiar to the age of meta.
Then again, stars who provocatively or even haplessly crystallize a cultural moment—something key to the appeal of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, and talent be damned—are rarities in today's unresonant, perfunctory Hollywood. All this makes Hathaway's brand of stardom seem at once ultra-contemporary and nostalgia-inducing, a volatile combo that, I dunno, Reese Witherspoon—a far more accomplished technician, and not exactly an affront to ye olde male gaze—has never quite pulled off.
The silver lining for Witherspoon, like a dozen or two others, is that a) she's more easily cast, and b) now that she's capital-R Reliable, in that seasoned-pro way, she needs to worry a tad less than Hathaway about staying in fashion. Even Monroe was teetering on the edge of being passé when dying rescued her from that indignity, and there was a time in movies when nobody seemed more "contemporary" than Ali MacGraw. Or Elliott Gould.
Though she's awfully unlikely to ever cost Marilyn's ghost any sleep, Hathaway is an improvement on MacGraw, just as her onetime Oscars co-host James Franco is an improvement (trust me) on Gould. By my lights, she's given at least one extraordinary performance—in Rachel Getting Married, a movie I otherwise didn't much care for—and she's never been dull in lighter fare.
She's also willing to take chances, even if the results have been as muddled as Love and Other Drugs. As effed-up Hollywood morality goes, not much tops allowing a female character to have a forthright sex drive only because she's got Parkinson's disease. Even in fluff as forgettable—and forgotten—as 2011's gimmicky One Day, which I confess I kind of liked, Hathaway was touching and vivid enough that her woefully erratic English accent ended up seeming like one of the character's ineptitudes, not the actress's.
A career like hers is a throwback in the sense that it reminds us of the unfathomability of movie charm in a way that Meryl Streep's c.v. doesn't. Hathaway's performances never seem planned or settled in her own mind, and if that's because of faulty tutelage, what difference does it make? The lurking sense of instability and potential wrong guesses in her screen persona could as easily be the result of a self-devised, instinctive grammar at work, and that's the mystery of stardom.
We could also tire of her tomorrow, but that makes no difference either. The difference between movie history and most other kinds is that it isn't about battles or elections set in stone for all time. It's about the curious, ineffable moments that, for better and worse, once did their bit to help define the audience's present tense.