The Big O: Will Keira Knightley’s Image Switch Convince Oscar She’s Worthy?

nullTake a look at Keira Knightley in her most recent perfume ad for Chanel from earlier this year. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZAZD3ylG6Y 

So gorgeous. So come hither-y. So female James Bond in that zippy vintage speedboat, totally in control. She is old-style Hollywood glamour incarnate. A true star in a rapidly depleting galaxy. How can you not love her?

And yet many have resisted falling for her charms during the course of her more than two decades as a performer, an achievement in itself given that Knightley is all of 29-years-old. But ever since the phenomenal success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean outing in 2003, the actress — who was just 18 at the time — became a tabloid target in the UK and was subjected to all manner of scrutiny, particularly about her appearance.

Which is why Knightley — whose parents are both in the business — told Elle Magazine in July that if she ever had a teen daughter, she would not let her pursue an acting career. “Teenage years should be done privately,” she said. “You should be going out and getting unbelievably drunk, getting into ridiculous situations, making mistakes. That’s what that time of life is about, and we should do that privately.”

Not that she regrets the opportunities she has had. “I wouldn’t live my life any differently,” Knightley said. “But having lived through it … There was a very long time when [interviewers] were all: ‘Well, you’re a shit actress and you’re anorexic and people hate you,’ which for a teenager is a very strange thing.”

Even the industry that greatly benefits from her talents hasn’t fully acknowledged her worth. Save for when she was nominated for an Academy Award as the main name attraction in the 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, Oscar has refused to reward her contributions to cinema as well. Many thought she was unfairly snubbed not to be nominated for her work in 2007’s Atonement, which was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

“Why should Anne Hathaway have an Oscar and not Keira Knightley?” wonders film historian and Wesleyan University professor Jeanine Basinger, who has written extensively about women and movies. “It’s like they say on Project Runway: ‘One day, you’re in. The next day, you’re out.’ Sometimes, it has nothing to do with the performance. It has to do with your persona, your career, what they think your career is or going to be or has been. There is some strangeness behind certain wins and losses. Keira is an example of that strangeness. People who have done less than her have gotten Oscars.”  

Perception — or, rather, misperception — might be partially to blame. “She makes it seem too easy sometimes,” Basinger says. “She is usually cast for her grace, elegance, and understated-ness in period pieces. Not as the over-the-top drug addict, the nun, the alcoholic. She doesn’t get the challenging offbeat roles. It is very hard to give a contained performance and be noticed.”

Knightley did push herself both physically and emotionally in 2011’s A Dangerous Method as trailblazing psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, who was also a patient being treated for psychologically induced facial contortions and convulsions. The actress threw herself into the kinkier aspects of her character’s therapy with Michael Fassbender as Dr. Carl Jung, who became Spielrein’s lover. But only a select crowd bothered to see David Cronenberg’s sexually charged historical drama. As Basinger says, “People did not go to that movie. No one wanted it.”   

It is one thing to criticize her acting. But for some reason, Knightley’s very image on the big screen, in photo spreads and on glossy magazine covers, has been found irksome, especially among gossipy outlets in the UK. Just Google “Keira Knightley” and “hate” and you will get upwards of 2 million hits. That includes various thinkpieces that ponder why many people, especially those of the female persuasion, can’t abide this British beauty.    

The sense one gathers from these articles and posts is that Knightley too often comes off as being too much. She is both too perfect and too imperfect — and especially too tightly corseted in too many mannered period pieces like Pride & Prejudice and 2008’s The Duchess.

Not that she has committed any of the usual banal celebrity crimes — DWI arrests, public meltdowns, or writing a lifestyle blog — that usually turn the tide of public opinion against a performer. Instead, Knightley is simply guilty of being herself.

