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Claire Danes’ so-called movie career

What would Jordan Catalano think of ‘Shopgirl’?
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Claire Danes’ most vivid role to date is that of Angela Chase, the awkward teenager from the short-lived TV series “My So-Called Life.” Though Danes was just 15 years old and the show ran a brief 19 episodes in 1995-1995, she made an indelible impression.

A dancer from the age of six, Danes was able to put her grace on the shelf and instead use her body, with a tilt of the head or a slight slump in her shoulders, to show Angela’s tentativeness and curiosity. Angela was one of the first television characters who seemed as uncomfortable with life as most actual teenagers. Hard to believe that on that show she was supposed to be the same age as those kids on “Laguna Beach.” Which one of those shows is supposed to be reality again?

Though she seems better (and in some cases, way too good) than every movie she stars in, it’s hard not to wonder how her fictional friends from “My So-Called Life” would view Danes’ movie roles. Which characters would they recognize as the girl they knew on “My So-Called Life?”

Danielle Chase, “Terminator 3”
Angela’s younger sister was never allowed in the room when anything interesting — like a good fight — was going on. She also had a serious crush on Brian Krakow, who just happened to harbor a little something for her older sister. For Halloween one year, Danielle actually dressed up as Angela, so it’s hard not to believe that on some level her sister was a hero for her. Maybe a bit like Kate Brewster in “Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines.”

“T3” is an absolute dog, but Danielle would be proud of the way her big sis doesn’t back down when kidnapped and thrown into the back of her own truck by Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Connor (Nick Stahl). She just kept kicking and screaming and refused to back down. Heck, she even said “Drop dead, you a—hole!” to the Terminator. The perfect hero for a little sis.

Rickie Vasquez, “Stage Beauty”
As the gay best friend to Rayanne Graff and Angela, Ricky never pursued his crushes as openly as they did (this was after all, only the mid ’90s). Though he cheered Angela on in her relationship with Jordon Catalano, viewers always had the sense that he was envious that he couldn’t have what she did. Mr. Katimski pushed Rickie to find himself in drama club, much like Danes’ character, Maria, finds herself through acting in “Stage Beauty.”

In that suprisingly engrossing film, though Billy Crudup’s character is happy playing women’s roles in Shakespeare’s plays, his dresser (Danes) secretly wants her own chance. When Charles II finally changes British law to allow this, she takes to the stage herself. Crudup is crushed, just as Rickie must have been, to see Danes get to do everything he no longer feels allowed to do. With women playing the roles, there's no longer a need for men like Crudup to play the female parts. In this role, Danes bravely allows herself to look weak, as we learn that, without Crudup’s help, she isn’t the actress that he has been.

Patty Chase, “Polish Wedding”
For Angela’s mother Patty, Angela’s teen years were a never-ending rollercoaster. First the once-mild girl dyed her hair “crimson glow” and then she started hanging around the always-drinking Rayanne and her gay friend Rickie. Patty desperately wanted to bond with her daughter, but instead Angela almost constantly pushed her away.

But at least Angela never got into the kind of trouble that Danes’ Hala did in “Polish Wedding.” Sneaking out the window at night, Hala had an affair with a young policeman, got pregnant, and discovered he didn’t want to marry her. Sounds like Patty’s worst-case scenario to me. The movie itself — well, let’s just say, it’s less interesting than most of Patty’s lectures to Angela. But it’s fun to see Danes play someone so free and open — heck, she even smokes in this one.

Graham Chase, “Little Women”
One of the better TV fathers around (the man could cook!), Graham was dealing with so many of his own problems that he never seemed to view Angela in the dire way Patty did. Instead, like a lot of fathers, he had a daddy’s-little-girl view of his eldest child. The saintly Beth from “Little Women” would have suited Graham just fine.

Amy March was frivolous, Meg cared most about finding a good husband and Jo worked away on her writing career, but Beth was the March sister who stayed home. Too sickly to pursue her dreams, instead she became the family’s beacon of goodness. One of Danes’ better performances, her naturalness here stands in stark contrast to Winona Ryder’s rather mannered turn as Jo. When Beth breaks down after Mr. Laurence gives her his piano, viewers witness an actress expressing pure joy in a way that few can.

Sharon Cherski, “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday”
Sharon never quite got over how her former best friend dumped her, dyed her hair red, and started hanging out with Rickie and Rayanne. She missed the more innocent Angela, the one who hadn’t been as cynical and watchful. For Sharon, Angela had been someone she could giggle over boys with, but now, Angela seemed almost embarrassed by her friendship with Sharon.

