Claire Danes’ Second Act

Here is what you need to understand about Claire Danes:  for the millions of women (and a few hundred thousand men) who watched My So-Called Life, she will always be Angela Chase.  Let me rephrase — for the millions of women for whom My So-Called Life became the seminal text of young adulthood (Generation Catalano, as Slate recently dubbed us) Claire Danes must be Angela Chase.  While the show lasted but 19 episodes and Angela Chase remains frozen at age 15, it is essential to think that Angela grew up, grew out of her Jordan Catalano phase, and went on to success. Such is the crux of Danes’ star image: she’s teenage angst made good, proof positive that teenagers became adults (who may sometimes make bad decisions, as evidenced below).

Granted, millions around the world know Danes  as Juliet to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo.  And although Juliet obviously dies, the fact that Danes lives is, yet again, proof that the intensity of teenage love can be endured, can be “lived through.”  Even if you’ve never seen or loved a Claire Danes text, you might still know that she survived growing up Hollywood, and that this girl:

Turned into this woman:

Few teen stars go on to be (respected) teen actors.  Even fewer child actors can make the jump.  Unless, of course, they grow up in the public eye, as, say, Dakota Fanning has done.  (If they suddenly pop up as 18 and over-muscled, as the kid from Jerry Maguire recently did, it’s mostly nauseating).  But Danes was in key roles as a teen, took a Yale-break, and then returned to the screen with adult roles — and with blonde hair, a physical testament to “growing out” of her teenage (red-nearly-purple-hair-dying) teen years.

But something else happened around 2004 — something that turned many fans, ardent or casual, against her.  During the filming of Stage Beauty (which, admit it, is laughably bad), Danes and co-star Billy Crudup developed some sort of relationship. Crudup left his long-term (and seven-months-pregnant) girlfriend, Mary-Louise Parker.  Overnight, Danes became a family-wrecker.   Look at her in the corner!  Classic “Other Woman” picture placement!

While Dane and Crudup didn’t flaunt their relationship in the press the way that, say, LeAnn Rimes and What’s-His-Bad-Acting-Name did, they did stay together.  Danes starred in Shopgirl (woefully underrated) and played a bit-part (as a relationship-wrecker!) in The Family Stone.  Crudup’s career stayed in second gear with supporting roles in a smattering of high profile pictures (Trust the Man, Mission Impossible III, The Good Shepherd).  It’s difficult to correlate negative P.R. and film performance when the actors aren’t the principle stars, but it was clear that neither Danes nor Crudup were getting big roles.  Scandal didn’t make them more interesting to audiences; instead, the details of the scandal made them both seem inconsiderate and cold.  (Again, Crudup and Danes maintained that their relationship did not start until after the disintegration of Crudup and Parker’s relationship.  Still, Crudup left his pregnant girlfriend.  Some actions can never be positively spun).

In 2007, Danes starred in Evening, the quintessential “middle-aged-educated-ladies-afternoon-out” film.  I mean, I saw this film (by myself, in the theater) and moderately enjoyed myself, but COULD. NOT. STOMACH. Hugh Dancy’s crying.  But Danes is well-known as an ugly-crier, and her Dancy must have hit it off, because Danes and Crudup broke up and Danes and Dancy began.  Yet the stigma of her previous relationship stuck.  Three more underperforming films (Stardust, The Flock, Me and Orson Welles) and still, you bring up her name, and people think of being mean to that nice lady from Weeds.  Despite quiet rumors that Danes had cheated on Crudup in order to be with Dancy, the relationship seemed solid and uncontroversial, and the two quietly wed in 2009.


And I mean look!  Adorable!  Something about Crudup’s face just screams cad, whereas Dancy looks like he just wants to cuddle.

The marriage marked the beginning of Act II of Danes’ career.  Not only had she jettisoned the association with Crudup, but she went back to television, the medium where audiences had loved her the most.  Danes transformed herself to play the role of Temple Grandin — an Autistic woman with a truly astounding life story — in an HBO documentary.  On the surface, playing Grandin was just a chance for Danes to show that she could transform herself into something more than a pretty face, the way that, say, Charlize Theron did for her turn in Monster.

