The once and future queen of comedy

Catherine O'Hara roars back to the top of the heap in "Best in Show."

Published September 28, 2000 7:46PM (EDT)

"Once the Comedy Queen of SCTV, Reclusive Catherine O'Hara Swears She Isn't Just Lying Down on the Job."

That was the headline of Franz Lidz's smart People profile from October 1986. O'Hara says the slant came from her agent or her manager. "'Picky and she won't go out for anything' -- that's a better story than, 'She Goes Out for Everything and Can't Get a Job,'" she giggles.

Right now, O'Hara feels creatively fulfilled. She is also happily married to production-design whiz Bo Welch (whom she met on "Beetlejuice," not long after that People piece) and the contented mother of a couple of sons, ages 6 and 3.

"I have a life," O'Hara declares with glee.

That's why O'Hara's able to go so deep under the shell of all the nuts she gets to play in films like "Waiting for Guffman" and "Home Fries." She knows how much she resembles the roles, and how emphatically she does not.

Recently I talked to O'Hara in San Francisco about her rib-and-groin-tickling turn in the brisk new dog-show comedy, "Best in Show." In this latest feat of virtuoso improvisation from actor-director Christopher Guest, O'Hara plays a former good-time gal named Cookie who is now devoted to her sweet shlub of a husband, Gerry (played by Eugene Levy), and to their Norwich terrier, Winky (played by Bryllo). O'Hara imbues her suburban bombshell with the whirling, unpredictable impact of a slapstick fragmentation bomb.

When Gerry freely admits that Cookie has had "dozens" of boyfriends, she corrects him: "hundreds." And when Cookie stumbles into one former bedmate after another, erotic nostalgia sets her (and us) all atingle. Yet she insists to Gerry that he is the future. What's nice is that she means it: Cookie is the kind of let-it-hang-out part that tests an actor's mettle, and O'Hara comes through like the comic champ she has always been, even when critics and audiences weren't looking.

Although she enjoyed her biggest box-office success in "Home Alone," she got her best reviews for "Last of the High Kings" (1995), which Miramax sent straight to video in 1998 under the generic title "Summer Fling." And if she was uproarious in Guest's previous film, "Waiting for Guffman" (released in 1997), she was uproarious and dazzling in the debut movie of "Galaxy Quest" director Dean Parisot, "Home Fries" (1998). Unfortunately, nobody saw "Home Fries" -- including, I presume, the Vanity Fair columnist who characterizes her other-than-Guest oeuvre as "mom parts in 'Beetlejuice' and 'Home Alone.'"

Comedy fans assume that graduates of the Second City troupe and its brilliant TV spinoff, "SCTV," are natural whizzes at improvisation. O'Hara says that's not true: "In sketch format, you know it will be over in a second. They put out the lights if you're dying and you move on to the next."

In "Guffman," she plays one of the amateur thespians in a small Missouri town who believe their community show can catapult them to Broadway. The role was O'Hara's introduction to extended improv. "I had no idea what it would be like going in," she says. "And there was no rehearsal. I showed up after they had already shot a week or two. They let me see some dailies that night, which was intimidating. I was scared anyway, and then I had to see people who were so interesting and funny and deeply into character. The only thing Chris said to me was, 'Don't be afraid to be silent. Real people have silences in conversation.' And now, of course, it must seem to you that I can't stop talking. Edit me! Edit me! That's what Chris Guest does: He cuts 60 hours to 90 minutes."

With Guest's support, she found herself both going out on limbs and crawling back. "On 'SCTV,'" O'Hara says, "I tended to play strong, domineering women" -- such as the voluptuous Vegas starlet Lola Heatherton, who dares tell Mother Teresa to stop doting on her charity cases. "Enough about them," O'Hara laughs, lapsing into Lola-speak; "What about me?" But in "Guffman," O'Hara had to play an obedient wife: the small-business and small-theater partner of a domineering travel agent, played by Fred Willard.

