Friday, May 23, 2014

In Character: Catherine O’Hara

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.

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Five Essential Roles
Bettlejuice (1988)
Delia Deetz

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)
Kate McCallister

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)
Sheila Albertson

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)
Cookie Fleck

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)
Bam Bam 

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

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.

Other Notable Roles
In After Hours
SCTV (1976-1979)
After Hours (1985)
Heartburn (1986)
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)
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)
Frankenweenie (2012)
A.C.O.D. (2013)

36 comments:

  1. I love her in Beetlejuice!! One of the best parts is during the big dinner scene when she's attempting to explain why Lydia is talking about ghosts.
    "KIDS!!! You know I love em"!!!

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    1. Haha I love that scene so much. She's so damn perfect in that film.

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  2. Beetlejuice is my favorite performance of hers. The "Banana Boat" scene is one I never get tired of. It's the absolute pinnacle of hilarity and fright.

    I too, grew up with Home Alone as she was one of the reasons why the first 2 films were so good and I also love her in the Christopher Guest films.

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    1. I was so close to calling Beetlejuice her best. I love that film and her work in it so much. She's just always so good.

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  3. Cool choice. I might be a bit of an oddball, but my favorite performance of hers is in "Waiting for Guffman." As a whole, it's just a wonderful mockumentary that doesn't get near the credit it deserves.

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    1. Love that film. Considering Guest and Rob Reiner pretty much invented and popularized the mockumentary, I love going back to the source and watching Guffman. She and Willard made gold together there.

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  4. She will always be Kevin's mom. ALWAYS.

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  5. Catherine O'Hara is one of my favourite actresses of all time, and it's truly terrible that she's not as well known as she should be. She also is probably one of the only actresses who can play drunk to perfection. I especially love her in For Your Consideration, where she is simply faultless. The scene where she is being interviewed after the Oscar nominations come out is one of my favourites of the 2000s.

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    1. Yes! I love hearing that you're such a fan of her work. She really does deserve to be so much more popular. And I agree, the gal can play drunk to perfection. I love that scene in For Your Consideration as well. Hilarious.

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  6. I really need to see For Your Consideration. Sometime's it's hard for me to get past her as the mom from Home Alone, but when you lay out her filmography like this, I instantly remember she's good in other things. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! I promise, her work in FYC is something that will almost immediate erase Kate McCallister from your mind. At least for 90 minutes. She's great.

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  7. Now I want to re-watch Beetlejuice. It's been too long.

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  8. I couldn't agree more with Nikhat.

    I'm pretty sure it says 'Kevin's Mom' on her license.

    Great post!

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    1. Ha, thanks! And hey, if you're going to be defined by a role, best to be a great one like Kevin's mom.

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  9. Home Alone is still my favorite Christmas movie. I watch it every year. I love her in that movie. Especially her scenes with John Candy. I really want to watch For Your Consideration now. That sounded like a really fun movie.

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    1. I'm the same way with Home Alone - Christmas isn't the same without it. FYC is great, I highly recommend it!

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  10. Although I've seen some of her work, I will always remember her as Kevin's mom - her performance was partly a reason why the movies worked. I'm looking forward to checking her filmography, as Best in Show and For Your Consideration are on my watch list. Great post!

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    1. Thanks! Best in Show is genuinely one of the funniest movies I've ever seen. It's so damn priceless.

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  11. She's such a great actress! I love her in After Hours and Beetlejuice (I have yet to actually watch any of Guest's movies unfortunately - something that I must correct immediately!). Also that pic you have up for For Your Consideration is just creepy as all sin to me lol. I feel like that might be the first Guest film I should watch based off that though.

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    1. Guest's movies are so damn good. If I ranked his mockumentaries, I'd go Best in Show, For Your Consideration, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind. But they're ALL great. Hope you like them!

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  12. Well, in my heart, she will always be Kevin's mom, so I couldn't agree more with Nikhat. But I mean, wow, reading this post, I've come to realize I haven't seen much of her work besides the "Home Alone" movies and "Beetlejuice" (I know, it's a shame). "Best in show", "Curb your enthusiasm", "For your consideration", man, I haven't seen any of those films and many, many more she's been in. I'm looking foward to check them out, especially "For your consideration", everyone who saw it keeps on telling me she's amazing there. I also love her performance as "Weird girl" in "Frankenweenie".

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    1. Yeah man, if you like O'Hara, you will adore what she does in FYC. It really is her movie, and she crushes it. I liked her a lot in Frankenweenie as well.

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  13. Well, happy to say I saw the film and while not everything in it worked for me, I definitely loved her performance in it. I always thought she's great, but she rarely gets to play characters as meaty as Marilyn Hack. To me, both her role and her acting there were the highlights of the film. She certainly deserved an Oscar nomination for her one woman show. Thanks, man! I really enjoy watching O'Hara.

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    1. Awesome man, so pleased to hear that you watched the film. It isn't my favorite Guest film, but yeah, there's no denying the power of what O'Hara is doing here. Glad you enjoyed her in it!

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  14. Being a born Canuck and a dyed in the wool cynic, I was raised on a steadfast diet of SCTV. Catharine O'Hara was a household name and for good reason, she's a fine comedic actress. I love her in Best in Show, few make films like Christopher Guest, a crying shame. I remember her turn in After Hours, she's wonderful in that movie. What a strange film. It's like Scorsese does Lynch doing Kids in the Hall, so weird. Good choices, I need to watch For Your Consideration right now haha.

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    1. You know, I've never seen SCTV, but I've heard nothing but great things about her in it. After Hours... man, that is such a trippy mind fuck of a movie. Scorsese meets Lynch meets Kids in the Hall is a perfect way to describe it. Now I need to rewatch that!

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    2. Yeah SCTV is fine television, plenty of clips on YouTube, I highly recommend it. Eugene Levy, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, the list of reasons to watch SCTV goes on and on.

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    3. Just spent the last hour watching clips. High Q was hysterical. And of course, I adored Whispers of the Wolf. I'm a sucker for a good Bergman parody.

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  15. She's wonderful in the Christopher Guest films. She has a real talent for improvisation.

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  16. Ahhhhh gotta love her! Delia Deetz is by far my most favorite neurotic mother character of all time. She was absolutely brilliant :) Great post here...didn't realize she was in some of those other films!

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    1. Thanks! Delia is the best. That little laugh she has... priceless. I adore everything about Beetlejuice.

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  17. Love her collaborations with Christopher Guest. Man, I really need to get back to Curb Your Enthusiasm. I stopped in the fourth season and never finished it.

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    1. Curb hit a brief lag in season 6, but it's all still really great. Her episode is hilarious.

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