But Temple Grandin allowed Danes to change the narrative.  Instead of focusing on her personal life, the media started to lead with her Emmy and Golden Globe wins, detailing the bond that Danes had formed with the real Temple Grandin, who had collaborated extensively with Danes during filming (and was at Danes’s side at both the Emmys and the Globes).  The last time Danes had been nominated for a Golden Globe or Emmy, she had been 15, and it had been for My So-Called Life.  The return to television was not a step-down, but a return to form.

Which is why Danes’ impressive work on Homeland should be no surprise.  On the recommendation of the cultural gurus at the Slate Cultural Gabfest, I started watching earlier this week and quickly burned through seven episodes.  I was a bit turned off by the premise — returned P.O.W., War on Terror, CIA operatives, etc. etc…..hadn’t I sorta kinda watched this show before?  Isn’t it Rubicon meets 24?  But Homeland is everything that I want from a thriller, filled with nuance, moral ambiguity, and intricate plotting.  It also escapes the fatal Showtime curse of really shitty supporting characters (Dexter, I’m talking to you).  The show is very, very good, and Danes is very, very good in it.


But Danes’ character, Carrie Anderson, also seems to be a culmination of Danes’ star text to date.  New York Mag‘s Vulture already established that Carrie is Angela Chase all grown up , but Carrie is also a notorious home-wrecker, very smart, and filled with anxiety about fucking things up the way she did in the not-so-distant past.

The show works because the writing is excellent, the acting, especially on the part of the three principles, is superb, and the production values are high.  But it also presents Danes in the way we want to think about her: as an extension of Angela Chase, imperfect and scarred and striving.  While stars can change the conversation about their images, it’s impossible to undo an aspect of your established star image.  I wouldn’t say that Danes has “embraced” her image as a one-time home-wrecker, but this role shows that she, and the writers of the show, understand the associations that many viewers will bring to the show.

The stars that last are those that understand their own images and make decisions accordingly.  It is my hope, then, that the character of Carrie Anderson, and its cognizant play on Danes’ star image, is but the beginning of the long second act of Danes’ career.  Angela Chase was (and is) so important to the person I am today — for her to endure is, in some small, significant way, for me to endure.  I realize this might sound ridiculous.  But that sort of attachment, even by someone, such as myself, with ostensible academic distance from stars, underlines the ways in which stars matter, and why I spent a Sunday morning thinking about Angela Chase, myself, and the way we’ve both changed and accumulated meanings since age 15.

8 Responses to “Claire Danes’ Second Act”

  1. Greeney28 says:

    Aw, dang you, Annie. Here I was so enjoying my quiet, seething anger towards Danes (you need Angela Chase to succeed, and I apparently need the homewrecker to fail (note: I love Angelina Jolie–go figure)). And now you’ve not only made me more interested in “Homeland,” but you’ve also made me want to give Danes another shot. The reference to “Homeland” being like “Rubicon”but better didn’t hurt. :)

  2. mike newman says:

    Annie, this is a great tribute to one of my favorite TV actors and I liked how you wove the real and fictional identities of Danes’ roles into the analysis. I have watched MSCL repeatedly ever since it first aired and have only ever loved it. I never thought of it as something particularly feminine or that girls would make a stronger connection with it than boys. Lately I find myself strangely confused by the feminized fandom of the show. I don’t feel excluded or anything like that, just curious about the need to identify the gendered quality of formative experiences like watching MSCL (I was 22 when it began, so maybe not that formative in my case).

    spoilers ahead…

    The role in Homeland does seem like an extension of Angela in some ways like you say. But part of what I find exciting about it (and I love the show, it’s my favorite thing that’s on right now) is the frisson of thinking of Angela working for the agency, sleeping with a man she suspects of being a terrorist, etc. Also of her as mentally ill — she always seemed together as a kid, could she have begun to suffer from these conditions she might have on the show? It’s a surprise: can you believe that Angela grew up to be a spy, who is also maybe a little crazy! I think casting often works this way, not just to carry over expectations but to tweak them in cool but also somewhat improbable ways. Maybe the start studies people have this all worked out, but that’s how it occurs to me.