On the upside, however, is that most of these web entries hit their peak several years ago. And when you are as bankable at the box office as Knightley often is — which is why she ranks among the highest-paid movie actresses in the world — sometimes even a slight career shift can work wonders. This year, a change is afoot in how the actress is seen due to a number of circumstances. That includes how she shrewdly took a two-year break after her last trip to the 19th century in the title role of 2012’s Anna Karenina.

In essence, she made us miss her.

After time off to marry musician James Righton in May 2013 (in an admirably low-key ceremony in front of 10 guests in the South of France, wearing sensible flats and a knee-length Chanel dress that was already in her closet), she chose to do a string of movies that take place in contemporary settings.    

Besides the action thriller Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the music-industry fable Begin Again from earlier this year, Knightley’s career turn includes Laggies, a female twist on a Judd Apatow-style comedy directed by Lynn Shelton that opens Friday.

As a mixed-up college grad in the midst of a late-20s crisis who decides to chill out with teen girls for a week, Knightley is surprisingly relaxed and adept in such a modern-day environment. Shelton is pleased to have offered her leading lady a comedic oasis from all that formal garb and social mores of yore. As she told the Wall Street Journal, “Keira is drop-dead gorgeous, obviously. She’s been in roles that have kind of separated her, where she feels otherworldly, taking that beauty and putting it on a pedestal.”

Knightley may have taken a break from her pedestal, but she isn’t entirely finished with period pieces. Coming November 21 is The Imitation Game, which is likely to be her ticket to Oscar nomination No. 2.  

The biopic reunites her with Atonement castmate Benedict Cumberbatch, who headlines as Alan Turing, the socially awkward Brit and genius code-breaker who helped win World War II for the Allies while being forced to hide his homosexuality.

Thanks to early exposure and positive feedback at fall film festivals like the one in Toronto, where The Imitation Game won the coveted People’s Choice Award, the film is seen as a likely contender in several Oscar categories. That includes Knightley’s portrayal of real-life cryptographer Joan Clarke, an essential player in breaking the Enigma code and whose gender made her as much an outsider as Turing. That helped forge an intimate bond between the pair and led to a half-hearted proposal of marriage.  

Knightley herself shows off her own smarts by placing herself in a rare supporting role for a change, where she dresses like an average career woman. The part isn’t about her looks, but her brain. Her level-headed, no-nonsense entrance into the movie warms up the screen considerably and makes Cumberbatch’s Turing, an odd duck who fails to connect with his male colleagues, that much more relatable and sympathetic. She does exactly what a supporting actor should do: make the star seem even better.

Guardian critic Catherine Shoard echoed the sentiments of other critics with her praise for Knightley, calling her “miles better than she’s been in a while; sitting on a shelf rather than centre stage seems to suit her. She has fun with her plummy vowels, even when saying lines like ‘I’m a woman in a man’s job.’" James Rocchi of Film.com thought that the actress’s “pluck, innate decency and British-ness” served her character well.  

Just as such Oscar winners as Hathaway in 2012’s Les Miserables and George Clooney in 2005’s Syriana took a step down in status and ended up winning a supporting acting Oscar, Knightley has a good chance of possibly taking a trophy if The Imitation Game continues to be a favorite in multiple categories — especially when this year is perceived as somewhat weak when it comes to actresses in secondary parts.

Her primary competition comes from Patricia Arquette (even more overdue for awards attention with no Oscar nominations whatsoever) as the mom in Boyhood and Laura Dern as the mom in Wild. It all depends how much backing their individual films receive. For now, The Imitation Game has a small lead that could be bolstered by a robust response at the box office next month.

The thing about Oscar, though, is that he’s a fickle fellow. Consider how the showbiz gods have treated Matthew McConaughey, who was never even Oscar-nominated until his win for last year’s Dallas Buyers Club.

“Two decades ago, he was the next Paul Newman,” Basinger says. “One decade ago, he was a jerk. When it comes to the Oscars, the Academy votes for the whole person, baggage and all, and all their past performances. This year, they might be willing to separate Knightley out for recognition. If so, she is a strong candidate — at least in October.”