Will Katherine Heigl leave Grey’s Anatomy? Should she? The answer is probably yes to both questions, but it’s a little too soon to be absolutely sure. The former teen star and current darling of the romantic-comedy circuit has been the subject of the worst-kept secret in television: she’s not likely to be playing the role of current doctor and former underwear model Izzie Stevens for much longer. Her co-star, James Pickens, said she’s going to leave; the producer of the show, Shonda Rhimes, swooped in with a classic vague denial (“That was a very interesting rumour, and it’s not true—that was absolutely taken out of context”), and since then, everyone on the hit show, including Pickens, has been silent on the issue. But while Heigl isn’t the only person who might leave the show—Pickens also said that Heigl’s co-star, T.R. Knight, was planning to go—she’s the one whose career choices have been the main topic of discussion: if and when she leaves, will she be successful?
Heigl’s known as an actor who has made several difficult career transitions: from little-watched cult TV to a massively loved hit show, from teen actor to adult actor, from TV to movies. After the success of her film 27 Dresses raised her movie fee, along with her salary for Grey’s Anatomy, she wound up at No. 5 on the Hollywood Reporter’s most recent list of the highest-paid actresses: only Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz make more money than she does. But her bankability as a movie star is dependent on her being, well, a TV star. If she leaves television to devote herself to chick flicks, she might move up the list, or she might be the next Shelley Long. It’s a toss-up.
Whatever happens to her, Heigl is at the point where no one would blame her for leaving: her character on Grey’s Anatomy, once popular, has become pointless and underused. That’s a stage at which actors usually leave even if they don’t have a movie career; Nicollette Sheridan is leaving her now-irrelevant role on Desperate Housewives even though she has little else lined up. And in the unlikely event that Heigl doesn’t leave Grey’s Anatomy, it won’t be for any lack of trying. Last year, Heigl took herself out of consideration for an Emmy award nomination; though she won the award for Best Supporting Actress the season before, she said that the writing for her character was no longer good enough for a nomination. Immediately there were rumours that she wanted out of her contract; why would an actor badmouth her part, unless she wanted the writers to let her go?
Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says that “there’s any number of ways people can behave when they want to get out of one of these things. Often it’s just to make life so difficult that the people making the show want them to leave.” The writers, for their part, almost seemed to be goading her into leaving; after her complaints were publicized, she wound up with a storyline in which her character was sleeping with the ghost of her dead boyfriend. The writers have even given themselves an easy way to write her off the show if they need to, raising the possibility that her character might have a brain tumour. Everything is all set for Heigl to leave. The only question is, what will she be leaving for?
Heigl won’t lack for work at first, even if she does leave the show; with a combination of skill and luck, she always gets parts that move her career forward. When she got into acting, one of her first roles was in a Steven Soderbergh movie, King of the Hill (which some critics consider the best film he ever made). Her first regular TV role was on Roswell, a teen fantasy show on the WB network, which ran four years and instantly made her a teen idol, even among teens who didn’t actually watch the soapy adventures of adolescent aliens. Her first major TV part after Roswell was cancelled was on Grey’s Anatomy, which started as a low-profile series with a nine-episode season and unexpectedly became a huge hit. And when she used the show as an entry into movies, she did hits like Knocked Up. She may be quick to criticize projects after she does them, like the time she called Knocked Up “a little sexist” because it “paints the women as shrews, as humourless and uptight,” but she’s demonstrated good judgment in her choice of projects, and the ability to make the most of a part. In Grey’s Anatomy, she stood out in a huge ensemble cast; in Knocked Up, she became the first woman to make an impression in Judd Apatow’s guy-oriented movie universe. Throw in 27 Dresses, in which she proved she could carry a movie on her own, and it’s clear the audience likes her, and that’s what makes a star.
But there’s a big difference between being a TV star who dabbles in movies and someone who actually leaves a show to devote herself to movies. A true movie star is royalty, earning a kind of mythic respect; a TV star is more like a semi-star, a working actor who was lucky enough to land a good part. Some critics argue there shouldn’t be any stigma attached to being a TV star, especially in an era in which TV is doing better work than the movies: “There’s still a sense that most actors would love to do movies,” Thompson says, “but the idea of TV as second-class citizenship for actors, writers or directors has pretty much been annihilated.”
