Is there a veteran actress who does improvisation better than Catherine O’Hara? She’s been in the film game for more than 30 years, consistently causing us to gasp for breath due to her bouts of maniacal comedy and rapid timing. There’s never a false step in her wit – never a beat missed nor a word dropped. The roles below showcase O’Hara’s full range of comedic skills, from her more honed in performances in zany films, to her outrageous work in reserved films. I grew up admiring O’Hara’s charm, and I love the fact that it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Five Essential Roles
It’s always a joy to watch Delia Deetz appear in Beetlejuice and literally destroy the Leave it to Beaver sentimentality of the film’s first act. Delia arrives with her silly hair, ridiculous clothes, and New York attitude, ready to infest her new home with her macabre sensibilities. In these moments, the film belongs to Catherine O’Hara. Spraying rooms with bright purple paint, hosting dinner parties where disgusting food is served. But the moment Delia pauses at dinner, looks at her guests in shock, and randomly blurts out the first line of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O,” the film becomes something even greater. There is no earthly reason that any of Bettlejuice should work as well as it does, but with Delia Deetz leading the dance around the table, holy hell, does it ever.
Home Alone (1990)
I grew up knowing Catherine O’Hara as Kevin McCallister’s mom. Which is a very good thing. Because sure, even though Kate and her husband are two awfully neglectful parents, it remains so joyful to watch Kate do whatever she can to get back to her young son. Much of the devilish irony of Home Alone is that, even though Kate goes through hell to get back to Kevin before Christmas, while her husband simply waits for a direct flight, everyone gets back home at the same exact time. But what’s the fun in watching Catherine O’Hara simply sit and wait? She’s best when she’s scrambling, and Home Alone has her scrambling furiously.
Waiting for Guffman (1996)
As far as talent in Blaine, Missouri goes, Ron and Sheila Albertson are seasoned pros. Married travel agents by day, amateur theater performers by night, Ron and Sheila are well-to-do folk eager to take the lead roles in Corky St. Clair’s new stage production, Red, White, and Blaine. As is always the case in Christopher Guest’s exceptional mockumentaries, every single performer in Waiting for Guffman is superb. As Sheila, O’Hara gives the character an Americana naiveté that is priceless. In fact, one of my favorite moments from any Guest film is when we see Ron and Sheila in Los Angeles as extras in a film. Despite their obvious cluelessness, they’ve managed to keep the dream alive. More power to ‘em.
Best in Show (2000)
Best in Show is my favorite Christopher Guest film, and to hail it as such is to directly credit the performers involved. As a collective group, the Guest troupe of actors has simply never been better. Chief among the dynamic cast is Catherine O’Hara’s lovely, homemade, closet tramp incarnation of Cookie Fleck. The ongoing motif of Best in Show is the unannounced run-ins with Cookie’s many previous lovers. Wherever Cookie and her husband Gerry (Eugene Levy) go, they always manage to run into one of Cookie’s former flames. There are so many of them, that Cookie has a difficult time remembering who they all are. And frankly, this bit shouldn’t work. At least not as many times as Guest, O’Hara and Levy attempt it. But because of the talent involved, not only does the bit never get weak, it actually becomes funnier with each passing occurrence.
“You never forget the best,” Cookie says to one of her former bangs. Nope, you surely don’t.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2009)
Sure, there are bigger Catherine O’Hara roles that could occupy a place on this list, but I simply can’t turn my back on Bam Bam. As Marty Funkhouser’s mentally unstable sister, Bam Bam is one of the best, most hilarious guest appearances Curb Your Enthusiasm has ever had. After Larry offers Funkhouser the empty gesture of “If there’s anything I can do...” Funkhouser eagerly asks Larry to visit with Bam Bam. Larry takes his pal, Jeff, with him for the visit, and it isn’t long before Jeff is alone with Bam Bam in a room, as she instructs him to repeatedly “Fuck me, Fat Boy.”
Later, at an awkward dinner party to end all awkward dinner parties, Bam Bam excitedly reveals her and Jeff’s bam-bam of a secret, which sets the table into a frenzy. One of the best things about O’Hara’s work as Bam Bam is that it is virtually impossible to signify exactly what is wrong with her. Girl is all kinds of crazy, and O’Hara plays it up perfectly.
The Best of the Best
For Your Consideration (2006)
Marilyn Hack is a woman feverishly trying to escape her namesake. As a veteran actress struggling to find steady work, Marilyn is thrilled when she books the lead in a new film, Home for Purim. Directed by a bizarre moron, produced by an aimless nitwit, and cast with people who think they are wildly better performers than they really are, Home for Purim is destined to be a dud. But when unattributed buzz starts circling that Marilyn is a lock for an Oscar nomination, egos grow, ambitions rise, and Home for Purim becomes a legitimate thing.
While Christopher Guest is adamant about his films being played as an ensemble, it’s clear that O’Hara is the star of For Your Consideration. A wise choice, given that Marilyn Hack is one of her best, most hopelessly desperate characters. It’s so amusing to watch Marilyn’s pride steadily grow with the rising buzz. And once the film is wrapped and Marilyn is making her press rounds, we laugh at her freshly lifted face and enormously augmented breasts. But what makes For Your Consideration (and O’Hara’s work in it) so effective is realizing that there are many Marilyn Hacks of the world. It’s a lesson about how quickly Hollywood can turn on you – from destined Oscar nominee, to drunkenly enraged gossip TV spotlight. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
After Hours (1985)
Dick Tracy (1990)
Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
There Goes the Neighborhood (1992)
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
The Paper (1994)
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Wyatt Earp (1994)
A Simple Twist of Fate (1994)
Home Fries (1998)
The Life Before This (1999)
Orange County (2002)
A Mighty Wind (2003)
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
Six Feet Under (2003-2005)
Surviving Christmas (2004)
Away We Go (2009)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Temple Grandin (2010)