For Naomi Watts, ‘Feud’ Proved a Great Actress Is Even Better When Producing

In 2014, Naomi Watts voiced an animated version of herself in the “BoJack Horseman” episode “One Trick Pony.” The Watts in Hollywoo — the “BoJack” stand-in for the entertainment industry’s epicenter, inhabited mostly by anthropomorphic animals — is starring opposite BoJack in a biopic about his frenemy, Mr. Peanutbutter. She appears on set preparing to play Diane, a burgeoning writer. The meta joke is the actress accepted the part to get a break from emotionally draining, praiseworthy performances.

“I just keep getting pigeonholed as these complex characters in highly acclaimed movies,” the animated Watts bemoans to a character who is a parody of host Ryan Seacrest (A Ryan Seacrest Type). “For once, I would just love to phone it in and play a two-dimensional girl in a rom-com with no inner life of her own. That’s kind of the reason I got into this business.”

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Ten years later, that tongue-in-cheek guest appearance now feels almost prophetic. Watts is still regarded as an immensely talented actor with powerhouse turns to her name, but 2014 was also the last year that she starred in several well-received film projects, like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning “Birdman” and the sophisticated comedies “St. Vincent” and “While We Are Young.”

Since then, Watts’ career has stumbled through a string of sometimes baffling productions. Others made sense on paper but ultimately failed to yield a successful final product, as with Gus Van Sant’s reviled A24 drama “The Sea of Trees” starring Matthew McConaughey.

She also collaborated with directors on the rise: Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition,” Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry,” and Destin Daniel Cretton’s “The Glass Castle.” For these films, her supporting contributions were arguably one of their few notable aspects. Add to these the forgettable “Divergent” franchise and it’s an alarmingly subpar streak.

This could be a case of ongoing bad luck — or, perhaps more likely, Hollywood offers slim pickings for a 55-year-old actress. But in Watts’ case, has the industry just been taking her for granted these last years?

Over two decades ago, Watts broke out with a masterful performance as a bright-eyed ingenue navigating Hollywood’s treacherous labyrinth in David Lynch’s enigmatic masterpiece “Mulholland Drive.” The intricate genius of her craft is on full display during a nesting doll scene where her character, Betty Elms (as we first know her), attends an audition at a studio. As Betty, Watts is a troubled character playing another character in an exchange laced with dangerous seductiveness. Within a few frames, she transitions from the luminous naivete to the daring desire of a young woman in a risky liaison with her father’s best friend, all while others in the room watch her closely.

Last year in an interview with The New York Times, Watts spoke about the resilience and artistic conviction it took to arrive at that watershed moment after numerous setbacks. After all, not long before “Mulholland Drive,” Watts was an actress who starred in “Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering.”

“I spent many years under the radar, not getting jobs — just tiny bits here and there — until David Lynch gave me an incredible role,” she said. “Had I not maintained that level of determination or ambition, whatever you want to call it, I would have packed it in and just tried to find something else. Knowing why you love what you do is important. What’s feeding you that makes you keep coming back for more?”

“Mulholland Drive” was a potent catalyst. Just a couple of years later, she received her first Oscar nomination for Iñárritu’s English-language debut “21 Grams” in a shattering turn as Cristina, a woman whose husband and children die in a car accident. The moment the doctors inform her of the unimaginable tragedy, Watts’ gut-wrenching reaction communicates a piercing devastation that knocks us out.

High-profile and eclectic titles during the 2000s strengthened Watts’ position as an in-demand star: Gore Verbinski’s horror remake “The Ring,” Peter Jackson’s take on “King Kong,” David Cronenberg’s crime thriller “Eastern Promises,” and as the voice of a rabbit in Lynch’s “Inland Empire.” Watts and Lynch would more properly collaborate again on the now-iconic limited series “Twin Peaks: The Return,” where Watts appeared regularly as the chipper housewife Janey-E Jones. Lynch has been so instrumental in Watts’ trajectory; it comes as no surprise she would even voice a rabbit for him.

