...Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich (1999)
approximately 45 minutes and 5 seconds
roughly 38% of film's total running time
Keener's Maxine is introduced as the cool girl sitting in the back of the classroom during employee orientation on the 7 1/2 floor. Her casual reserve catches the eye of loser puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack, offering a frenzied and mannered performance in a role I really would have rather seen Paul Giamatti do).
Cusack's Craig is immediately smitten with Keener's Maxine and endeavors to insinuate himself in her good graces.
For her part, Keener's Maxine seems to welcome the distraction of Craig's awkward adoration, toying with him when it suits her and easily dismissing him when his attention becomes tedious. Keener maintains a glib confidence in these scenes, establishing Maxine as the kind of woman whose sense of entitlement only amplifies her appeal to others.
It's not until Craig discovers the secret portal into John Malkovich's brain/identity (don't ask - watch the movie - the conceit works - often brilliantly) that Keener's Maxine develops any independent interest in this strange little man "who plays with dolls."
As Keener's Maxine seeks strategies to "monetize" Craig's discovery, she undertakes a number of forays to scope out the dimensions of her new enterprise -- selling the opportunity to inhabit John Malkovich's consciousness for 15 minutes at a time.
In the process of developing this business plan, Keener makes an unexpected connection, through Malkovich, with Craig's mousy wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz in a delightful off-type turn). The two women fall in a kind of love, albeit through the vehicle of Malkovich's body, and the narrative then starts getting complicated. (I know, right?) Craig starts getting jealous. Lotte starts getting obsessed. Malkovich starts to figure things out.
And there's Maxine -- right where she likes to be -- at the center of the action, at the intersection of all these different people's distinct paths.
As an actress, Keener's the rare performer whose preternatural sense of detachment actually enhances her charisma. She's most fascinating when she's withholding. And this quality suits postmodern femme fatale vividly. Keener's at her best when Maxine's playing...when Maxine's playing the game...when Maxine's thrilling at the possibility of having them all. Keener's accomplishment in the role derives from her ability to be a totally selfish user while also maintaining the character's enigmatic appeal.
Where Keener's performance is less effective is in the narrative's last act, when motherhood instigates a new vulnerability that's unfamiliar to the blithely mercenary Maxine. Keener plays this new swell of emotions through the lens of Maxine's glib detachment (instead of, say, Maxine's single-minded, maximizing drive) and the foggy result clouds the clarity of the film's climactic transformations.
Yet, in retrospect, and accounting for all its limitations, I can see how Keener's performance captured the imaginations of the nominators in 1999. Keener’s thin characterization, long on style and short on subtext, does little to illuminate Maxine's unsubtle transformation. Yet Catherine Keener's charismatic restraint maintains Maxine’s entrancing mystery through to the end, and the performance remains fascinating and often delightful.