By Alan Hurst
One of the lightweight joys of movie going in the 1970’s through the 1990’s was the effervescent good time usually guaranteed by seeing Goldie Hawn on screen. She was pretty, she was funny, she had the dramatic chops when the opportunity allowed, and she was smart. Very smart. She could also sing and dance, but we didn’t get to see too much of that on screen, only occasionally on television (particularly in an Emmy nominated special with Liza Minnelli in 1980).
Hawn first clicked with audiences as part of the ensemble of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-73). She was a regular during the first few seasons of the ground-breaking series, which was a psychedelic and irreverent update of the traditional variety show format. Hawn created a variation of the stereotypical dumb blonde who flubbed lines, giggled her way through intros, performed in sketches and production numbers – she was the show’s first true break out star (Lily Tomlin emerged from Laugh-In as well, but that was a few years later).
Movie stardom came very quickly for Hawn. On a break from Laugh-In she nabbed a role opposite Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman in an adaption of the Broadway hit Cactus Flower in 1969. The film was a hit, Hawn got terrific reviews and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It also seemed to set the mould for Hawn’s film career – mostly comedies, some edgier than others, with Hawn spinning her mix of naivete and smarts with varying degrees of success
Goldie never got her Klute (1971), her Sophie’s Choice (1982) or her Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). For a brief time in the mid-1970’s we saw her stretch and challenge her talents with The Sugarland Express (1974) and Shampoo (1975). Then it was back to the entertaining and sometimes formulaic comedies that earned her box office credibility and a reputation as one of the screen’s great comic actresses, but she never got the same level of acclaim accorded her peers. I’m thinking specifically of Diane Keaton, Sally Field, Jessica Lange – all of them very capable in comedy, but also given the opportunity to excel in drama.
Still Goldie was able to parlay her special brand of golden stardust to create a string of expert film performances. I think these are her best:
1. The Sugarland Express (1974)
This was Steven Spielberg’s first feature film and one of Hawn’s smartest and bravest performances. She didn’t often get to work with a director of Spielberg’s calibre, but she certainly responded when she did. Goldie and William Atherton are Lou-Jean and Clovis Poplin, a couple of small-time crooks who have both done time and now the State has taken away their baby. They’re both determined (especially Lou-Jean) to do whatever it takes to get their son back. Lou-Jean gets her husband out of jail and they steal their son from a foster home and take a highway patrolman hostage. This sets off a massive dragnet as they’re pursed across Texas, and they become folk heroes in the process. Hawn plays Lou-Jean as someone who lives fiercely in the moment; she doesn’t see repercussions. She’s strong, not particularly bright, protective of her son – and a bit frightening. It’s a dream role for an actress and Hawn gets to do a bit of everything here – she’s sexy, funny, she flirts, she screams, she intimidates – all combining to make Lou-Jean a fascinating screen character. The performance should have seen Hawn among 1974’s list of Best Actress nominees.
2. The First Wives Club (1996)
Initially Hawn didn’t have any interest in the role of the vain movie star whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. Thankfully she was convinced to take the role and she walks away with the film, despite fine work from her skilled co-stars Diane Keaton and Bette Midler. The three of them play women of a certain age – former friends from college – whose husbands have left them. Drawn back together after the suicide of a mutual friend (who was also dumped by her husband for a younger woman), the trio plot revenge on their former spouses. All three actresses play to their strengths: Keaton is the dutiful, anxious housewife; Midler is the frumpy, boisterously comic one who doesn’t shy from confrontation; and Hawn is the slightly narcissistic movie star who drinks too much but is determined to stay employed and youthful via exercise and plastic surgery. Obviously a sensitive area for an actress who has just turned 50 (as Hawn did in 1995) but she makes the character believable, touching and supremely funny. When the character drinks, Hawn expertly plays the drunken scenes with just the right amount of mess and coherence – she’s a hoot. She gets most of the film’s best lines, and she volleys them with aplomb.
