Trying to define film by the a decade it premiered is a fruitless endeavour. Time can give art context, but art doesn’t derive its value from time. However, some of the best-selling and best remembered comedies of the 1990s were Austin Powers and Dumb and Dumber, and this suggests that in mainstream comedy there was an affinity for broadness, silliness, and spoofs. In many ways Christopher Guest’s comedies, the first of which was released in 1996, lean into this desire – they are silly and broad, ridiculous and crass. But there is something which sets them apart from the slate of 90s comedies, which is the deliberate performances of the central cast. Particularly, the singular work of Catherine O’Hara.
Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006) were unique in how they were developed. Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy established detailed character outlines and assembled a cast of comedy actors who would improvise their lines. This is made obvious by the easy rhythm and organic pace of each scene. This naturalism perfectly lends itself to the recognisable worlds these films are set in; these are real people, burdened by the weight of hilariously small stakes.
In the Waiting for Guffman audition scene the audience is introduced to how all-encompassing this relatively meaningless town musical is for the characters involved. We see each person perform their chosen number, equal parts bombastic and nervous. Catherine O’Hara’s character, Sheila Albertson, sings ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ with her husband, complete with twirls and kicks. In the awkward preamble to their number the Albertson’s woodenly banter back and forth like they are in an uncomfortable coffee commercial. In the moments when she is not speaking, O’Hara mouths her husband’s lines back at him, and just like that we are reminded of how seriously her character takes this audition. With a brilliant minor choice, we are given insight into this couple earnestly preparing, rehearsing, and memorising. Which is both sweet and tragic considering how rigid the end result is.
The heart-breaking and hilarious rest side by side in each of Guest’s characters. His films are a heightened exploration of how bizarre and regrettable people are when they are trying to performatively rationalise their craziest decisions. O’Hara masters this precarious emotional balance. We see her character, Mickey, wrestle with the aftermath of her spontaneous decision in the conclusion of A Mighty Wind. She looks absently into the distance as she half-heartedly convinces herself that kissing her ex-husband onstage was the right decision. It is unexpectedly devastating. Her ability to lean into the moment, to sit in the sad, ridiculous reality of each of her characters is a masterclass in comedy and drama and a reminder that the two are inextricably tied together.
But Catherine O’Hara is also an expert of the farcical. Her characters are real people whose behaviour flirts with the limits of normality. The crucial moment of Best in Show is the eponymous final round of a national dog show. O’Hara’s character, Cookie, is preparing to walk out with her dog when her knees start wobbling uncontrollably. Her attempt to walk in a straight line is a haphazard stumbling while her knees violently jerk from side to side. The result is startling and wonderful. With this decision, she subtly twists the familiar comedy structure. The inevitable last-minute stumbling block that stands in her character’s way is her own ludicrous physical comedy.
In broad terms, comedy is about building and breaking tension. Audiences’ are familiar with the mockumentary’s insistence on dragging jokes out for an uncomfortably long stretch of time, effectively building tension that the audience is forced to interrupt with laughter. Catherine O’Hara cleverly lends her voice to the rising comic pressure. A great example of this is her remarkably accurate drunk acting in Waiting for Guffman. Her delivery actively contributes to the mounting chaos of the dinner scene between the Albertsons and the Pearls. Every word slurred and hand waved around erratically is embarrassingly lifelike, a step towards cringe-inducing disorder.
What makes Catherine O’Hara’s performances so wonderful is that no matter how preposterous the character is and regardless of how wacky her wig is, she treats the characters she inhabits with respect. At the end of each of Christopher Guest’s films I had stopped pitying these people, instead I was rooting for them. It is a subtle shift, but a meaningful one. And one that can be partly attributed to the smart and purposeful delivery of Catherine O’Hara.
by Anna McKibbin
Anna (she/ her) is a journalism student based in London. She is deeply invested in celebrity culture and is nostalgic for the era of movie stars and musical divas. She also has a soft spot for the movie musical (yes, even the bad ones!). Her favourite films include Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music and The Incredibles. Twitter: @annarosemary Letterboxd: @anna_rosemary
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