As Willard's spouse, O'Hara shuts up and simmers until a pivotal restaurant scene when she gets sloshed and spills the beans about her husband's penis reduction. "That scene wasn't in the script," confides O'Hara. "It wasn't even in the story outline. But Fred had the idea that we should go out on a double date. The night before, I decided it might be funny to be drunk. My character in that movie lived by whatever her husband dictated in the moment. I wanted to show her remorse for that, and the way to do it, I thought, would be drunk. I'm really grateful that Fred was so strong in his role and forced me into playing a much more submissive woman. But then I think, because of my old ways, I needed a moment where I could say, 'Let's get something out here.'"

In the end, O' Hara compared making "Waiting for Guffman" with "jumping off a cliff, but with the perfect equipment, and holding hands with a bunch of smart people. It makes you feel that you have so much to offer -- and if what you offer doesn't work, you know Chris will edit it out." At the same time, she likes the idea of finding a deft script and bringing some extra oomph to it. That was the case with "Home Fries," which boasted a screenplay by "X-Files" writer and producer Vince Gilligan. In this twisted family tale, she plays a mother who manipulates her grown sons (Jake Busey and Luke Wilson) into scaring their stepfather to death. But she never admits her complicity. Originally, says O'Hara, the mother veered into becoming "a Ma Barker type: You know, 'Come on, boys, let's get him.'" But O'Hara thought that the woman should be fundamentally oblivious to everything that matters -- including the growth of her boys into men who won't be at the core of her existence.

"I loved the idea of making her completely incapable of taking any guilt upon herself," says O'Hara. "It's way too much responsibility for her to accept. So her attitude becomes, 'I will say and do anything I want and they will never come back to me and say that anything about them is because of what I said and did.'"

O'Hara thinks that what makes denial click comically in "Home Fries" is that "it's very human: We all live in denial all the time -- we've got to be denying something. For example, we're all going to die. That's a big one."

O'Hara wanted to temper Ma Barker with Blanche Du Bois and make the mother frail and ravaged. She couldn't run with that idea, but she goes far enough into deadpan dementia to give the film delightful kinks. The movie alternates between Wilson's sweet romance with Drew Barrymore -- the pregnant lover of O'Hara's late husband -- and Wilson's tortured family life with O'Hara and Busey. O'Hara saw her part of the film as a nightmare view of parental power.

"Jake Busey's character was so sad -- so funny and horrific in his relationship with his controlling mother. Who knows," she blurts out, "I'll probably be the same way with my boys! But maybe I shouldn't say that; you have to be careful of your karma. The power of a parent -- what a frightening thing in the wrong hands."

She was never in danger of confusing off- and on-screen roles as the dog owner in "Best in Show." She loves man and woman's best friends. But she can't have one herself because her husband is allergic to "airborne saliva" -- a term designed to make an interviewer nervous until O'Hara says, reassuringly, "only from dogs and cats." Her "Best in Show" experience began over dinner one night with Guest. "Chris said he was going to do another improvised movie," O'Hara says, "and I'd been waiting to hear what the next one was going to be. And he said he was going to do dog shows. So I start talking about the little I know about them -- 'Well, I saw Martha Stewart and she had those dogs on' -- and inside I was thinking, 'Thank God.' I mean, if Chris had done another one and not made me part of it, I'd have been so unbelievably jealous."

On the set of "Best in Show," she knew her character would evolve and deepen depending on how Eugene Levy responded to her as his wife. As Gerry, Levy is such a nerd that he works farcically hard to walk a straight line. He dresses in premature Florida retirement clothes. (At one point the film spelled out that he sold apparel at a "Big and Tall" shop.) No wonder O'Hara says she looked at Levy in costume and mused, "'I'm married to him? That's great!' Because that says so many things about me that I haven't thought of. You see, I had that gift in the story line of having a sexual past with all these men, which is such a wonderful thing to have in a character. You ever watch someone in a film and wonder if they'd had sex? The answer with this woman is yes! Oh, yes!