3. Private Benjamin (1980)
This is the film that helped move Hawn into the upper echelon of female stars. Thanks to the reviews and box-office returns for Private Benjamin (which Hawn produced) Hollywood had new-found respect for her talent and business acumen. The film follows Judy Benjamin (Hawn) from spoiled little Jewish princess whose husband dies during their wedding night “activities” to an independent, strong woman thanks to the U.S. Army. Depressed and confused after her husband’s death, she gets on a radio call-in show where a recruiter leads her to believe that she’ll find what she needs in the army – spa like surroundings and friendly people – which leads to a fish-out-of-water laugh riot once Judy gets to the army base and realizes she can’t leave. The film hits comic gold as the spoiled Judy hilariously adjusts to life in the army, slowly bonding with her fellow recruits, gaining her confidence, and going toe to toe with the disapproving Captain (Eileen Brennan). Hawn makes Judy’s journey both fresh and funny, even though we’ve seen it many times before with other actresses in other films. If the film falters towards the end, it doesn’t really mar Hawn’s performance or that giddy 90 minutes that came before. Hawn received her only Best Actress Oscar nomination to date for Private Benjamin.
4. The Banger Sisters (2002)
Hawn’s last major film before the unfortunate Snatched (2017) 15 years later sees her paired with Susan Sarandon as two former groupies reconnecting after a 30 plus year estrangement. Nicknamed “the Banger Sisters” for obvious reasons, Hawn’s Suzette wears her past as a badge of honour – still a peripheral part of the music scene in her late fifties and working as a bartender at a West Hollywood club. Hawn/Suzette is still ready for a party, but with a no bull approach to life and people that comes from years of hard living and experience. She still dazzles with her blonde hair, leather jacket and tight jeans, but there’s a lived-in look and sound to the character that Hawn plays beautifully. The script moves along amusingly if unsurprisingly and any depth it has is solely due to Hawn’s performance. Sarandon does well as the Banger Sister who went the traditional marriage/suburbia/family route but it’s Hawn who commands the screen – she’s someone you would want to have on your side and definitely leading the way for a night of partying.
5. Cactus Flower (1969)
Hawn’s first major film is a dated but still quite funny look at an unmarried dentist (Walter Matthau) who pretends to be married so he doesn’t have to fully commit to the young woman he’s having an affair with (Hawn). Ingrid Bergman plays Matthau’s assistant, a prim unmarried woman who gets roped into pretending to be Matthau’s wife for the purposes of the plot. She also happens to be in love with Matthau, while Hawn’s attentions are being drawn toward her more age appropriate and cuter neighbour. This was typical sixties sex comedy fare that played well on stage and even better on film, thanks to the very capable cast and writer I.A.L Diamond’s adaptation of Abe Burrow’s fast paced, witty play. Both Matthau and Bergman are very likable, and Bergman showed a strong flair for comedy that she didn’t get to use too often. But make no mistake – this is Hawn’s film and she’s adorable. Her guileless, almost artless approach to the character is very winning. At the beginning you’re not really sure she’s playing with a full deck, but her line delivery, her charmingly blunt insights and her compassion ultimately prove otherwise. It’s a very sly and funny performance and won Hawn that year’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
6. Overboard (1987)
This is probably the closest that Hawn ever came to the screwball classics of the 1930’s, proving she was indeed a worthy successor to Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert and Jean Harlow. Garry Marshall’s Overboard is fun, but don’t look too closely or you’ll see the contrivances and holes in the story. Hawn plays Joanna – a rich, entitled, spoiled heiress whose yacht is docked at a port in Oregon for repairs. She decides to redo her closets and hires a local carpenter (Kurt Russell), but of course his work doesn’t meet her approval and she ends up pushing him overboard. Later that night Joanna falls overboard herself when retrieving her wedding ring on deck. She’s picked up by a garbage scow but has amnesia and makes the news – where she’s seen by Russell who pretends she’s his wife Annie and turns her into a housekeeper and nanny for his kids as payback for his treatment on the boat. Of course love rears its head, and everyone eventually does the right thing. It’s definitely not sophisticated stuff, but the genial tone that Marshall creates is infectious and Hawn is delicious as both the snooty, rich Joanna and the perpetually confused and poor Annie. The film’s laugh out loud moments are entirely due to Hawn’s effervescent performance. Despite being such a crowd pleaser the film didn’t reach the box-office heights expected, but it’s one of those movies that thrived with the burgeoning home video market.
7. Shampoo (1975)
This is one of the best comedies of the seventies, thanks to Warren Beatty’s portrayal of a narcissist’s existential crisis; Hal Ashby’s relaxed yet incisive direction; and the layered, witty screenplay by Robert Towne in collaboration with Beatty. Shampoo caused a bit of a sensation when it was released, for its frank depiction of adulterous relationships and for a bold scene when a drunken Julie Christie gets under a table to perform a particularly private act on Warren Beatty at a party. Beatty plays George, a popular Beverly Hills hairdresser looking to expand his business, but who is also juggling affairs and liaisons with a plethora of women – Lee Grant, Carrie Fisher (her film debut), Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn. It all culminates the morning after the presidential election in 1968 with George/Beatty alone. Hawn plays Jill, George’s live-in girlfriend who naively believes that George is faithful, although suspicions are just below the surface. Hawn plays the chracter in a sweet, flower girl mode – she’s incredibly vulnerable, a little clingy and capable of profound anger and hurt which she demonstrates towards the end of the film. It’s a powerful moment for Hawn and a very well executed scene.
