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Cristina Polop

100 great female comedy performances – part 2

Thora Birch, Tilda Swinton and Whoopi Goldberg feature in the second part of our tribute to funny film women.

Thora Birch in Ghost World (2001)

This is not only one of the great comedy performances, but one of the great performances of the 21st century. Terry Zwigoff’s sublime feature (based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel) concerns a young woman searching for individuality who ends up finding loneliness. Birch’s turn as crestfallen indie kid Enid offers classic-era comic timing with none of the try hard self-consciousness of a more conventional comedy performance. It’s all the more amusing and upsetting because it never once looks like Birch is trying to be funny. David Jenkins

Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo (2003)

Ellen DeGeneres’ unmistakable voice performance as Dory, an endearing blue tang fish who suffers from short-term memory loss, is so representative of the charismatic comedian herself that director Andrew Stanton actually created the character with her in mind. Dory’s comedic value is not only drawn from her amnesia, but also enabled by DeGeneres’ range, which sees her repeatedly singing “just keep swimming” in less-than-ideal circumstances and even communicating in whale. The sheer absurdity of Dory’s paradoxical nature is made not only credible but also remarkably amusing by DeGeneres’ ability to bring this animated character to life. Sophie Yapp

Lily Tomlin in Nine to Five (1980)

Lily Tomlin does woman-on-the-edge with verve and conviction in Colin Higgins’ battle of the sexes comedy, which was co-written with Patricia Resnick who went undercover as a secretary for research purposes. Tomlin’s turn as disgruntled office manager Violet Newstead, who is passed over for a promotion she fully deserves, is full of anger and frustration but she also clearly has a lot of fun displaying a manic glee while fantasising about taking revenge on her boss dressed up as a malevolent Snow White. Katherine McLaughlin

Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night (1934)

Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is often cited as being the film that gave birth to the conventional rom-com. You know the one: odd couple thrown together, bickering ensues, their animosity is put to the test and love eventually conquers all. In the male corner is a fast-talking Clark Gable, an undercover reporter searching for a scoop. In the female corner is Claudette Colbert’s credulous heiress, on the run from her braying family. Colbert snaps and sizzles as we watch her transform from lost fawn to praying mantis. Her sass levels rise off the chart, and she steals the show with a sequence which demonstrates once and for all the proper way to hitchhike (hint: don’t use your thumb). DJ

Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers (2005)

A frat pack farce about two dudes who infiltrate weddings to get trashed and screw girls. From that premise, Wedding Crashers doesn’t sound like it would leave much room for memorable female roles, but Isla Fisher is hysterical, terrifying and totally charming as “stage five clinger” Gloria, Vince Vaughn’s entitled and possibly unhinged love interest. Charlie Theobald

Jane Fonda in Cat Ballou (1965)

As far as western spoofs go, Cat Ballou doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the films that followed in its (wagon) tracks – for better and worse, it is unavoidably a product of its time. But it retains its sense of fun and sly wit, thanks largely to Jane Fonda’s crafty central performance as the eponymous “schoolmarm-turned-bad”. Not the definitive role of Fonda’s illustrious career, but easily one of the most all-round entertaining. Adam Woodward

Mae Whitman in The DUFF(2015)

Why can’t Mae Whitman just star in everything? After years of (great) supporting roles, The Duff marked Whitman’s long overdue transition to badass lead. Okay, so the premise is a little problematic, but how many female actors can you name who could take a screenplay as suss as this and turn it into something genuinely sweet and funny? With her flawless delivery and comic timing, Whitman is without a doubt one of the most talented young actors working today. Hollywood take note: Mae Whitman is a diamond. Beth Perkin

Elaine May in A New Leaf (1971)

Elaine May isn’t exactly the star of her directorial debut A New Leaf, yet each of her appearances are hilarious and essential to building the plot’s subdued complexity. Henry Graham (Walter Matthau), greedy but broke, plans to marry then murder a rich and lonely woman in order to maintain his wealthy bachelor status. Rich and naive, Henrietta Lowell (May) would be the perfect pray were she not so utterly clumsy, to the point of irritating even Henry. Yet despite his condescension, he cannot help being touched by her quiet nature, her passion for botany, and the confidence she finds by simply being next to him. Manuela Lazic

Priscilla Presley in The Naked Gun (1988)

Gross out comedies are generally populated by male actors with female characters relegated to the status of eye candy or straight foils. The Naked Gun is striking for featuring a female actor in a prominent role who participates in the comedy, rather than being its long suffering witness or victim. Priscilla Presley’s parody of the femme fatale elevates the satire, demonstrating an awareness of one-dimensional female characterisation in the film noirs and cop thrillers that the film spoofs. That aspect of both genres proves a goldmine for some of the film’s funniest, most elaborately ridiculous moments, carried with conviction by Presley’s wonderfully deadpan performance. Elena Lazic

Mira Barkhammar in We Are the Best! (2013)

Pint-size punks with no musical experience form a band in Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s adaptation of his wife Coco’s graphic novel. Mira Barkhammar is funny because she’s so serious. It’s joyful to watch children being totally grave when approaching tasks of less than world-changing consequence. Thirteen year old Bobo feels emotions at full capacity. She’s not particularly garrulous but her watchful little face says it all. Whether laying into her dad for playing an instrument on the toilet, tunelessly bashing a drum or dabbling in boys, she injects the film with an endearing intensity that sets the tone of a tribute to youthful energy. Sophie Monks Kaufman

Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act (1992)