Scott Coffey’s meta dramedy “Ellie Parker,” which Watts produced, was also released around this time. Shot over several years using a digital camera, which gives it the feel of an in-the-moment documentary, this over-the-top portrait of a struggling Australian actress in Los Angeles showcases Watts’ astonishing range. The misadventures of the titular character surely reflect the decade Watts spent auditioning without much success before landing “Mulholland Drive.”

For 2012’s “The Impossible,” J.A. Bayona’s based-on-a-true story survivalist picture, Watts earned her second Academy Award nomination, the film’s sole mention, this time as lead actress. Again, Watts invoked a visceral, unvarnished humanity as an injured mother trying to find her family in the aftermath of a monstrous tsunami. When her character comes to after being rescued, Watts exudes such fragility and gratitude that the performance transcends the artifice of cinema and teems with truth.

Watts is an inspired source of attention-demanding wattage, especially when it comes to instances of believable catharsis but her the narrative vehicles of late have been abysmally below average.

In recent years Watts has been the lead in a variety of thrillers and heartfelt dramas: “The Wolf Hour,” “Penguin Bloom,” “Infinite Storm,” and “The Desperate Hour.” All banked on Watts’ ability to straddle a sense of rage-filled urgency, strenuous physicality, and earnest heartbreak, only to squander her captivating on-screen presence with subpar writing.

An exception was the sharp 2019 indie “Luce,” where she portrayed the adoptive mother of an overachieving young Black man engaged in a thorny ideological dispute with one of his teachers. The role reunited with her “Funny Games” co-star, Tim Roth, and is a testament to what Watts can offer in the way of morally complicated nuance.

Meanwhile, Watts’ close friend Nicole Kidman has built a body of work, which, if not perfect, has a batting average of more hits than misses. Kidman also owns a production company, Blossom Films, which generates projects in which she often stars including limited series like the Paramount+ “Rabbit Hole,” HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” and Amazon Studio’s “Expats.”

As other actor-producers like Margot Robbie and Emma Stone know, sometimes the only way to ensure promising jobs is to develop them yourself.

Watts has also moved into TV, with less success. She starred in and executive produced the Netflix productions “Gypsy” and “The Watcher,” neither of which have received a second season. (She recently told Entertainment Weekly that while she’d been informed “The Watcher” would have a season 2, there had been no movement since.) Watts does have a proven record of taking a project to the finish. On the film side, see the recent American remake of the Austrian horror hit “Goodnight Mommy,” in which she starred and executive produced. It was badly received for the most part, several reviews highlighted Watts’ performance, again noting she always goes above and beyond even when the material doesn’t reciprocate her efforts.

However, it’s the latest season of the Ryan Murphy’s “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans” (reuniting Watts with Van Sant, who directed all eight episodes) that reminded audiences of her commanding intensity and versatility. Again as executive producer, she embodies magazine editor-turned-socialite Babe Paley in the last decade of her life and seems like a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination. It’s a rich performance across eight episodes that also benefited from Watts helping to shepherd the series herself.

Halfway through her “BoJack Horseman” episode, Watts expresses discontent at learning that Todd (BoJack’s aimless young human friend) has persuaded the film’s director, Quentin Tarantulino, to center the story on Watts’ Diane — effectively turning the character into the type of layered and complicated role the performer was trying to avoid.

“Isn’t this town sick of creating three-dimensional roles for women? This happens to me all the time. A.O. Scott is sick of talking about how brilliant I am,” Watts angrily decries.

Here’s hoping the current New York Times critics and those elsewhere, as well as audiences, soon have more reasons to once again gush about Watts in ventures that match her dramatic acumen. Watts has more than earned her place among the best actors of our time — she has both the accolades and the body of work to back it up — it’s time for Hollywood to act accordingly.

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