8. Swing Shift (1984)
The behind the scenes battles on Swing Shift made news back in the day. There were issues over the script and a tug-of-war between the lighter film that we got versus a darker and more somber look at the women who went back to work when their men went to battle during WWII. Hawn was the force behind this project and she wisely got Jonathan Demme to direct, leveraging his knack for exploring the everyday lives of regular people. There’s a nice leisurely tone and pace to the proceedings. What could easily have become a comedy with romance as its central focus instead becomes an exploration of female friendship and the women who worked the factories. Hawn plays Kay Walsh, a bit of a wallflower who lets her husband (Ed Harris) lead the way. But he goes off to war and, against his wishes, Kay goes to work in the local aircraft factory where she forms a bond with Hazel (Christine Lahti) who lives in the same apartment complex. She also meets Lucky (Kurt Russell), an inspector at the plant, and after a prolonged flirtation they begin an affair. Things get messy for both Kay and Hazel but there’s a nice wrap up to everything at the end of the film as the war ends and boyfriends and husbands return. The only bittersweet note is the fact that all the women get bounced from the jobs that gave them self worth and independence now that the guys are back. Hawn again gets to show the growth of a character, going from naivete to strength, able to stand up for herself and do battle when she has to. Lahti is sensational as Hazel and got the lion’s share of critical attention (including an Oscar nomination). She’s the wisecracking Eve Arden to Hawn’s Doris Day, but Hawn is ultimately the film’s stabilizing force, the lead player giving a nicely judged performance in a strong ensemble.
9. Death Becomes Her (1992)
This one didn’t fare well with critics and it wasn’t a huge box office hit, but it’s a beautifully designed, dark and campy look at aging and female rivalry that has developed a devoted LGBTQ following, forcing a bit of a re-evaluation. I’m glad that happened because I remember walking out of the theatre dazzled by the special effects, but more importantly I was giddy from laughing at the barbed, vicious interplay between Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep. Hawn plays Helen, a writer dating a plastic surgeon (Bruce Willis). They go to see Helen’s long-time friend Madeline, an actress who latest vehicle is a Broadway musical of Sweet Bird of Youth. Madeline sets her sights on Willis, and Helen is history. Helen is obsessed with revenge and Madeline is obsessed with staying young. The two plot points converge pretty quickly after Madeline drinks a miracle cure that is supposed to stop the aging process – but also turns her immortal. Someone once described this film as Night of the Living Dead if it was directed by George Cukor. Perfect. Willis is just along for the ride on this one – this is all about Hawn and Streep. Hawn’s obsessive focus on revenge drives the narrative as she works her way back into Streep’s world – showing up at her book signing, looking suspiciously fabulous and young compared to the middle-aged Madeline. Streep really showed her comedic skills here as the supremely vain actress, but Hawn matches her step by obsessive step.
10. Foul Play (1978)
This was a big hit in the summer of 1978 and represents a subtle shift for Hawn the actress in scaling back (but not eliminating) the dumb blonde aspect of her screen personae to create a believable and very funny character who finds herself caught up in a murder that leads to a plot to assassinate the Pope. This is a fun film with an intricate if not entirely believable plot that allows for Hawn to play both the damsel in distress and to drive the action. She’s more than up for the task. I think there was talk at the time about this being a vehicle for Barbra Streisand, but Hawn seems to be smarter casting. She has a lot of fun with the script and situation, and she proves herself to be an adept physical comedienne as well. She’s a nice match for Chevy Chase (he seems less annoying than usual) and her scenes with Dudley Moore (as a sex obsessed orchestra conductor) are sublime. Some of the jokes involving little people and Japanese tourists haven’t aged well, but the film is still fun. A bonus is the spectacular scenery in and around San Francisco captured by director Colin Higgins, particularly during the opening when Hawn is seen driving along the California coast with Barry Manilow’s “Ready to Take a Chance Again” on the soundtrack. Pure cheese, but so seventies and so perfect.
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.