If Anne Hathaway wins the best actress Oscar next month for her role as a recovering drug addict in Rachel Getting Married, it will be a big upset: Popular wisdom is divided between Meryl Streep for Doubt and Kate Winslet for The Reader, and it's heavily weighted toward Winslet (though Hathaway did recently tie with Streep for a Critic's Choice award). But Hathaway has already bested her fellow nominees in at least one category: She is the canniest image-manager currently working in Hollywood.
The recent news that Hathaway will voice a character on a two-part Simpsons episode cinched my theory that the woman is the Itzhak Perlman of popular opinion. She will play Krusty the Clown's girlfriend, who testifies on his behalf after the corrupt clown is accused of a crime. The role, of course, is designed to mock Hathaway's much-publicized breakup with Italian financier Raffaello Follieri, who was arrested in June on 14 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and money laundering. When she hosted Saturday Night Live in October, Hathaway opened the show by poking fun at her own naivete, boasting that her new boyfriend was a Nigerian prince who'd sent her an unsolicited e-mail requesting her Social Security number: "How sweet is that?" Both the Simpsons role and the SNL monologue share a sly, have-it-both-ways approach to Hathaway's image burnishing: She makes fun of her own gullibility while reminding audiences that she's clever enough to know her ex played her for a fool.
In the half-year since the Follieri scandal, Hathaway has managed to become a staple of tabloid news without ever seeming lowered by it. In July, W praised Hathaway for getting her "chic revenge." In August, she began appearing as the spokesmodel for a new Lancôme fragrance, Magnifique (Lancôme being the endorsement gig for high-class actresses; past spokesfaces have included Isabella Rossellini, Uma Thurman, Juliette Binoche, and Kate Winslet). And the three major Hathaway films that have come out since mid-2008—Get Smart, Rachel Getting Married, and Bride Wars—have each highlighted a different part of her public persona.
There's a) the naive, adorable princess in need of protection; b) the sophisticated fashion plate, a post-transformation Eliza Doolittle; and c) the fun-loving tomboy who's just one of the guys. Hathaway's best roles combine two or more of these types: In The Devil Wears Prada and The Princess Diaries, she morphs from insecure but lovable A into elegant and self-confident B. Get Smart is a combination of types B and C, with Hathaway outspying and outshooting everyone in sight and looking like Diana Rigg all the while. The unfortunate Bride Wars combines the worst aspects of the B and C personae: Hathaway's stylishness becomes a shallow obsession with clothes, and her tomboyish feistiness descends into mean-girl bitchery. (Amazingly, Hathaway has risen above the awful press accorded to this widely loathed movie, currently ranked at 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) And Rachel Getting Married, her most challenging role to date, brings together all three Annes in the person of Kym, a vulnerable, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking ex-junkie who, even on break from hard-core rehab, manages to look and dress like Edie Sedgwick.
Hathaway's public appearances seem carefully orchestrated to alternate among these three roles. Type A, the damsel in distress, was much in evidence at the Critics' Choice awards early this month, where Hathaway thanked her father, saying "he protects me and has shown me that there are good men in this world and lets me know every day that I am worthy of the love of good people." On the one hand: Aww. On the other: Nicely done. In one sentence, she discreetly reminded us of the past year's woes, implied that she's moved on to better things (suck it, Raffaello!), and looked very sweet and filial in the bargain. The very next night, Hathaway C—just-one-of-the-guys Annie—was flinging double entendres on the Jimmy Kimmel show. (Naughty Annie also had a memorable exchange with Frank Langella on a recent Newsweek Oscar panel.) And Hathaway B, the impeccably turned-out clotheshorse, rears her head every time another fashion column praises her tasteful-yet-whimsical choices on the red carpet. (There are exceptions: The ever-honest Fug Girls, who generally admire Hathaway's style, compared one recent getup to "a series of high-end bathmats sewn together.")
What does all this image-management savvy have to do with Hathaway's skill as an actress? That's the thing:Hathaway is so smart about choosing roles, promoting them, and winning our sympathy off-screen that it's sort of hard to tell how gifted an actor she really is. Rachel Getting Married is certainly the furthest she's stretched yet, and she's very winning in a role that could easily have been overplayed. But I'd argue that the movie's power derives mainly from its ensemble cast and Jonathan Demme's nimble, roving hand-held camera. Next year, Hathaway will play an ambivalent bride-to-be in The Fiance (sounds like a princessy A role) and the White Queen in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. (With that director, it's bound to be an elaborately costumed B.) I'd love to see her take on something, anything, completely outside the Hathaway canon: a schlumpily dressed, unprincesslike, unfeisty schmo. (Wait, she could play me!)
As OK! magazine clucked approvingly in an item on Hathaway's recent double date with new boyfriend Adam Shulman and John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, Hathaway's Devil Wears Prada co-star, a good time on the town is "something the brunette beauty definitely deserves after her recent heartbreak over ex Raffaello Follieri." I couldn't agree more: another round of tapas for all! But I'm not sure Hathaway's lousy romantic luck in 2008, or her admirable gift for earning our goodwill, should be enough to earn her an Oscar.