By Alan Hurst
Flipping channels a few nights ago we caught a few minutes of What’s Up Doc? (1972), probably my favourite comedy of the seventies. It was at the point in the film where Madeline Kahn – upset, wig askew – was loudly expressing her frustration with being treated so badly by her fiancé at a formal dinner earlier in the evening. Kahn is wonderfully funny and inventive as the put-upon Eunice, easily holding her own with co-stars Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in her film debut. It got me to thinking – was there a funnier performance by an actress in the seventies?
So, after a bit of research and some binge watching, here are my thoughts on some great comic performances from a decade more known for ground-breaking drama. The list below simply reflects a group of actresses who just made me laugh out loud – more than once and after multiple viewings.
10. DYAN CANNON IN HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978)
Dyan Cannon was a name in the seventies, but her career never really took off in the way people thought it would after her break-out success in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). That performance got her an Oscar nomination for her very funny portrayal of an uptight wife. Her career got a second wind when Warren Beatty cast her in Heaven Can Wait as a wife plotting with her lover to kill her husband. Cannon plays a character so tightly wound and so nervous that you realize that any type of murderous plot is bound to go sideways. They ultimately do drug and drown the rich husband, but Warren Beatty very quickly shows up to take over his body (Beatty’s character having also been killed, but taken too early and now getting a second chance). The comical chaos that ensues when they realize the husband isn’t dead and suddenly starts acting very different (being that he’s now a different person on the inside) is hysterical, primarily due to Cannon and her infectious paranoia, dithering, and screaming. It’s a very funny performance and she provides the the film with with a nice bit of greed to balance all the optimism. Cannon was again nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, but lost to Maggie Smith in California Suite (1978).
9. GLENDA JACKSON IN A TOUCH OF CLASS (1973)
Glenda Jackson’s acerbic but winning performance in A Touch of Class came as something of a surprise. It followed some very intense and significant success in drama – both historical and modern day – where she quickly earned a reputation as one of the best actresses of the decade. She had won an Academy Award for Women in Love (1970) and played Elizabeth R in both a TV series and on film – and now here she was in a throwback to the romantic comedies of the fifties and sixties. Jackson plays a British divorcee who begins an affair with a married American (George Segal). They travel to Spain to begin their liaison but it doesn’t go well – these two fight more than make love, but eventually the relationship grows. What I like about Jackson’s work here is how smart she makes the character. Along the way, she’s making some stupid decisions, but her self awareness and logic shine through. And Jackson is also very funny in the verbal interplay with Segal. She has a way with a line that is both witty and lacerating. Despite the theme of adultery, the film does have a very old-fashioned tone, only enlivened by Jackson and, to a certain extent, Segal. This performance won Jackson her second Academy Award for Best Actress – probably as much of a surprise to her as it was the audience.
8. ANGELA LANSBURY IN DEATH ON THE NILE (1978)
Angela Lansbury could do it all – and by 1978 she had demonstrated as much. She had achieved success in film in all genres – comedy, drama, suspense, musicals – gaining three Oscar nominations along the way. She shifted her attention to the theatre in the early sixties and, after a hit with A Taste of Honey and a flop with Anyone Can Whistle, she was the toast of Broadway with the musical version of Mame, winning the first of five Tony Awards. When it came time to cast the film version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Lansbury’s name on the credits really carried some weight. She’s one of the many suspects involved in the initial murder and she is definitely the most colorful. She plays Salome Otterbourne, the writer of soft core romances and, in Lansbury’s capable hands, she’s an extravagant and very funny caricature of a writer of some self-importance, and that self-importance is supported by any kind of alcohol that’s nearby. Lansbury is wildly over-the-top, all fluttery hands, scarves and turbans, but she also fits right in with the other suspects – among them Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Mia Farrow, and David Niven. It’s a treat to watch her having such a good time.
7. GOLDIE HAWN IN FOUL PLAY (1978)
Goldie Hawn was the seventies version of the stereotypical dumb blonde, at least on the screen. In real life, Hawn wasn’t dumb. She was a savvy and smart actress who parlayed her initial TV and screen success into one of the biggest careers of the seventies through to the nineties. Foul Play represents Hawn the actress scaling back (but not eliminating) that dumb aspect of her screen personae to create a believable and very funny character who finds herself caught up in a murder that leads to plot to assassinate the Pope. This is a very fun film with a somewhat intricate plot that allows for Hawn to play both the damsel distress and also to drive the action. She’s more than up for the task. Hawn’s Gloria is one of the actresses better performances – she has a lot of fun with the script and situation, and she proves herself to be an adept physical comedienne as well. In addition, her scenes with Dudley Moore are sublime.
6. RUTH GORDON IN HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)
Even as terrifying as she was in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Ruth Gordon made me laugh. A wonderful actress and writer, she had a very different approach to dialogue that was at once very stylized but also very matter of fact. This may be one of the reasons she was able to play eccentrics so well, and never was she more eccentric than as Maude in the cult classic Harold and Maude. Although a flop with audiences and critics when it was first released, it started getting a cult following in the late seventies. It’s now recognized as one of the best dark comedies of all time and Gordon is a major reason why. Her friendship and romantic relationship with the suicidal 20-year old Harold defies reality, but in Gordon’s hands she makes the ever optimistic Maude both deeply appealing and and a little nutty. Gordon has a wonderful, warm, funny, and off-kilter way with the character that helps ground the film.