Perhaps Rachel Lewis, Danes’ role in “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” would have been a more appealing friend for Sharon. After all, Rachel didn’t even want to wear a skimpy bathing suit in that film, and was more comfortable watching her dad (Peter Gallagher in full eyebrow mode) and uncle (Bruce Altman) doing karaoke. Yes, there was drama, but it was her father who was at the center of it; Rachel’s character was one of the stabilizing forces in his life. She’s a girl who, during the film, marvels over her first open-mouthed kiss (with Freddie Prinze, Jr. no less, who’s sporting a very weird blond-and-brown hairdo here). The movie is a schmaltzy, maudlin mess, but Rachel does seem to be a perfect friend for Sharon.

Rayanne Graff, “Brokedown Palace”
Angela’s new best friend Rayanne drank, slept with a lot of guys and got into more trouble than most of those “Laguna Beach” chicks could dream of — plus she never would have tolerated their pettiness. She could be found most days, skipping class and holding court in the girls’ bathroom, where even Rickie would join in their chats. She was Virgil to Angela’s Dante, leading her through the depths of high-school hell.

Only fitting, then, that her dream for Angela would be an exotic trip to Bangkok with her best friend (Kate Beckinsale). Unfortunately, as with many Rayanne adventures, Danes’ trip to Bangkok didn’t quite go as planned — she got mixed up with a handsome stranger who planted a package of heroin on the girls without their knowledge. This movie is no “Midnight Express,” but as usual with Danes’ films, she’s the best thing in it. In her role as Alice, you never lose the sense of her strength — even when she winds up in jail. Let’s hope Rayanne, wherever she is today, managed to avoid Thai prison. 

Brian Krakow, “Igby Goes Down”
For Brian, Angela was the girl he always longed for but could never really have. (Or could he? The show was cut short, we never found out.) Though Angela may not have seemed particularly cool to some people, to the geeky, bookish Brian she was almost unapproachable — somewhat like Sookie Sapperstein in “Igby Goes Down.”

Thankfully, Danes’ hasn’t played all that many cool chicks, but her Sookie was a perfect counterpart to Kieran Culkin’s Holden Caulfield-esque Igby. Sookie played hooky from Bennington and knew how to roll the perfect joint. And yet, she still found time to sleep with the slightly awkward and younger Igby. A fantasy come true for a guy like Krakow. This movie is almost a little too self-conscious for its own good, but it does have intriguing performances, plus a great soundtrack that features tunes from Badly Drawn Boy and Travis.

Jordan Catalano, “Shopgirl”
Angela may have dated Jordan Catalano, but she never really had him. He was the quintessential “I’m keeping myself open in case something better comes along” guy. Every woman has dated at least one of them — the kind of guy who doesn’t recognize a good thing when he has it because he’s too busy being cool. It’s not hard to believe that a guy like this could grow up to be the Steve Martin character in “Shopgirl,” who once again can’t quite see the wonderful person right in front of him.

Danes plays Mirabelle, a lonely woman who works at the glove counter in Saks Fifth Avenue. She is a woman who’s looking for love; looking for someone to hold onto and protect her — and at the same time she’s lost, unsure what she’s doing with her life. Steve Martin’s Ray Porter could be the person she’s looking for, the friend and lover that she so desperately needs. And yet, he can’t help but hold her at a distance. Though the movie can be a bit precious (particularly Martin’s needless voice-overs), Danes is utterly convincing and heartbreaking in the role of Mirabelle. Even if viewers don’t like the film as a whole, it’s almost impossible not to empathize with Danes who is able to show her desire and her loneliness in such a raw and real fashion. It’s certainly one of her best performances to date. Jordan, will you never learn?

Angela Chase, “William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet”
So how would the lovely Angela view herself? Maybe she’d see herself as the lost and lonely Mirabelle from “Shopgirl” or perhaps she’d need think she’d need a bit of rescuing, the way Kelly Riker does in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Rainmaker” (which features another heartbreaking performance by Danes). But first and foremost, beyond all the insecurities and awkwardness, Angela Chase was a romantic, so there’s only one role she’d truly see herself playing (if she would actually let herself admit it): Juliet from “William Shakespeare’s Romeo+Juliet.”

Danes may not be a typical Hollywood beauty — she can look a bit wan and almost plain if she wants and she doesn’t have one of those plastic-surgery-enhanced Hollywood bodies — but when she plays a character expressing happiness, especially love, she has a way of transmitting an inner glow — a luminous quality that doesn’t just come from good lighting. Yes, this film is far from perfect —  the way John Leguizamo screams his way through the entire movie may have you reaching for a bottle of Excedrin — yet Danes is flawless. She has the innocence and the purity of the perfect Juliet and she and Leonardo DiCaprio don’t just create sparks, they practically radiate. If Angela got to live out her romantic dreams, this is the way she’d do it. The girl is such a drama queen that even dying in the final scenes would strike her as a highly appropriate thing to do.