Posted by lebeau
Once upon a time, she was Hollywood’s “It” Girl. All signs pointed to
Penelope Ann Miller being a household name. She was beautiful,
talented and sought-after by casting agents. She appeared opposite De
Niro, Pacino and Brando. And yet, somehow the A-list eluded her
grasp. What the hell happened?
Penelope Ann Miller started off as a stage actress. She got her big
break opposite Matthew Broderick in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues. Biloxi
is the middle chapter in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy”. The play was a big
hit. Three years later, Broderick and Miller would reprise their
roles for a film adaptation.
Miller made the leap to the big screen as Elisabeth Shue’s best friend
in Chris Columbus’ 1987 comedy, Adventures in Babysitting. As you can
see from the still above, it wasn’t exactly a glamorous role. Miller
was required to freak out in pretty much every scene. But she did it
In the mid-80′s it was practically a rite of passage for young
actresses to guest star on Miami Vice. In 1987, Miller appeared in an
episode entitled “Death and the Lady.” She appeared on several other
shows as well as she paid her dues.
In 1998, Miller had a couple of high-profile roles. She was reprised
her role Matthew Broderick’s fresh-faced love interest in Mike
Nichol’s adaptation of Biloxi Blues.
It was a prestigious project, but Miller’s role is pretty small.
Biloxi Blues is all about the soldiers. If you looks really closely,
you can see Miller’s face in Broderick’s dog tags on the poster.
The same year, Miller also appeared as Paul Reubens’ fiancée in the
follow-up to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Big Top Pee Wee.
Big Top Pee Wee was nicknamed, Big Flop Pee Wee when it was released.
It answered the question: What do you get when you make a Pee Wee
Herman movie without Tim Burton?
Later that year, Miller appeared in the drama, Miles from Home. Miles
was directed by Gary Sinese and co-starred Richard Gere and Helen
In 1989, she starred in Dead Bang with Miami Vice star, Don Johnson.
Dead Bang was a crime drama that tried unsuccessfully to transition
Johnson from TV to movies. That probably tells you all you need to
know about Dead Bang, but I’ll also mention that it was directed by
Frankenheimer was a successful director in the 60s with films like the
original Manchurian Candidate to his credit. But his career stalled
out in the 70s. He continued to try to jump start his career with
action films like Dead Bang.
Tragically, that lead him to direct The Island of Dr. Moreau…
Miller had a banner year in 1990. The year started off inauspiciously
with the buddy comedy Downtown which featured the classic comedy team
of Anthony Edwards and Forest Whitaker.
Today, the idea of Edwards and Whitaker starring in a buddy cop comedy
sounds crazy. But it made a certain amount of sense in 1990. Edwards
and Whitaker had both appeared in the comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont
High. Edwards had starred in the Revenge of the Nerds movies and The
Sure Thing. Whitaker had co-starred in Good Morning, Vietnam.
Okay, no, that was still a bad idea.
Later that year, Miller reunited with Matthew Broderick for Andrew
Bergman’s Godfather spoof, The Freshmen.
The comedy co-starred film legend (and future Dr. Moreau) Marlon
Brando in a send-up of his iconic Godfather role. Miller played his
daughter and Broderick played a young film student who gets drawn into
Brando actually called the film “lousy” when it finished shooting.
But it got great reviews and was a modest hit. Brando may be a
legendary actor, but he was a lousy film critic.
Later that year, she brought out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tender side
in Ivan Reitman’s Kindergarten Cop.
Miller played a kindergarten teacher who falls for Schwarzenegger’s
unusually large, Austrian under-cover cop. Only in the movies does a
former body builder with a thick Austrian accent manage to go under-
cover as a kindergarten teacher!
Schwarzenegger had worked with Reitman on the high concept comedy,
Twins which was surprisingly successful. Cop was an attempt to make
lightning strike twice and for the most part it worked.
Like Twins, Kindergarten Cop got mixed reviews, but cleaned up at the
The day after Kindergarten Cop opened, Awakenings opened in limited
release in order to be eligible for Oscar consideration. A couple of
weeks later, the Penny Marshall-directed drama opened in wide release.
Awakenings starred Robert DeNiro as a catatonic patient and Robin
Williams as his doctor. When DeNiro’s character is “awakened” he
begins a romantic relationship with another patient’s daughter played
by Penelope Ann Miller.
Awakenings received largely positive reviews, scored three Oscar
nominations and did respectable box office.
Despite appearing in four films in one year (three of which were
fairly high-profile), Miller was not yet a star. Unfortunately,
Miller was never in the spotlight of any of her movies. Audiences
went to The Freshman to see Brando and Broderick. They went to see
Kindergarten Cop to see Arnold with kids. Awakenings was all about
DeNiro and Williams.
