The slippery stardom of Rachel McAdams

From Mean Girls through to Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, the Canadian actress has become definable by her indefinability.


Marshall Shaffer

Amidst a sea of compilations with titles such as “Regina George being iconic for 3 minutes,” there’s one specific moment from Mean Girls I find myself returning to watch on YouTube. After inflating a classmate’s self-worth by complimenting her clothing, Rachel McAdams’ Regina turns her attention back to Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Herron and declares, “That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen.” Before she can finish the proclamation, McAdams shifts her gaze to the right — almost as if speaking to the audience by deadlocking her eyes with the camera. Regina does not look at people; she looks past them. What initially presents as McAdams not acting through the cut is really a small choice that unlocks a key insight into Regina’s distinct brand of malice.

The release of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret presents a rare moment to appreciate the talents of Rachel McAdams – the 44-year-old Canadian actress has not hesitated to take extended breaks from the industry to take care of herself or her family. The actress’ meteoric rise to a perch of cultural ubiquity in the mid-aughts belies a résumé that only boasts a few dozen titles. The unique path she’s cut instead of pursuing more traditional career building means she’s seldom mentioned in the same breath as peers like Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway, or Natalie Portman.

Yet McAdams’ searing of herself into the cinematic consciousness is not a fluke. She’s an incredibly gifted technician of her craft, most notably through her enormously expressive eye movements and a knack for precise diction. (The delivery of “Oh, no, he died!” in Game Night is among the best line readings in recent years.) Her command in these areas often enables her to add dimensionality to a character when there might not be much guidance on the page.

Director Kelly Fremon Craig makes exceptionally great use of this in her adaptation of Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age novel, especially given that McAdams’ maternal figure only existed as an accessory to her daughter in the original text. Craig often trains her lens on McAdams in close-up to convey the inner turmoil of frazzled homemaker Barbara with nothing more than a series of glances. This nonverbal establishment of the character’s unreconciled independence from her own parents helps lay the groundwork for Barbara’s journey to become influenced by and intertwined with her daughter Margaret’s own maturation.

But McAdams relies on versatility as much as her virtuosity. There’s a reason “Rachel McAdams from 2004-2006” ranked #34 on the podcast Las Culturistas’ top 200 moments in culture history. As host Matt Rogers notes, her anthropologically attuned performance as Regina George in Mean Girls had a real-world impact by modeling dominant behavior so acutely for an impressionable audience of young girls. And within months, McAdams would go from playing the girl from everyone’s nightmares to the girl of everyone’s dreams as the swooning, sincere romantic lead of The Notebook.

McAdams’ filmography is littered with such couplets that speak to her dynamic duality, like in 2005 when she played a gullible mark for con men once as comedy (Wedding Crashers) and again as horror (Red Eye). Or in 2018, she played a hilariously freewheeling and competitive wife (Game Night) shortly before subduing that drive to play a docile Hasidic housewife who becomes liberated from the denial of her sexuality (Disobedience). While these roles can make for nice foils, McAdams thrives mixing and matching disparate elements. She’s at her best when cunning and charming, with perhaps a bit of tempering cutthroat or clueless energy shaded in to help humanize her character. The unique alchemy she brings to each film makes her an actress easy to admire, but her irreducibility into easily digestible hallmarks makes her tougher to “stan.”

It’s easy to pinpoint the sliding doors moments where McAdams might have become her generation’s Julia Roberts. Maybe if she’d followed The Family Stone with the smash hit The Devil Wears Prada (or chosen anything from the cornucopia of scrips thrown her way in the wake of her newfound fame), or perhaps if the bright-burning flame with fellow MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss winner Ryan Gosling had lasted. But instead, she shied away from the long cultural shadow she cast in just two short years and did things her own way. When the industry told her to capitalize on a persona, McAdams doubled down on performance.

Ascribing a consistent motivation to McAdams’ scrambled signals in the last 15 years is tricky. Her next two roles, supporting turns in lo-fi indies The Lucky Ones and Married Life, seem to be a conscious shunning of her stardom. Yet later leading turns in films like the workplace comedy Morning Glory and the melodramatic romance The Vow feel like an attempt to reclaim what she once consciously passed over. McAdams’ delayed embrace, however, left her picking through warmed-over gruel as those genres moved from their heyday into cliché.

There’s also some element of seeking out great directors of a previous generation, a playbook later popularized by luminaries like Adam Driver. But for every Midnight in Paris where McAdams caught a late-career peak from a venerated auteur, there were two in the vein of To the Wonder. It’s hard to blame anyone wanting to work with Terrence Malick, Brian de Palma, or Wim Wenders, and she caught a break because many of these arthouse flops flew under the radar.

What did not escape public attention was a recurring trend that became a meme through a Letterboxd list: “Rachel McAdams in a Romance Movie Where She Provides Emotional Support to a White Man Who Can Time Travel.” The odd coincidence highlighted a larger concern that one of Hollywood’s most promising leading ladies had resigned herself to being a background player. At a time in which her contemporaries commanded the spotlight by girlboss-ing their way into “Strong Female Leads,” McAdams played many characters in a notedly supporting capacity. As actresses began to assign a feminist political valence to role selection, she was not afraid to be the wife, girlfriend, or colleague whose needs were subordinate to the men around her.

Pearl-clutching over the quantity of her screen time never seems to account for the quality of it, however. McAdams never shrinks herself to being passive or perfunctory in any of these films. Her lack of ego lends her the credibility to camouflage into environments ranging from the world of boxing in Southpaw to Ventura County policing in TV’s True Detective. She’s then able to channel her technical expertise to make a big impact even in a small role. Even in a title like Cameron Crowe’s misbegotten Aloha, her mastery of screwball comedy’s vocal pitter-patter opposite leading man Bradley Cooper shows she’s cultivated the tools that allow her to hold an audience’s attention as object just as much as subject.

It’s only fitting that McAdams’ one brush with industry hardware came in Spotlight, for which she received a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. As the tenacious Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer who helped expose the city’s sordid history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, her most frequent activity in the film is simply to listen. (It’s a noted contrast to co-star and fellow Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, whose righteously indignant screaming of “THEY KNEW!” inspired the name of a category recognizing overacting on The Ringer’s podcast The Rewatchables.) This unadorned performance lays all the mechanics of her craft bare as she surveys her surroundings and reacts accordingly.

And yet she’s but one member of a team in Spotlight, a film that derives its title from a tight-knit journalistic cadre resourced to investigate tough stories. McAdams is but one piece of the film’s delicate tapestry, and she subsumes her ego to always give more to any scene than she takes away from it. In an era when filmmaking uses star presence to help fill in the gaps of thinly-sketched archetypes, Rachel McAdams proves a testament to the power of simply being present as an actress and letting her instincts build a vividly realized character.

Published 15 May 2023

Tags: Rachel McAdams

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