For months now, Hollywood.com has been entrenched in a heated debate. A debate that warrants more fire and enmity than anything in the spectrums of politics, religion, or professional sports. We’re talking the long-gestating battle of Mara vs. Mara. And finally, we’ve taken to the public to express our horses in this neverending race. So whose side are you on — Team Kate or Team Rooney?
The first season of American Horror Story is probably the most insane of the three, and it often felt to me as if Ryan Murphy was just throwing out every single idea he had in an attempt to make the show as shocking and full of plot twists as humanly possible, which, for the most part, is what Kate Mara‘s character Hayden is there for. In theory, she exists purely to cause more conflict between Ben and Vivien, due to the fact that she’s mentally unstable and attempts to manipulate Ben into leaving his wife to help her raise the baby she’s carrying. But Kate’s performance keeps her from being a walking plot device, and she creates a character that is by turns terrifying and unpredictable, desperate, and sadly seems to genuinely believe that she and Ben have something special. She truly hopes that she can have a family with him, and even though she’s willing to accomplish that by any means necessary – including attempting to steal Vivien’s baby after both she and Hayden are dead – Kate tempers all of that instability with genuine emotion. In her last scene, where she tells Tate that Violet will never love him, it’s petty, sure, but it’s also resigned. Kate takes a character that is, like every other character on that show, there primarily for shock value, and finds the humanity in her insane plot. She gives the character depth, and makes you feel for her, even as she’s carrying out her insane plan.
Then there’s House of Cards and Zoe Barnes. Zoe’s the kind of character that audiences will either love or hate, and I’ve seen strong opinions on both sides. Personally, I’m a big fan of Zoe, and a lot of that has to do with the way that Kate plays her. She’s ambitious and cunning, willing to do whatever she needs to for her own benefit, and doesn’t care who she needs to hurt in order to advance, all of which makes her the perfect counterpart to Frank Underwood. But Kate doesn’t just make her a female version of Frank; she gives her layers and depth that help ground the ambition and drive that characterizes Zoe. There’s an episode where Frank talks about how it’s important that he and Zoe keep secrets from each other, and how they are different things to different people. Kate’s whole performance epitomizes that. You get the sense that she’s hiding something about herself from everyone – that maybe the tough, ambitious front that she puts on the whole time is just there to keep her vulnerability hidden. The best example of this is the scene where Zoe comes over to the Underwoods’ house, tries on Claire’s dress and ends her affair with Frank, which reads both like a little girl playing dress-up and the start of Zoe becoming a legitimate threat. She’s imitating Claire’s earlier behavior, and she’s acting in a way that is slightly childish. But Kate also makes sure that Zoe’s resolve comes across just as clearly as her pettiness. He’s not taking her seriously, but she’s establishing herself as someone who will try to take Frank down. Kate gets all of that across in the two minutes it takes for her to try on the dress and walk around the room.
It’s a testament to all of the layers that Kate gives Zoe that the character and her performance gets more compelling with every re-watch. Look at all of Zoe’s weird, nervous tics that fade away over the course of the season, as she becomes more confident and starts taking control of the story. She starts the first season biting her nails and slouching in on herself; by the end, she’s taking the lead away from Lucas and Jeanine, both of whom are older and more experienced and holding her own against Frank. Zoe’s awkwardness, her fear, and her ruthlessness are all clear in the way that Kate carries herself and delivers every line, and all of that comes together to create a character that would likely not be nearly as compelling with another actress in the role.
Would you still watch House of Cards if Kevin Spacey wasn’t in it, and it was just Kate’s character? I wouldn’t. But I’d still watch Dragon Tattoo if they ousted Daniel Craig and just made it about Rooney. You would too, admit it. It’d be better.
Also, boring name.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Here’s the thing about Rooney Mara — there’s not just one thing about Rooney Mara. To one of you, Rooney Mara might be a sociopathic code-breaker, cemented irreparably into her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo role. To another, the mile-a-minute Sorkin fixture who set an ingenious egomaniac off on his quest for digital world domination. Rooney has not had the luxury of pinning her talents and memorability to the forced familiarity of a television role. Rooney opts for movies, which, no matter how many times you tweet otherwise, is still the superior artistic medium to television. In the past five years alone, Rooney has amounted a slew of big screen roles that have identified her as a creative mystic and an on-the-rise industry figure.
We’ll start with her Dragon Tattoo transformation, perhaps the role that adorned her with the degree of notability that she enjoys today. Yes, Kate’s House of Cards character requires some dexterity, but the stretching required to playing her ballsy reporter Zoe barely compares to that inherent in roles like Lisbeth Salander… and that’s considering the fact that both characters come from the same filmmaker: David Fincher (it should be noted that both House of Cards and Dragon Tattoo are adaptations). From the get-go, Rooney is thrust into a decidedly challenging world — her ability to glimmer with charm through the veneer of Fincher’s abrasive adaptation is a testament to her uncompromising film presence.
Contrastingly, Rooney fits right into the mellifluous portrait of Spike Jonze’s Her, even when introduced three quarters of the way through the movie. Playing an organic alternative to Samantha, the “ideal woman” who outgrows her romantic partner Theodore Twombly (god, I just love that name), Rooney socks her onscreen partner Joaquin Phoenix and the audience alike with a ton of earnestness, anchoring the “fantasy” of the film back to Earth but never robbing it of its sense of wonder. That’s all in the performance, which keeps her shy of Hollywood’s traditional platform of mysognistic villainy. Rooney understands the role and deals with it responsibly, and we’re never beckoned to look away even when she’s smacking us with cold, hard truths.
But Rooney is not reliant on high concept roles to let her skill set show. As the diabolical loon at the center of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, she balances humanity and monstrosity to an absolutely chilling degree. As the star of the haunting crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, she allows for the appreciation of the full spectrum of human desperation. And even though it might be her smallest major role, Rooney’s turn at the forefront of Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network is powerful, funny, caustic, endearing, frightening, and permanent enough to have us believe that it could truly spark an egomaniacal genius’ plight to take over the digital world.
I’ve never felt particularly invested in any of Rooney’s characters. To me, there’s never any depth there, never anything to make it seem as if there’s a character underneath the costume and the script. Her performances have always come across as relatively flat to me. She delivers her lines well, and she can look affected by the scene, but there’s never any gravity to it, never anything that makes me want to keep watching her the way I can with Kate. She’s just kind of… there, whereas Kate’s characters are fully formed, interesting people in their own right, and she finds ways to hint at the layers underneath, and a past that has shaped the way the characters approach situations now.
What do you think?