My favorite thing about this job is being able to give public thanks for actors or directors whose praises have never been sung loudly enough — and Pavarotti couldn't sing loud enough to do justice to Catherine O'Hara. Along with Carol Burnett, O'Hara is the gold standard for female clowns, and she almost didn't have a career in film that came close to unleashing her gifts.
Those gifts came to light in the '70s and early '80s in Canada's stupendous comedy series "SCTV" — for Second City Television — along with geniuses John Candy, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy. The series was the funniest hallucination of TV ever to appear on TV, and O'Hara gave it a shot of sexy dementia. Her impersonations of exhibitionists, some real, some imagined, were too lively and generous to be altogether cruel.
But what to do with her when "SCTV" expired? She had a bizarrely funny bit opposite Griffin Dunne in Martin Scorsese's nightmare comedy "After Hours." But it wasn't until Tim Burton's "Beetlejuice," in which she played the atrocious would-be sculptor and all-around drama queen Deliah Dietz that she had the old hard-charging screwiness.
Her best-known work was in bland parts, though, like the mother in "Home Alone." and what was she doing as the wife of an Earp brother in "Wyatt Earp?"
Now, I want to give thanks for Christopher Guest, who launched a series of semi-improvised ensemble comedies like nothing in the history of film with "Waiting for Guffman," the story of a very bad small-town musical revue by people with very big dreams. Guest once said, "Comedy is like music. You have to know the key and you have to find players with good chops." And Catherine O'Hara hit all the notes and then some.
She was a warm butterball of sex in the sublime "Best in Show," and she topped herself in "A Mighty Wind" as a traumatized ex-folk singer. The performance was right on the border between comedy and drama-comic in its intensity, a little too intense to be funny.
Guest's new "For Your Consideration" is a behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of a very bad, Deep South ethnic Jewish lesbian family drama called "Home for Purim." The joke (apart from Yiddishisms spoken in a drawl) is that a report posted on the Web sparks Oscar buzz, but a lot of the satire is oddly contemptuous.
But the movie must be seen for O'Hara. I can't show you the physical transformation that her character undergoes, but think of all the lovely actresses whose faces became Halloween masks ... and she did it without makeup. You'll laugh and cry as the talk of a nomination wakes her character up from a hoarse, withered stupor and turns her into something too foolishly hopeful to bear.
Should I mention the "O" word, or would that be like life stupidly imitating art?