Still, anyone who watched both the Oscars and the Emmys would have noticed that movie stars have something TV stars don’t, and it doesn’t have much to do with the quality of their work; after all, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman are movie stars even though they were in Australia. Movie stars thrive on scarcity, on putting themselves in front of the public only a couple of times a year. TV stars are stars who, by contract, have to put themselves in front of us every week, and that means they’re more accessible than movie stars, maybe more likeable—but also less fascinating. When the cameraman cut between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie at the Oscars, we may not have seen any gossipy fireworks, but we did see two types of stars: Aniston, the bubbly girl next door we wanted to invite into our homes on Thursday nights, and Jolie, the exotic, aloof goddess with freakishly large lips. Jolie and other movie-only stars maintain their star status by being a little better than us; on TV, we want people who are friendly and lovable. Ellen Pompeo (Dr. Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy) certainly isn’t a TV star because we think she’s better than we are in any possible way.
That’s why TV stars rarely break through to being full-fledged movie stars, people who can get a movie based on name value alone. (And the ones that do break through need to go through a lot of hazing on the way; George Clooney turned himself into a movie star, but with no thanks to Batman & Robin.) Until they make that transition, TV stars are the people that movie producers turn to when they need a recognizable name who’ll come cheaper than a real movie star—like Heigl in 27 Dresses, a modestly budgeted movie that couldn’t have afforded a Kate Hudson or Scarlett Johansson. Even Knocked Up was a project that required a TV star, not a movie star; Judd Apatow’s movie franchise may soon have him in charge of every comedy movie on the planet, but it’s a very television-oriented franchise, built around actors who worked with him on the TV show Freaks and Geeks, and put together in a fast, semi-improvisatory way. Heigl may have been the glamorous one in Knocked Up compared to Seth Rogen, but they were both essentially television people on the big screen.
That’s not a problem if you make your movie career in low-budget comedies the way Rogen has. But Heigl’s upcoming movie, The Ugly Truth, is a glossy romantic comedy in which she plays a successful woman who finds love with a male chauvinist (Gerard Butler). Selling that kind of movie usually requires a glamorous movie star, not a TV actor on the big screen. There’s a reason why Steve Carell usually plays incompetent idiots in the movies as well as television; TV actors are sought to play smaller-than-life parts on film. Heigl’s trying to do something trickier: go from smaller-than-life cute TV doctor to larger-than-life rom-com star.
It’s especially tricky because the TV actor who leaves a show (or even waits until the show ends) may find that his or her movie career was completely dependent on being a TV star. Once Friends was over, Aniston’s movie career faltered for several years, only recently recovering with Marley & Me. And she was the lucky one; the other Friends stopped getting any movie roles at all once their TV stardom was up, and they’re back on television where they belong. For every George Clooney or Johnny Depp who gets into movies and never goes back to TV (except as a charity gesture, like Clooney’s March 12 guest shot on ER), there are many more actors like David Caruso or Christina Applegate, who count themselves lucky to get a TV series again after their movie career never really takes off.
Meanwhile, it usually turns out that TV shows need these actors less than the actors need them; Grey’s Anatomy has lost actors before without losing ratings (remember Isaiah Washington?) and might even improve a little once the writers stop having to pretend that they know how to write for Izzie. “In the old days,” Thompson says, “if a main character left, it could really be enormous trouble. Now that we’ve got these enormous casts, not only does it not send a cruise missile into the show by having someone leave, I think it can be quite healthy.” So, theoretically, a departure by Katherine Heigl could be good for everyone: the show gets a fresh start, some new characters and a ratings-grabbing send-off for Izzie; Heigl gets to move on to the next phase of her career. Like her next movie after The Ugly Truth: a thriller called Five Killers, co-starring her and Ashton Kutcher. But is making out with Ashton Kutcher really a step up from making out with a ghost? The answer to that may define Katherine Heigl’s whole career from now on.