"So when I saw Eugene as Gerry, it made me think that I'd been through all these awful relationships. I probably never thought they were awful at the time -- physically they were satisfying. I think I had some fun, I was a party girl. But I never realized I was with people who didn't care about me until I met Gerry. He was the first man who really loved me and I had the brains to know that if I lost him I'd be dead. I'm smart enough to be grateful for how kind and loving he is. And in my mind he's completely nonjudgmental, so I don't have to keep fighting my past, except when these guys show up. They remind me of the different kind of fun I had with them, and I get sucked into it for a second, before I realize Gerry's there and I say, 'Oh, Gerry, it's all talk.' And all that comes out of Eugene's choices!"

But how did Levy respond to her look? "He was like -- 'Whoah! How did I get you?' Which is a lovely thing to say, rather than, 'Where'd the hooker come from?' It was 'How did I luck out with this woman?' And I kept telling him how lovely he was, and how no one was ever nicer to me. We just kept feeding each other this kind of stuff."

Cookie and Gerry are the movie's underdogs. They're struggling and unsophisticated compared to the solipsistic Weimeraner couple (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock), the favored poodle team (Jennifer Coolidge and trainer Jane Lynch), and the theatrical Shih Tzu owners (Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins). And they're hardly as centered as Guest's own bloodhound-loving character, who carries the resemblance of canine and master to hangdog extremes. By contrast, Cookie and Gerry are a kitschy testament to human bonding.

"Originally," O'Hara says, "we were supposed to have a lot of dogs, as if we were breeding Norwich terriers at home. I resisted that immediately because it meant that I'd have to know a lot more about them than if I had only one dog. Then we started talking about what having one dog as opposed to many meant to us financially; so we became, even more so, the kind of people who put everything they have into their little show dog.

"You shoot these improvised interviews until you run out of film. Chris says, 'Action,' and you start talking -- usually at the same time. Then Chris will say, 'Start with that thing about the dancing.' If you go off somewhere else you think, Oh, I had a good joke with that dancing bit, I'll have to fit it back in. The important thing in improv is if someone says, 'We going to have lunch?' You don't just say, 'Yeah,' you say, 'Yeah, I think we should eat at the new Doughnut Library.' You always say, 'Yes, and,' or 'Yes, but.' If someone says, 'You're a doctor,' you don't say, 'No,' you say, 'No, but I'm married to a doctor so I know a lot about it.' You always give something back -- and hope it's better than these two examples."

Despite advance raves, O'Hara doubts that the cast of "Best in Show" will win big mainstream assignments. ("We're too specialized: the idiot savants of comedy," she quips.) All in all, that People article was prophetic. In it she said she planned to "fall in love, get married and have children" -- which she started to do a year later. The article also quoted "SCTV's" Dave Thomas as saying, "Catherine's dilemma is that she never packaged herself in a sleazy, commercial way. She won't play a librarian who turns into a nymphomaniac."

"I do have trouble doing jobs that I don't really believe in," says O'Hara. "After 'Home Alone,' another actor might have jumped on that and said, 'I am the reason this is such a big movie.' But I guess I've always been only half-ambitious -- kind of resentfully, after-the-fact ambitious. I'll see something and say, 'How did she get that? I could have done better.' Maybe it's an Irish thing," she says with a raucous laugh, "to hold back from putting yourself on the line and then say, 'That should have been me.'"

Besides, her life off-screen has tempered her view of entertainment. She enjoys "Saturday Night Live" and "MAD TV." But if, on "SCTV," she once made a specialty of impersonating hard-to-mimic celebrities like Meryl Streep and Brooke Shields, she now thinks "the stuff on TV parodies itself so much, I can't imagine parodying it. One of the great appeals of David Letterman is that he is still kind of on the edge. He has never quite conformed to TV, and that makes him interesting. You're never sure of what he's going to do. He might be mean to someone, or he might love somebody that you never thought he would love. Nearly everyone else is commenting on themselves already. It's as if they're afraid someone's going to parody them, so they beat them to it."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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