As a fan of some 40 years’ standing, I was pleased as punch to learn of that 2020 Emmy going to Catherine O’Hara (b. 1954) for her work on Schitt’s Creek. O’Hara plays the broadest character on the show (broader even than Chris Elliott’s); that she was able to connect that character to moments of truth takes comic acting chops which few possess. It was well-earned.
Like most American actors of any sort, O’Hara gets few opportunities to demonstrate what she is actually capable of. Like her fellow SCTV alum, O’Hara has the tools to bring forth characters that will stay with you until you die. Lola Heatherton was her greatest original creation for that show, the female answer to Eugene Levy’s Bobby Bitman, Joe Flaherty’s Sammy Maudlin, John Candy’s Johnny LaRue and Willie B., Martin Short’s Jackie Rogers Jr, and (to a lesser extent) Rick Moranis’s Gerry Todd, Heatherton was an epic show biz phony, a sort of explosion of bad taste, insincerity, and creative laziness mixed with obnoxiously high energy. Her character name mixed those of Joey Heatherton and Lola Falana, but really was its own thing, a cocaine car wreck of cheerfulness in spandex, high heels, and a feather boa. Her manic catchphrase was “I wanna bear all your children!” O’Hara could sing, which added to her arsenal. Another major character was Dusty Towne, a potty-mouthed pistol who sang songs and told jokes old people would find naughty, in the tradition of Rusty Warren. As there were only two women on the show, and O’Hara was more conventionally beautiful than Andrea Martin, it was O’Hara who got to do most of the glamorous females, though truth be known, her face is just as animatedly hilarious as Martin’s. She is a SYMPHONIST of funny faces, with eyes that can light up like a lunatic’s, and two straight, unusual eyebrows that always reminded me of pinball flippers. The summit of that skill, combined with her attractiveness, was when she played Karen Black, wall-eye and all. She also excelled at space cadets, and she played Brooke Shields that way (in spite of the fact that the real life Shields was majoring in French literature at Princeton at the time, hardly a dim bulb, but you wouldn’t know it from her movies).
O’Hara went on to one of the most successful movie careers of the SCTV bunch, a standing improved even more by Moranis’s early retirement and Candy’s sad passing. That said, she did not have “starring” status; she was generally a supporting player or key member of ensembles. Her films included Scorsese’s After Hours (1985); Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Frankenweenie (2012); Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990); Alan Alda’s Betsy’s Wedding (1990); John Hughes’s Home Alone films (1990, 1992); Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994); Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994); Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006); and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009), among much else. She was also in Lemony Snickett: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), as well as the TV series version, which ran 2017-2018. Schitt’s Creek ran 2015-2020, and was accompanied by the media’s usual amnesiac bleatings about “Who knew?” Only goldfish didn’t know.
O’Hara’s other disarming quality is a highly rare, abject humility. Her honesty as a performer equates with an honesty as a person, and so when she is interviewed she comes across as genuinely surprised that anyone finds her talented or extraordinary, and she is constantly awed by her co-workers, to whom she feels less than a peer. As long as you are not crippled by this amount of modesty, it’s a very good quality to have, as it will keep spurring you to your best work. This is why Catherine O’Hara is one of the greats.
To learn more about variety arts, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.