Most people (myself excluded) didn’t take a whole lot of notice of Ms.
In 1991, Miller finally got a starring role opposite Danny DeVito and
Gregory Peck in Norman Jewison’s big screen adaptation of the stage
play Other People’s Money.
DeVito played a corporate raider attempting a hostile take-over of
Peck’s company. Miller played Peck’s daughter who spars with (and
amazingly enough flirts with) DeVito.
The movie got mostly negative reviews and was a flop at the box
office. I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but I remember liking it. Of
course, by this point I was partial to Miller. So, maybe that swayed
1992 was another big year for Miller. She appeared in 3 more films.
Unfortunately, none of them were very successful.
The first was Year of the Comet co-starring Tim Daly. I think I may
be the only person other than Tim Daly’s mom who went to see both Year
of the Comet and Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde in the theaters! I guess
that qualifies me as a Tim Daly fan even though I saw both movies
primarily because of his costars.
Year of the Comet is a lightweight romp about a quest to find the
world’s most expensive bottle of wine. But it had a screenplay by the
great William Goldman, the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
Kid and The Princess Bride. Year of the Comet didn’t quite live up to
his other works.
Miller followed up Year of the Comet with her first real starring
role. Unfortunately, it was in the screwball gangster comedy, The Gun
in Betty Lou’s Handbag.
I think I established my Penelope Ann Miller fan-cred when I mentioned
I paid money to see Year of the Comet in theaters. Well, even I
passed on The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag. Miller was 0 for 2 in 1992.
Miller capped off the year with a turn as one of Robert Downey Jr.’s
many love interests in Chaplin.
Sir Richard Attenborough’s biopic got mixed reviews although Downey
received universal praise for his performance. The movie tanked at
the box office. Even if it had succeeded, I don’t think it would have
helped Miller much. Downey was the star of the movie and Miller was
just one in a long list of co-stars.
In 1993, Miller bounced back with Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way.
Carlito’s Way is not a direct sequel to De Palma’s Scarface, but if
Pacino’s Tony Montana had lived through Scarface he could have turned
into a guy a lot like the one Pacino plays in Carlito’s Way.
Pacino played Carlito, a criminal released from prison after serving
only five years of a thirty year sentence. Sean Penn played his
scuzzy lawyer who gets him out of jail on a technicality. Miller
played Carlito’s surprisingly young girl friend.
Miller’s role is small by significant. She plays an aspiring ballet
dancer who pays the bills by stripping on the side. The movie
includes a striptease which required an actress who could also dance.
Carlito’s Way got mixed reviews and did respectable box office. But
it was a big film for Miller. She was nominated for a Golden Globe
for Best Supporting Actress. It seemed like Miller was on the brink
of breaking out.
Naturally Miller’s next step was to star in a big summer super hero
Unfortunately, in the 1990′s they only made super hero movies about
Batman and pulp characters no one under 70 cared about. So Miller was
stuck starring opposite Alec Baldwin in The Shadow.
The Shadow should have been the movie that cemented both Miller and
Baldwin as A-list stars. But The Shadow didn’t have a built-in
audience like Batman. And the movie wasn’t good enough on its own to
bring audiences in.
Critics blasted The Shadow, audiences stayed away in droves and the
planned sequels never materialized.
From 1994-1997, Miller was absent from TV and movies. She married
future Arrested Development star, Will Arnett in 1994 and they
divorced in 1995.
In 1997, Miller returned to the screen in Peter Hyams’ horror film,
The Relic actually got some pretty good reviews. But it came at a
time when audiences were sick of monster movies trying to cash in on
the Alien formula. The Mimic starring Mira Sorvino would suffer a
similar fate late that same year.
After The Relic, Miller’s career went into hibernation. She would pop
up here and there in things like 2001′s Along Came a Spider and 2007′s
The Messenger. But she was done as a leading lady in mainstream
Miller remarried in 2000 and has since had two children. “Honestly,
once I started having kids, I really felt like my priorities shifted
and I wanted to be a mom. And when you are pregnant, it is hard to
work. And I like my downtime,” she said. “I don’t want to work all of
She still acts regularly on the TV shows like Men of a Certain Age
where she played Ray Romano’s ex-wife.
In 2011, Miller popped up again in the Oscar-winning Best Picture, The
Artist. I have to admit, I still haven’t seen The Artist yet. I keep
forgetting about it. But now that I have been reminded that Miller is
in it, I am going to make a point of seeking it out.
So, what the hell happened?
Unfortunately, Miller tended to be overshadowed by her co-stars in
more prestigious pictures. And her attempts at breaking into
mainstream block busters just never clicked with audiences. As her
career cooled down, she made the decision to raise a family rather
than continuing to pursue A-list stardom.