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:
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).
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.
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.