Cruel Intentions was re-released last month for its twentieth anniversary and for some, it might seem like an unlikely candidate for celebration. It’s a trashy teen adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that takes some more than questionable narrative liberties. But, it’s impossible to overstate how cool, sexy and important it was back in 1999, at least if you were from a certain generation.
One of the biggest parts of its appeal was Sarah Michelle Gellar, who, for most people was best known as Buffy. Younger audiences were probably not watching her daytime Emmy Award-winning performance as Kendall on the popular soap, All My Children, or else they’d be less surprised by Gellar’s ability to play a straight-up B. Gellar was at the top of the world and at least until the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s run in 2003, was an absolute icon. So why, nearly twenty years later, are we still not giving Sarah Michelle Gellar her due?
With all the talk of the groundbreaking television that Buffy the Vampire Slayer offered, it’s easy to forget the show likely would not have succeeded without the input and presence of Sarah Michelle Gellar. She was more than just the right physical type, a petite blonde who could convincingly play soft and tough - she was able to bring pop energy to one-liners and gentle naturalism to more serious moments. It was more than just that she “got” the vision of the show, she absolutely embodied it.
Over seven seasons, she was challenged under a variety of genres, conditions and out of this world circumstances. She played the undead, she’d have to step into other character’s shoes (such as "Who Are You?" in which she and Faith switch bodies) and even went full robot for a season six storyline. All the while, she is playing a character who grows older, wiser and reconciles with the disappointments and struggles of normal young adulthood while also staving off one apocalypse after another.
In the immediate aftermath of Buffy going off the air, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s biggest roles were in Scooby Doo and The Grudge series. While drastically different in tone, both franchises nonetheless fed off the persona she built on Buffy. While both films were successful at the box-office, both had middling critical responses and their respective success was not due to Gellar, as much as the franchise packaging. Was she falling into the trap of being typecast?
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been a cult hit, by the mid-2000s, it had not exactly become the cultural touchstone it is today. After being soft-cancelled by Fox, the show bounced around different networks and became increasingly difficult to watch on standard cable channels. It was seen as a show for teens, even though it had long overcome that. Sarah Michelle Gellar might have seemed like a huge star for people of a certain generation, but she was rarely afforded the chance to headline a feature film even if she was carrying the weight of a groundbreaking television show for seven seasons.
It wasn’t so much that Sarah Michelle Gellar missed getting interesting roles, they just failed to resonate with the public at large. Movies like Southland Tales, where she played a psychic ex-pornstar, were iconoclastic, bewildering and have since become cult hits. At the time of their release, they were not well appreciated. As Gellar’s film career dwindled, she returned to television, diversifying as a voice actor, a comic lead and even made a return as Kendall on All My Children.
Largely due to the popularity of Buffy, Sarah Michelle Gellar has endured as a fairly known public figure. She’s had a variety of other successes, but few have earned her acclaim for her diversity, skill and sensitivity as an actor capable of doing comedy and drama. Over the years, Sarah Michelle Gellar has similarly emphasized in interviews the importance of making time for her children as a priority. By any normal metric, her career has been a huge success and she, hopefully, has been able to find balance.
Growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sarah Michelle Gellar seemed destined to become a huge star. When that didn’t materialize, it felt disappointing. Those expectations might have been dashed by a variety of factors beyond Gellar’s control, but it’s also equally possible that this is exactly what she wanted. Those expectations, rather than be about the promise of her future success, might be shackles she never wanted to be strapped with in the first place.
One thing is for certain, it is never too late to appreciate Gellar as the great actress that she is. For many, she was a point of incredible inspiration over the course of her career. At this point, generations have grown up with her characters and performances, finding joy, comfort and catharsis in her roles. With her career far from over, it’ll be interesting to see where the next chapter takes her.