By Leah Greenblatt
July 13, 2020 at 04:02 PM EDT

She was blonde and beautiful, so it’s not surprising that Hollywood slotted Kelly Preston into the kind of roles that it did; ones that rarely asked her to do much more than the presumption of blonde beauty requires.

But the Hawaiin-born actress, who died July 12 at age 57 after a two-year struggle with breast cancer, still managed to carve out a career whose best turns often slyly upended that idea, or leaned into it so well that she transcended it.

Credit: Everett Collection

She only appears in a handful of scenes in Cameron Crowe's now-iconic dramedy, but it's still a joy to watch Preston steal nearly every one of them. As the cutthroat fiancé of Tom Cruise’s titular sports agent (Diane Lane was reportedly also considered for the part), she fairly devours the camera, a lioness in a plaid schoolgirl kilt.

Did Jerry have her at hello? Hardly; her Avery is ruthlessly driven, brutally honest, and more than a little bit proud of not possessing the “sensitivity thing.” But the weather system that crosses her face when Jerry breaks off their engagement still offers a masterclass in wordless acting. And then… the (literal) punchline:

Citizen Ruth (1996)

That same year, Preston also appeared in the great, underrated Citizen Rutha stinging social satire that introduced moviegoers to Alexander Payne (who went on to make Election, Sideways, and The Descendants) in his directing debut, and to the pure pleasure of Laura Dern as a glue-huffing addict whose accidental pregnancy unwittingly puts her at the center of a raging national debate.

Preston joins a crack supporting cast — don't miss Burt Reynold's flawless turn as an oily Evangelist — as the lover of a Baby Savers activist (Swoosie Kurt) who is, in fact, a pro-choice lesbian planted to spy on the movement.

Its winking parody of '90s wokeness may inevitably seem a little dated now, but the actress's bobbed and bespectacled channeling of the painfully earnest Rachel, sipping her herbal tea and singing backyard odes to the moon goddess, is both goofy-sweet and charmingly in sync with those times:

Space Camp (1986)

Preston made one of her first major screen appearances in Space Camp, the now-classic '80s adventure tale, as Tish, an Ogilvy-permed camper whose blithe Valley Girl exterior hides a big fat brain — including the photographic memory that helps her bring their future-famous troop of kid cosmonauts (Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, and Joaquin Phoenix among them) safely back to Earth.

For Love of the Game (1998)

This Kevin Costner baseball vehicle (no, not that one) was widely considered a box office failure, but as the low-key love of Costner's aging MLB pitcher — is his long career over, or does he have one more unforgettable game in that arm? — she got to showcase an easy, unforced naturalism:

A View from the Top (2003)

Is A View from the Top a good movie? Not by air, land, or sea. But as the alpha-girl mentor to Gwyneth Paltrow's dim, ambitious stewardess, Preston is more than "Big hair, short skirts, and service with a smile"; she's oddly poignant in her few scenes, just a gal whose Toblerone dreams will never match her regional-airline reality.

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