As an actress, Kelly Preston, who died Sunday at 57, was the soul of likability, and that’s no small thing. When she showed up in a movie, she lit it up; she also grounded it. (She had an earthly radiance.) Just think of the scene in “For Love of the Game” where she meets Kevin Costner’s aw-shucks baseball pitcher. Her rental car is stalled by the side of the road, and he stops to help her, all shaggy jockish gallantry. It’s a meet-cute moment, though the offhand way that Preston bristles at being rescued lends it a contemporary vivacity. Then, this being a traditional (and actually rather good) Hollywood movie, he melts her resistance. Just as she has already melted his. The audience melts too.
In “Twins” and “SpaceCamp” and “Mischief” and Alexander Payne’s first film, “Citizen Ruth,” and a great many others (even her middling ones, like “The Cat in the Hat”), Kelly Preston had scenes like that one, where her no-nonsense beam was a gift to the audience. But that’s why her showpiece fury in “Jerry Maguire” remains so singular, dramatic, and revealing. By the time she was cast as Tom Cruise’s fiancée in Cameron Crowe’s classic 1996 sports-agent drama, we felt, more or less, that we’d come to know Kelly Preston. So this was like seeing a born-again actress, with her softness ripped asunder.
She’s introduced in a comical sex scene, though the joke comes from something witty on Preston’s part: Even in the heat of passion, her character, Avery, is perhaps doing a bit of acting, hyping her pleasure to seal the deal of a relationship. Her major moment arrives a bit later, after Jerry has been fired for writing a midnight manifesto preaching that his agency should try to be a little less profit hungry. The world has been knocked out from under him, so what he wants from Avery, his supposed life partner, is sympathy, loyalty and understanding. What he gets instead is…rage.
In a scene that lasts a little under three minutes, she does more than rip Jerry a new one — she tears through a set of emotions as real as they are raw. Walking around a mostly empty gymnasium as she hands out folders before an NFL event, Avery looks Jerry in the eye and gives him a cold hard reality check. “You and I are sales people,” she says with defiance. “We sell.” In other words: Why would you pretend to be something you’re not? It’s a question the movie very much needs to ask, since Jerry, at this point, is still trying to have his cake and eat it, too. He wants to be the king of the sports agents…and a nice guy.
It’s at that moment Preston’s acting takes off into a zone of anger so simultaneously hypnotic, horrifying and humane that you can’t tear yourself away from it. The words pour out with operatic ferocity, as she recalls how she and Jerry always said they would tell each other the “brutal truth.” (In her case that means: “I don’t cry at movies. I don’t gush over babies…”) Her truth represents honesty without empathy. And that’s terrifying. But then Avery delivers the coup de grâce— that she really does love him. And as it hits her that she’s being dumped, we get a quick glimpse of that Kelly Preston open heart. For a moment, she’s wrecked. And then the savage is loose again. (The stage is now fully set for Renée Zellweger.)
We live in an age of free-fall capitalist ruthlessness, and “Jerry Maguire” was one of the first movies to capture it. It came out at a time when people were still congratulating themselves for having called the 1980s “the Greed Decade.” We were still waking up to the fact that our society, in the 10 years since the 1987 stock-market crash, had only gotten greedier. (The Internet, launched around the time that “Jerry Maguire” came out, would only make it more so.)
Preston, in “Jerry Maguire,” is the one who speaks that brutal truth by putting an honest face on it. And she enacts the entire mini-drama of Avery and Jerry’s relationship as if we were seeing the breakup equivalent of speed-dating: two people who maybe loved each other, who grounded their romance in salesmanship, who are honest except when they’re not, all driven by a woman who is sad in a way she’d scarcely admit and angry in a way that seemed bold at the time and that just seems forthright now. All of that is power-packed into Kelly Preston’s performance.
She never had another scene like it. Which may have resulted from choices she made, but also related to the absence of the more abundant opportunities she should have had. Yet she remained a presence to bask in. And in “Jerry Maguire,” she was on fire.