Why 'One Fine Day' Was Mae Whitman’s Breakout Role, Even As A Kid

In 1996 I watched One Fine Day to see Catwoman herself, Michelle Pfeiffer, and ER’s George Clooney, complete with his Caesar cut, fall in love. But in 2016, the real reason I sit through this romantic comedy is to watch Mae Whitman. As Clooney’s 8-year-old daughter, Maggie Taylor, Whitman is the real breakout star of the film. She manages to show way more range than most adults, hitting the emotional highs and lows in ways that will surprise you. Re-watching One Fine Day on its 20th anniversary will remind you just how good of an actor Whitman has always been.

It’s not Whitman’s first movie — that honor goes to the Meg Ryan’s 1994 drama When A Man Loves A Woman. It wasn't even her first movie of 1996; she starred as the president's daughter in Independence Day, but this is the role that made her the go-to child actor of the ’90s. In One Fine Day Whitman showed what she could do, and it was a lot. Whitman was precocious, but not too much so. She was smart, but in a way that didn’t make you roll your eyes. To put it plainly, she wasn’t a child actor, but a child who could act. That may seem like a small difference, but it's what separates the Haley Joel Osments and Dakota Fannings of Hollywood from the other children. It's also what  makes Whitman so much to watch onscreen. So much so, that by the end of One Fine Day you wish you had seen more of her.

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Whitman is a supporting character, but she’s the star of any scene she shares with her onscreen dad. As New York Daily News reporter Jack Taylor, Clooney is not having such a fine day thanks to the fact that his ex-wife has just dropped off his young daughter unexpectedly. When he doesn’t get Maggie to her school field trip on time, he’s left trying to decide what to do with his daughter for the day and what to do with the mom of Maggie’s friend Sammy, Melanie Parker (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is having a hectic day of her own thanks to him. It doesn’t help that Jack’s on a deadline to crack a big corruption story about the mayor. Of course, all of this seems inconsequential once you see Clooney hanging out with Whitman.

The movie is billed as a Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant-style screwball comedy, but it actually plays better as a father-daughter story. Maggie may not see her dad often, but she loves him and you see that on Whitman’s face. These two are like peanut butter and jelly; just the perfect pair. Not just onscreen, but off too. Whitman told Access Hollywood in 1996 that they had a swear jar for every time Clooney said a bad word on set. (She ended up making $55.) Onscreen, this daddy daughter duo make s’mores using the fireplace in Jack’s apartment and hang like monkey’s on the scaffolding set up to fix a persistent leak. Clooney plays the “fun dad” and Whitman looks like she’s having a great time riding on his shoulders through New York, hanging out in his office and watching his one-man puppet show.

Whitman is no one-note actress, which is clear during her big crying scene. Maggie’s one weakness is cats — made clear by her very ’90s furry kitty cat backpack. Unfortunately Maggie's love for felines has her wanting to follow them wherever they go, which leads to her getting lost. Like, a lot. At one point she runs off while Melanie is watching her and ends up at a china shop with a basket of kittens. When a frantic Jack finally finds her, she’s worried she’s going to have to leave the cats behind. 

Like any little kid, Maggie begins to cry, but being that it’s Whitman this is not just some childish pout. No, this scene is a master class worthy of Stella Adler that hints at the expert crier Whitman would become. She chokes back her tears as she delivers an adorable monologue about Bob, the cat that looks like a bobcat, wiping her tears with the back of her hand like a real pro. This could have been a throwaway scene, one to make Clooney look like a better dad, but instead this moment belongs to Whitman, showing the connection she shares with her father.

If you thought shedding a few tears was all Whitman could do in this movie, well, think again. While Sammy (Alex D. Linz) is busy shoving everything in his sight up his nose, Maggie’s throwing off one-liners like a comedy boss. In a scene where her dad talks to her about not growing up and wrecking men’s lives, she just gives a perfect “OK, daddy.” When Jack takes her to his office where all the women are fawning all over him, Whitman perfectly delivers the line, “A lot of girls are talking to you like that.” So young, but already so smart to the ways of romance. 

It’s why Whitman’s Maggie makes for a good wing(wo)man for both her dad and Melanie. When Melanie is convinced that Jack has a thing for his co-worker Celia (a very aroused Amanda Peet), it’s Maggie who is there to set things straight. “She’d like to be but she isn’t,” she tells Melanie defiantly before explaining Celia’s just not his type. Maggie is wise beyond her years, but it’s Whitman’s intelligence as an actor that makes her young character’s insight so believable. There’s no doubt that she’d be able see what the adults just can’t; she’s the only one in this movie who is truly paying attention. 

While Clooney and Pfeiffer are busy fighting and flirting, Whitman is stealing the show by helping these two get closer to romance. Maggie not only lets Melanie know she has a chance , she gives her dad the skinny on how Sammy's mom feels too right before being tucked into bed. “It’s so obvious daddy,” she tells her dad of Melanie's affection for him. When he keeps badgering her for more information, she tells him, with a hint of exasperation, “I don’t know daddy, I’m tired, I’m going to go to sleep now.” 

But, she doesn’t get to sleep, instead she gets dragged out of bed by her dad to go out and buy Melanie a new fish to replace the one that Jack’s office cat, Lois Lane ate earlier in the movie. Maggie is his partner in crime, helping him find the responsibility and conviction he's been searching for the whole movie. When Jack almost blows his sweet gesture by dropping the fish off without going inside, Maggie even nudges him with a cool, "Come on daddy" that helps bring the two adults together. Without her, this movie doesn't get its happy ending. With this movie though, Whitman got a chance to show the world how charming she is by taking a small role and making it a standout one. 

Whitman's not stealing scenes by being cute, she's stealing them by delivering a performance filled with depth. From Hope Floats to Parenthood, it's something she's been doing for the last 20 years. Whitman's characters are always complex no matter how much screen time they have. Whitman is never just "the kid" or "the teen" in a movie, she's always something more. It's what you see in each and every one of her performances, even one of her first like One Fine Day. Whitman brings an emotional depth to this movie — again, did you see her cry? — that doesn't come from just reading lines on a page, it has to be felt. What makes Whitman stand out is that the audience can feel that passion, too. Almost to the point, where you forget, Whitman's just a kid — that's how good she is.

Image: Fox Film (2); Emily Orley/BuzzFeed

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