    • Annie says:

      Micahel — So would you label yourself Generation Catalano, Generation X? Because to me, that’s the difference: if you were the age of Angela Chase, I think viewers were much more likely to base fandom around identification (thus the female cult of Angela Chase, and the gay cult of Ricky, and the nerd cult of Brian Krakow, etc. etc. — although I don’t think there’s a burn-out cult of Jordan Catalano….) Conversely, if you weren’t in high school, the relationship was still some sort of identification/nostalgia, but not as intensely specific. You use the word “formative,” and I think that’s the real difference. I love FNL and its depiction of high school life, but it wasn’t formative in the way that MSCL is.

      Second, I do love the idea of Angela (or any ostensibly “normal” teenager) growing up to have issues/maybe just a litttttle bit crazy! I actually don’t think there’s been nearly enough star studies work on television stardom — except the usual declaration that it works much differently than film stardom — and Claire Danes (and many other television stars) pose an interesting set of issues: what if this long-term character turns into this long-term character? How does that mess with expectations more/less than a film character “turning into” another film character?

      Bill Simmons also made a great point his recap of the show last week — it airs on Showtime, which also airs Weeds, starring Mary-Louise Parker. Intertextual extratextual drama!

      • mike newman says:

        I am unambiguously Generation X. I was an undergrad when Slacker and Generation X (and Reality Bites and Singles) came out. I guess the teenage TV characters of my own teen years were the Degrassi Junior High kids, but there was so little fantasy in that show. In my viewing of MSCL I have always identified across the cast, certainly with Angela, Ricky, Raeann, Sharon, and Brian. I probably thought of Jordan as in some ways the kind of teenage guy I wanted to be like at a younger age, until we got to know him better in the show and he began to seem pathetic. Now when I watch I cannot believe how much more I find my own life represented in Graham, Patti, and also Mr. Katimsky. But most of all I identified and still do with Angela. Not formatively though — I didn’t fashion an identity based on hers.

        Again, I don’t know the star studies literature, but in TV actors there can be such a stronger identification with a single role than there is ordinarily in film. We get to know TV personalities so intimately. So for me, Sarah on Parenthood is about 75% Lorelai Gilmore. I’m only starting to see Cary on The Good Wife as mostly Cary rather than Logan Huntzberger working for the State’s Attorney. And this is also highly variable viewer to viewer, as the associations I have with Gilmore Girls are strong and other viewers might not have them at all. This is especially true of actors like Matt Czuchry (Logan/Cary) who aren’t really all that famous (does he even make the “stars they’re just like us” pages of US?). I guess there are actors in film whose roles become defining but I’m guessing type is more important than any one role most of the time, certainly in the old days but even now. I can’t help but think someone else has made this type/role distinction before, but that’s how it looks to me.

  3. Gabrielle says:

    Somehow I totally missed this celebrity gossip! I just thought Claire Danes was being really low-key and focusing on fashion, IDEK. Just glad that the world at large has given her a second chance. (And I agree, Shopgirl was brilliant. The book was, too.)

  4. Hans says:

    Hi, just discovered your blog and it is such a fun read. Celebrity gossip that actually means something! But your entry on ScaJo made me a sad panda, it made me love her a little less (or realise that I loved her less, one of the two).

    Fwiw, I´ve also made a connection between Claire Danes of now and then, Homeland made me revisit MSCL for the first time since it aired. And oh, her character on Homeland is called Mathison, not Anderson.

  5. Lauren says:

    I have THE BIGGEST crush on Hugh Dancy. Swoon.

  6. Sara says:

    I stumbled upon this post, and I wonder how you feel about this “second act” now that Homeland has really taken off and Danes has not only won multiple awards for this show but also just recently had a baby. Angela Chase all grown up, indeed!

    I’m certainly not part of Generation Catalano, but I watched the entire series this past fall and understand what all the praise and adulation is about. Claire is simply fantastic, and her voice is sharp and thoughtful.

    I find it interesting, too, that on Homeland Claire’s character engaged in two extramarital affairs: one with her boss, which ended his marriage; and of course with Brody.