When her younger brother John was awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012, Joan Cusack was the one who presented it to him. Her speech started with a comedic bit about how she, having worked in film for over 30 years and being a two time Academy nominee was the “person who should really be receiving a star”. After a flourish and an audience laugh, Cusack settled into a demeanour of sensibility and all but gushed over her deserving brother. With her tall figure, flyaway limbs and distinctive voice, Cusack’s physicality is as much a character as any portrayed from a script. She cuts an odd figure in Hollywood. As something of an omnipresent best friend during the 1980s and 1990s, with a taste for what can only be described as unpredictable roles today, Joan Cusack’s filmography and versatility are somewhat more impressive than is often realised.
Cusack began working in the early 1980s as side characters in teen comedy films, the most notable of which being a small role in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. The following year she began a short tenure as a cast member on Saturday Night Live (SNL) alongside the likes of Sixteen Candles co-star Anthony Michael Hall and Robert Downey Jr. Two years after that she was nominated for her first oscar for a supporting role opposite Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988). Having appeared in 60 films, ten of which co-starred her brother, Cusack has a knack of slipping under the radar despite her consistent work and talent. As a litmus test, I asked some of my friends to tell me what they thought of when presented with the name Joan Cusack. The replies were remarkably as expected; some only recognised her name as something vaguely familiar, others thought only of her portrayal of headteacher Mrs Mullins in School of Rock (2003). A few were able to list some of her later roles, as the mother to Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) or the voice of Jessie in the Toy Story franchise. What remains is that despite her Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations, this Emmy-award winning actress is oddly unknown in a sphere which celebrates such success.
What is so interesting about Joan Cusack is her apparent contentment in playing supporting roles. Aside from her time as the antagonistic Debbie Jellinsky in Addams Family Values (1993), Cusack really does not take to the role of leading lady in its traditional sense. Perhaps a little ahead of her time, Cusack’s characters are defined by her odd humour and grounded kindness, traits outside what is looked for in the lead of most romantic comedy films. In Runaway Bride (1999), Cusack’s Peggy Fleming tells Julia Roberts’ Maggie Carpenter that, “weird and mysterious are two very different things, quirky and weird are two very different things,” casting herself as the weird that is happy to make room for Roberts’ charming.
As she has gotten older, this ‘weird’ has morphed into the new trait of ‘wordly’ allowing her to be repeatedly cast in roles as highly educated justice judges, doctors, scientists and, of course, mothers. From 2017-2019 Cusack played Justice Strauss in the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, reprising a role Catherine O’Hara had played in the 2004 film of the same name. Her already impressive height of 5’9 towering further in the courthouse setting, symbolically placing Cusack in the moral high ground as well as the literal higher ground. There is a kind of melancholy that lends itself to her good-humoured nature as she carries herself in such a way that is naturalistic, her distinguishing slow-paced sentences holding authority, making audiences lean in when she is speaking.
There is also ties into the issue of Hollywood being a young man’s sport. Cusack luckily avoided being typecast as a certain kind of supporting actor for the early years of her career, but in the last two decades, more often than not her small roles are those of mothers or older sensible sisters who are more cautious than fun with a lacklustre backstories and inner lives. In interviews she comes across as humble. When broadcaster Marty Bass listed her as one of his favourite people to chat to due to her “laid back” nature Cusack responded with a scoff, stating “it’s just dressing up”. It is perhaps this not sweating the small stuff that allows her to approach playing the more matronly characters laced with her own heartfelt, awkward humour. There is still separation of character here with her Ice Princess (2005) high achieving feminist academic Joan Carlyle, her stay-at-home suburban Jenny Portman in Raising Helen (2004) and her zany, thrifty Jane Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic all different in their approach to motherhood. Seeing potential beyond the stereotype allows Cusack to continue to do good work even in the more uninspiring of roles.
Despite her name often being a suffix alongside her brother’s, Cusack’s most famous roles are household names even if hers is not. She lends her voice to the spunky pixar cowgirl Jessie in the Toy Story franchise who has remained one of the most well-loved characters throughout the four films. A far cry from the Wild West is Cusack’s Rosalie Mullins in School of Rock. Uptight, legalistic and rather insecure, her portrayal of a principal who fails to realise Jack Black’s character is impersonating a substitute teacher is perhaps her most recognisable role for this generation. She manages to unlock an insecure humanness in a woman who is under constant scrutiny for her school’s high standards. This is exemplified in her candid lip syncing of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” that is at once a little embarrassing and unnerving in the way seeing a teacher outside of their known setting often is.
That is not to suggest that Cusack is the one trick pony who finds redemption arcs where there are none as she also plays the villain exceptionally well. In her stint as Debbie Jellinsky in Addams Family Values, Cusack is almost unrecognisable. With her sleek blonde bob, busty dresses and pristine make-up, she acts as a foil to Anjelica Huston’s iconic Morticia as a mariticidal egotist. To stand out as particularly immoral against such a famous morose family is no easy feat, but she is entirely brilliant and entirely unlikable as she attempts to kill Fester Addams for his money. Likewise in Its A Very Muppets Christmas Movie (2002), loosely based on It’s A Wonderful Life, Cusack plays a cold-blooded banker whose apparent goal in life is to close down the Muppet Theatre. In these roles, she lacks empathy with no glimpse of the mumsy awkwardness of Justice Strauss, the dutifulness of Mrs Mullins or the shyness of her own personality.
In recent years, Cusack has maintained a steady flow of work. From 2011-2015 she turned to television, playing the agoraphobic Sheila in the American sit-com Shameless. For this role she was nominated for 5 Primetime Emmys, winning the fifth one in 2015, the year she departed the show. It might also be surprising to learn she starred in Andy Sandberg’s cult film Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) or that in 2019 she voiced Tammy Krum in Netflix’s Klaus and played the tin foil woman in Let it Snow. Cusack considers it an honour to play the roles offered to her, happy to offer sturdy foundations to whichever film she participates in. She is focused on the smaller picture, often commenting “thank you for even caring what I think” when asked larger industry questions in interviews. On the side she owns a small Judy Maxwell gift shop in old town Chicago. Named in homage to Barbra Streisand in What’s Up Doc?, Cusack works there when she isn’t filming. There is a quaintness to Joan Cusack that perhaps is not praised in the way it should be, but she is happy with her lot in the movie industry and her place in the world, she is not the ‘best friend’ in her own story. She gets to be mother, auntie, sister, friend and daughter each in her own right and whilst there is no harm in recognising her where it is due, Joan Cusack can take or leave the fame.
by H. R. Gibs
H. R. Gibs, also known as Hannah Gibson (she/her), is a freelance journalist based in the Belfast music scene. Come September she moves to Dublin to tackle an MA course in journalism. She is deeply committed to the works of Carly Rae Jepsen and any movie makeover montage. Her favourite films include but are not limited to Billy Elliot, Marie Antoinette, God Help the Girl and As Good As It Gets. She can be found on twitter @hrgibs
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