5. MAGGIE SMITH IN CALIFORNIA SUITE (1978)
Watching Maggie Smith spar with co-star Michael Caine was one of the movie going treats of 1978. Neil Simon’s California Suite told four separate stories involving travelers checking into the Beverly Hills Hotel. Two of the segments (one with Jane Fonda and Alan Alda, the other with Maggie Smith and Michael Caine) hit comic gold. The other two (one featuring Elaine May and Walter Matthau, the other Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor) probably played better in the original stage production – on film they are both silly, superficial exercises in farce and slapstick. There is some meat to the other segments that helps with the comedy and gives the performers something to play with. Neil Simon was a very successful playwright, known for his endless stream of one-liners. With Smith and Caine, he found the perfect actors to not only deliver the one-liners and make them funny, he found actors who actually elevated his dialogue. Smith plays Diana, an actress who has traveled to Los Angeles because she’s been nominated for an Oscar. Caine is her antique dealer husband who is known to have liaisons with young men. Diana is a typical actress – vain, insecure, needs to be the centre of attention. Smith plays all of that, as well as an incredible vulnerability for the husband she still loves. Watching and listening to Smith toss off the Neil Simon dialogue in ways that others would never think to is comedy heaven. She has always had a superb comic sense, but this role set her free. She got to be pretty, charming, rude, and drunk – all in one verbal comic hurricane. She deservedly won that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (and Caine should have been in the running as well that year).
4. RITA MORENO IN THE RITZ (1976)
The Ritz – directed by Richard Lester – is a mess of a movie, but it’s also very funny. Based on a play by Terrance McNally and set in a gay bathhouse, the plot centres around a business man (Jack Weston) who has decided to hide out in the bathhouse to get away from his mobster brother-in-law, who’s out to kill him. Inside the bathhouse are an array of characters who add to the nuttiness of the of the plot – a detective, half naked patrons, musicians, performers and, of course, his wife shows up near the end with all kinds of suspicions. But the real star here is Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez, a supremely untalented entertainer at the bathhouse who thinks Weston is a producer and can help her get to Broadway. Moreno won a Tony for her performance on Broadway the year before, and she shines just as brightly in the film. She gives Googie a very thick Puerto Rican accent, she sings slightly off-key, she can’t dance, her wig falls off during a performance, and every line reading tells you this character’s blind ambition is determined not to let any self awareness sink in. It’s a riotous performance – and one of the few good chances that Moreno got on film outside of West Side Story (1961).
3. DIANE KEATON IN ANNIE HALL (1977)
One of the most acclaimed performances of the decade, it’s also one of the top comedic achievements by an actress. By this point Keaton was known as one of the best comediennes around with her work in Play It Again Sam (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975). She had a quirky, but laser comic sense. She was also a very good actress and that all came together with the dream role of Annie in Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall. This really is Keaton’s film and she makes Annie charming, frustrating, sexy – essentially someone you just know is worth the effort if you’re starting to fall for her. Keaton delivers some laugh-out-loud knockouts as she’s trying to cook lobsters, in cartoon form as the wicked Queen from Snow White, in scenes with her therapist, and in her early dating scenes with Woody Allen’s Alvy. She probably had more funnier moments in Sleeper, but this is the more sustained performance, netting her that year’s Best Actress Oscar over some pretty stiff competition.
2. BARBRA STREISAND IN THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (1970)
Streisand was at her most relaxed in the early to mid-seventies and was one of the era’s best comic actresses. I’m picking The Owl and the Pussycat as her funniest work of the decade simply because she is very funny in it (so is co-star George Segal) but it’s also her most unexpected performance. She has wonderful comic moments in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), Up the Sandbox (1972), What’s Up Doc? (1972), and For Pete’s Sake (1974) but for me The Owl and the Pussycat is among her best film work. She plays Doris, a sometime adult film actress / prostitute / model who gets kicked out of her apartment – where she entertains by the hour – because of complaints by a particular neighour (Segal). She bursts into his apartment, they fight but there are also sparks and the rest of the film shows the growing attraction between the shy, reserved Felix and the loud, brash Doris. Streisand has a field day here. She gets to play a character who isn’t educated, but she’s bright and she’s not willing to take crap from anyone. Her line delivery is almost machine gun-like in it’s speed and she creates a very real, very confident and sexy comic fireball – probably the first character of this kind since they heyday of Mae West, who was also equally confident in her style and delivery. I have problems with the film near the end when the writers debase the character of Doris, but throughout Streisand delivers a gem of a performance.
1. MADELINE KAHN IN WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972)
Kahn had a great film run in the seventies and eighties. But for me her peak came with her first film, What’s Up Doc?, directed by Peter Bogdanovich. She garnered more attention and two Oscar nominations for her follow-up films (Paper Moon in 1973 and Blazing Saddles in 1974) and there are people who can site every line of dialogue from her hysterically funny work in Young Frankenstein (1974). But for me Kahn’s Eunice Burns in What’s Up Doc? remains the single funniest film performance of the decade. From her appearances early in the film – feet slightly splayed for support, conservative business suit, heavily sprayed wig – she’s the epitome of organization and efficiency for her fiancé Ryan O’Neal, and heaven forbid things awry. Well, Barbra Streisand shows up and they do. The film is a story of mistaken identity over four plaid overnight bags which leads to all sorts of chaos. As things get increasingly crazy, Kahn’s Eunice gets increasingly hysterical. It really is a great performance – and one that should have been recognized by the Oscars that year.
Some honourable mentions for me would include: Ann-Margret as the seductive Lady Booby in Joseph Andrews (1977), Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed waitress Flo in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Candice Bergen as the woefully untalented singer/songwriter in Starting Over (1979), Barbara Harris as the ditsy psychic in Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein (1974), and Carol Burnett as the love-starved mother of the bride in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). And, of course, Madeline Kahn could have easily made this list a few more times with Paper Moon (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), and Young Frankenstein (1974).
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.