There’s no use dancing around the subject or pleading political correctness: if we’re going to talk about Jennifer Love Hewitt, we’re going to have to talk about her bosom. It is ample and inviting and, by all estimations—whether one is male or female, pubescent or middle-aged—extraordinarily beautiful, and Hewitt, to her credit, has never been coy about calling attention to it. In her star-making role in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), the Waco-born actress wore a clingy white tank top (or sometimes just a towel) as she clenched her neck muscles and let out one mighty scream after another. In subsequent movies, like Heartbreakers (2001) and Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber (2005), she sported swimsuits and designer bras and low-cut cocktail dresses, usually slinking and winking her way through a scene, offering glimpses of cleavage while always leaving something to the imagination. In her offscreen life, she has been just as calculating: any actress who allows her boyfriend to tweet a picture of her in a Playboy Bunny costume, as Hewitt did in 2009, clearly knows how to use what God gave her to get the attention she desires.
Yet whereas Hewitt’s décolletage shows no signs of sagging, her professional career hasn’t displayed quite the same va-va-voom. During her impressive initial run, which began when she was just sixteen, on the Fox series Party of Five (1994–2000), Hewitt struck an endearing balance: she was the wholesome girl next door who was only half-aware of her sex appeal. Her transition to grown-up roles, however, proved hopeless. There were the dismal TV shows (1999’s Time of Your Life), the Hollywood turkeys (2002’s The Tuxedo, opposite Jackie Chan), and the awkward mismatches (the comic strip Garfield never looked so filthy as when Hewitt went bouncing through the 2004 live-action film version and its 2006 sequel). Around the same time, her side career as a pop singer also ran aground, when the title track to her fourth album, BareNaked (2002), stalled at 124 on the Billboard singles chart. Eventually, she landed the supernatural drama series Ghost Whisperer, in which she played the best-dressed antiques-dealer-with-a-sixth-sense in television history. But when that show was finally canceled, in 2010, after an inexplicable five-season run, Hewitt’s number seemed to be up.
She returns this month in a new series on Lifetime, The Client List, a reboot of the network’s forgettable 2010 movie, in which she played a Texas housewife who becomes a prostitute to make ends meet. (The film, for which Hewitt received a Golden Globe nomination, was inspired by a 2005 TEXAS MONTHLY story about a real-life prostitution ring in Odessa.) But the series doesn’t appear to cover much new ground, and those of us who have always been fans can’t help but brood, Can this starlet be saved?
One of the reasons to root for Hewitt is that her biography is so charmingly iconic: she’s the small-town Texas girl born and bred for fame (her given middle name really is Love). At age three, she sang at a stock show. At five, she started dance lessons. At ten, she made the leap to Los Angeles, where she landed a part on the Disney Channel series Kids Incorporated. Yet even as her star rose, she never cast off that air of homegrown vulnerability. She has a tiny frame, just five feet two and a half inches, and as a teenager, she often let her hair hang over her thin face—from certain angles, she looked positively mousy. In both Party of Five and I Know What You Did, she was cast not as the “sexy” girl (those roles went to Neve Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar) but as the “cute” and “nice” one. What made her such a pleasure to watch, though, is that even if we wanted to protect her, she never particularly asked for our sympathy. On Party of Five, she played her tumultuous romance with Scott Wolf to the earnest hilt. In I Know What You Did, she brought steeliness to a rote slasher heroine role, beckoning her tormentor with the much-parodied shout to the skies: “What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?” When she finally did get cast as the hottie, in the underrated comedy Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), there was a self-aware sparkle in her eye, as if she had arrived at the place she always knew she belonged.
The problem with triumphing as a sexpot, of course, is that—unless your name is Sophia Loren—the label doesn’t leave you much room to evolve. In the early 2000’s, Hewitt filled out, pulled her hair away from her face, and proved herself a certifiable knockout. But as her necklines plunged, her acting range narrowed commensurately: doing double takes on Ghost Whisperer at “ghosts” in pancake makeup might pay the bills, but it also quickly turns laughable. And while Hewitt is clearly trying to create her own opportunities (she served as a producer for Ghost Whisperer and directed three episodes), her choices seem too prescribed. In The Client List movie, she gamely drew on her experience as a Texas beauty who uses her body to survive. Yet there’s no pathos to the part, no consideration of a starlet’s anxieties of growing older and starting to feel gravity’s pull. Instead, we get soap suds: Hewitt’s mother of three signs up for a job as a masseuse, realizes it’s a front for prostitution, becomes the happiest hooker in town, and gets addicted to coke. (As with the film, Hewitt is an executive producer of the series, which was not available for viewing at press time.)
None of this would matter if Hewitt didn’t display flashes of considerable wit and talent, as she has on the sitcom Hot in Cleveland (see “Love Gives Hope”), or if the actress’s mien wasn’t so winning—she still seems capable of an enduring show business career. So how should Hewitt carry forth? I don’t think it’s sexist to suggest that she might occasionally try wearing a cardigan or a turtleneck—just ask Matthew McConaughey, who at 42 finally seems to have figured out, in movies like last year’s The Lincoln Lawyer, that at some point you have to stop taking off your shirt if you want people to take you seriously. And while there’s yet hope that the series version of The Client List might turn out to be a pleasant surprise, she needs to start looking for parts like the one Kate Winslet found in The Reader or Penélope Cruz found in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, parts that allow a beautiful, physically bountiful actress to assert her sexuality but not become defined by it.
No easy task, I know, but Jennifer Love Hewitt should take this much as comfort: we’ll be rooting for her all the way.
Love Gives Hope: We want to know what she’ll do this summer
The TV Land sitcom Hot in Cleveland is never going to be mistaken for a great comedy: with what sounds like a heavy laugh track, it follows three washed-up Hollywood beauties (Jane Leeves, Valerie Bertinelli, and Wendie Malick) who, after their flight to Paris is diverted to Cleveland, decide to move in with a wisecracking old lady (Betty White). But in two of the show’s strongest episodes, Hewitt—guest-starring as the vain celebrity daughter of Malick’s character—has breezed through the proceedings, cleverly poking fun at a generation of Kardashians and Hiltons, whose self-regard is matched only by their pushiness. Her most recent appearance, in January, was opposite pop singer Joe Jonas, who played her put-upon fiancé and with whom she generated a silly, sexy chemistry. Hewitt makes you wonder if an actress best known for melodrama and horror could develop into a seriously funny comedian.