To think, if Bette Midler hadn’t turned down this role, Whoopi Goldberg might never have played the part that was destined for her. She even asked for her character’s name to be changed to Deloris, simply because she’d always wanted to play someone with that name. It’s this attitude that makes Goldberg’s Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer placed under protective custody in a convent after witnessing a murder, so fitting and in turn, so funny. In becoming a nun, or a “penguin” as she puts it, Deloris loses the afro, the glittery clothes and the makeup, but her feisty femininity remains, which causes constant entertaining conflict between her and Maggie Smith’s Reverend Mother. SY

Catherine Deneuve in Le Sauvage (1975)

Most directors use Catherine Deneuve’s apparent lightness to emphasise tragic stories, fewer have ever encouraged her to unleash her capacity to make us laugh. Jean-Paul Rappeneau is one such director. He enhances every detail of her falsely naive character in Le Sauvage, a troublemaker on a desert island named Nelly, leaning on Deneuve’s most powerful weapons to get what she wants: speaking fast, being obstinate, bold, bitchy (and beautiful). Mathilde Dumazet

June Chadwick in This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Some music fans will always remember Yoko Ono as the hanger-on who ‘broke up The Beatles’. And they may never forgive Courtney Love for destabilising the delicate balance that existed between Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. But their true and tireless ire will always be reserved for Jeanine Pettibone: the woman who ‘turned off the Tap’. Dressed like a cruise-ship Stevie Nicks – or “an Australian’s nightmare” – June Chadwick invests Jeanine with the no-nonsense manner of a prison-island dinner lady and represents an insurmountable obstacle to both the lifelong bromance of Tap’s two lead guitarists and the future of the band. Last seen in the 1994 video-only comeback special The Return of Spinal Tap, bossing David St. Hubbins around their Laurel Canyon venture, Potato Republic – a store that specialises in “itchy Irish clothing.” Adam Lee Davies

Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck (2015)

The androgynous swan we know and worship is unrecognisable as Amy Schumer’s manicured, “tandoori tanned” editor from hell, Dianna, in Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck. Though it’s easy to mock her unabashed enthusiasm for articles on whether garlic makes semen taste better, these people exist and these magazines exist and we have all bought into their shallow, capitalist agendas. A flawless takedown of everything that is wrong with the contoured Instagram generation. Aimee-lee Abraham

Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

“Oh Walter, you’re wonderful in a loathsome sort of way,” quips Hildy Johnson after confidently striding across her ex-husband’s newspaper office, blithely commenting on her former employees before announcing she’s getting out of the journalism game. Rosalind Russell appears to be constantly in motion throughout Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy. Whether she’s negotiating deals at the speed of light or rugby tackling sources, her energy is mesmerising and magnificent to behold. KM

Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski (1998)

In the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowksi, Julianne Moore’s performance as Maude Lebowski adds a much-needed dose of deadpan wit. She’s excellent as a snooty feminist artist, whose exceedingly dry conduction of speech is hysterical in itself. In one scene she describes her art as being commended as “strongly vaginal,” further explaining how the word itself makes some men feel uncomfortable, before proceeding to say “vagina” in such a mordant manner that it’s impossible not to laugh. SY

Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Obviously Anne Hathaway’s funniest performance is her grizzly karaoke fishwife in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (ooh, sick burn!), but a close second is her astounding and committed take on a mentally unhinged daughter returning briefly to the family nest for a wedding. Director Jonathan Demme gently mocks the rites and rituals of suburban bourgeois conformity, but lends the material an edge of hair-trigger suspense by throwing the ultra volatile Kym into the mix. Along with endearing early turns in films such as The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, Rachel Getting Married cements the case that Hathaway would do best to channel her considerable energies into making movie lovers laugh. DJ

Qiu Yuen in Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

With her rainbow of hair rollers and satin nightgown, there’s nothing immediately threatening about Qiu Yuen’s cartoonish, chain-smoking Landlady. That is until she lets out her ear-splitting, glass-shattering Lion’s Roar. This harridan-like archetype is the comic driving force behind Stephen Chow’s dizzying martial arts spectacle, holding dominion over the lowly residents of Pig Sty Alley with an iron will and some killer kung fu moves. AW

Adrienne Shelly in Trust (1990)

Adrienne Shelly was on strong antibiotics while filming Hal Hartley’s comedy about sex, love and abortion and stated that she felt sick and weak during the shoot. She also claims that it helped her to connect with the crisis her pregnant teen protagonist Maria Coughlin was experiencing. Maria transforms from a disdainful bubble gum chewing teenager to a strong woman over the course of the film and Shelly exudes a trembling sadness. She’s all inquisitive glances and cheeky arrogance while popping out Hartley’s wry dialogue yet ably conveys a sense of confusion too. KM

Minnie Driver in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Some scenes are guaranteed to make you smile no matter how many times you see them. In George Armitage’s high school reunion/hitman-based comedy, that moment arrives when John Cusack’s freelance assassin drops in on his old sweetheart, played by Minnie Driver. It’s a brief meet-cute, but between Driver answering the door in a Specials-referencing Jamaican lilt to Cusack giving her an impromptu airplane ride, the pair’s easy, playful chemistry is utterly irresistible. Cusack may be coolness personified, but it’s Driver’s effortless charm and humour that seals the deal. AW

What are some of your favourite female comedy performances? Let us know @LWLies and check back tomorrow for part three.

Published 21 Jul 2016

Tags: Adrienne Shelley Anne Hathaway Catherine Deneuve Claudette Colbert Elaine May Ellen DeGeneres Isla Fisher Jane Fonda Julianne Moore June Chadwick Lily Tomlin Mae Whitman Minnie Driver Mira Barkhammar Priscilla Presley Qiu Yuen Rosalind Russell Thora Birch Tilda Swinton Whoopi Goldberg

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