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An audition tape was sent to the casting director for the 1997 film The Ice Storm, directed by Ang Lee, and Holmes made her big-screen debut in the role of Libbets Casey in the film, opposite Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver. The Hollywood Reporter claimed the story of Holmes's audition "has become the stuff of legend" and "no one even thought that it was weird that one of the female leads would audition via Federal Express." Creator and executive producer Kevin Williamson said Holmes has a "unique combination of talent, beauty and skill that makes Hollywood come calling. To meet her is to instantly fall under her spell." Holmes was soon on the covers of magazines such as Seventeen, TV Guide, and Rolling Stone.
In January 1997, Holmes went to Los Angeles for pilot season, when producers cast and shoot new programs in the hopes of securing a spot on a network schedule. I thought, 'There is no way I'm not playing Lola to go audition for some network. Jancee Dunn, an editor at Rolling Stone said she was chosen for the cover because "every time you mention Dawson's Creek you tend to get a lot of dolphin-like shrieks from teenage girls.
She appeared in the 1998 thriller Disturbing Behavior, other film roles include Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997), the comedy-drama Wonder Boys (2000), the thriller Abandon (2002), the dark comedy Pieces of April (2003), Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), in which she portrayed Rachel Dawes, the comedy satire Thank You for Smoking (2006), and the horror film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011).
She has also played on Broadway in a production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, and had numerous guest roles on television programs such as How I Met Your Mother.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote her character, Rachel, "dresses in black and likes to strike poses on the beds of pickup trucks and is a bad girl who is in great danger of becoming a very good one." Despite the fact that it received mixed reviews and was not a huge financial success, the actress won a MTV Movie Award for Best Breakthrough Performance for the role and also received a Saturn Award nomination for the part.
Holmes, though, said the film was "just horrible." The film received excellent reviews and made a profit, and Holmes herself was liked by critics. Tingle, which he wrote and directed, Holmes played a straight-A student whose vindictive teacher (Helen Mirren) threatens to keep her from a desperately needed scholarship.
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Many leading critics at the time took favorable notice to Holmes in the film.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said she was "just right as the beauty with kind of a crush on the old man." Her second feature film during 2000 was The Gift, a Southern Gothic story directed by Sam Raimi and starring Cate Blanchett, she played the antithesis of Joey Potter: a promiscuous rich girl having affairs with everyone from a sociopathic wife-beater (Keanu Reeves) to the district attorney (Gary Cole), and is murdered by her fiancé (Greg Kinnear).
The Toledo Blade reported she was offered the lead in Buffy the Vampire Slayer but she never turned it down. The fact that she is drop-dead gorgeous didn't hurt either." During her time as a series regular on Dawson's Creek, Holmes first leading role in a film came in 1998's Disturbing Behavior, a Scream-era Stepford Wives-goes-to-high school thriller, where she was a loner from the wrong side of the tracks.
Columbia Tri Star Television, producer of a new show named Dawson's Creek that was created by screenwriter Kevin Williamson, asked her to come to Los Angeles to audition, but there was a conflict with her schedule. The film was recut from what the director intended.