Hollywood execs never quite figured out what to do with Kelly Preston, did they? The impossibly beautiful blonde was seldom served well by the films she was in. After a number of guest spots on television and a couple bit parts in the Charles Bronson film, 10 to Midnight, and John Carpenter’s Christine, Preston scored her first sizable role in the 1985 teen sex comedy, Mischief. As with many ’80s comedies in that genre, Mischief asked more of Preston’s body than her talent. Secret Admirer from that same year brought more of the same.
Preston did make a strong impression in a small part in the far too underseen 52 Pick-Up the next year as a terrified victim in John Frankenheimer’s ultra-scuzzy adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel of the same name. The scene where she begs for her life is truly excruciating.
Over the next ten years, Preston would typically end up in girlfriend roles in light comedies that you might have seen (Twins), and many that you didn’t (A Tiger’s Tale). On the otherwise forgettable comedy, The Experts, from 1987, Preston met John Travolta–whose career was at pre-Pulp Fiction low ebb. The two married four years later and became one of the most seemingly solid Hollywood couples of their day.
While Preston may have found her love match, scoring a role in a film that would ask her to be more than beautiful wouldn’t happen for several more years. Then came Alexander Payne’s terrific breakthrough film from 1996, Citizen Ruth. Payne’s abortion satire was fronted by a spectacular performance from Laura Dern, but as one half of a lesbian couple more interested in Ruth as a pro-choice prop than as a person, Preston got to show a devilish gift for biting comedy. One that would come to great use in later that year in Cameron Crowe’s masterful romantic comedy, Jerry Maguire.
As Avery Bishop, Jerry’s hell on high heels fiancee, Preston bites into the best role of her career, and man, are her incisors sharp. It’s not often you see peak-level superstar Tom Cruise getting completely (and hilariously) emasculated onscreen. It’s a brilliant turn by Preston, and a genius move by Crowe to upend Cruise’s “man of action” persona. The desperate, almost wilting, gaze of Cruise in Preston’s presence is really something to see. And it’s not just that she’s ferocious in the part, she’s funny as hell too. In the scene where Cruise breaks up with Preston, she tells him their relationship was based on “brutal truth.” Cruise responds, “you added the brutal.” It’s just deliciously barbed.
After her success in Jerry Maguire, Preston’s profile was raised significantly and larger parts in big movies came to her in quick succession. Addicted to Love, Holy Man, Jack Frost, For Love of the Game, View From the Top, The Cat in the Hat, and Sky High to name a few. Unfortunately, none of them gave Preston the type of showcase that Maguire did–even though many of these films offered her greater screentime. After the disappointing Kevin Spacey film about Jack Abramoff, Casino Jack in 2010, Preston’s output slowed greatly, ending with her last being seen on film in the ill-fated Gotti, starring Travolta in 2018.
One wonders what kind of career Preston might have had if her sharp comic instincts would have been taken better advantage of. Perhaps her beauty worked against her. Maybe there just aren’t that many parts of that quality out there at all. I do so wish she would have found more of them. Because as Jerry Maguire proved, when given the opportunity, Kelly Preston could deliver the goods…and then some.
Kelly Preston died yesterday of breast cancer. She was 57 years old.