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Cristina Polop

100 great female comedy performances – part 4

Big hitters, bridesmaids and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown make the cut in this penultimate segment.

Carmen Maura in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Just as Pepa and Ivan break up in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, star Carmen Maura and director Pedro Almodóvar stopped working together for 18 years after the film’s release in 1988, with their collaboration having seemingly reached its creative peak. By taking liberties in her acting and creating a multi-tasking strong woman on screen, Maura proved that directors would be nothing without a few women on the verge of nervous breakdown by their side. Mathilde Dumazet

Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears (1976)

“Jews, spics, niggers – and now a girl?!” Nothing about Michael Ritchie’s foul-mouthed pre-teen baseball gem would be allowed to exist today. From Walter Matthau’s sleazy, drunken trainer to Jackie Earle Haley’s hard-smoking, knee-high shortstop/loan shark, every member of the Bears is a bully, a racist or a sweary fuck-up. None of them, though, are as cynical and jaded as 12-year-old Amanda Whurlitzer (TatumO’Neal). Having already given up on the sport by the ripe age of nine, she is determined to put her tomboy days behind her and strike out as a model, but is ultimately tempted/bribed/blackmailed into joining the Bears. O’Neal is a magnetic presence throughout, playing Amanda as a cross between Katharine Hepburn and Peppermint Pattie. But with a harder edge. Adam Lee Davies

Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1936)

Preston Sturges was involved in sparkling comedies even when he wasn’t directing them. This one (which he wrote) is about a carefree, working class woman who is launched into infamy when she happens across a discarded sable coat. It stars the ever-delightful Jean Arthur, an actor who always manages to come across as the only sane person in the room, but never allows that to make her seem like the sense-seeing stick-in-the-mud. Though little known, this is one of the best screwball comedies ever made, and its success is largely down to Arthur’s arrow-sharp comic timing. David Jenkins

Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids (2011)

Melissa McCarthy’s performance as “batshit crazy” sister-of-the-groom, Megan, catapulted her from relative unknown to Hollywood’s certified Queen of Comedy. With an audition that director Paul Feig has described as “a religious moment,” McCarthy’s decision to play Megan as “guy-ish” was as unexpected as it was inspired. (Female fight club, anyone?) But it’s not until you compare Megan with McCarthy’s sunshiney Sookie on Gilmore Girls that you begin to fully appreciate the sheer breadth of her comedic range. Thankfully, Bridesmaids was just the first stop on the McCarthy world domination tour. The woman just oozes funny – it’s coming out of her like lava. Beth Perkin

Anne Ramsey in Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

After years in roles such as ‘Wife of Crazy Man’, ‘Spinster #2’, ‘Telephone Lady’ and ‘Massive Woman’, Anne Ramsey muscled her way into the big time as the evil Mama Fratelli in The Goonies. She will, however, also be remembered as Danny DeVito’s volcanically dyspeptic mother in this canny and sweetly lunatic update of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Like spending 90 minutes inside a threshing machine full of spittle and bile, Ramsey’s performance rips and shreds with such sustained and unrepentant fury that you can’t wait for DeVito to finally make good on the film’s title. ALD

Emma Stone in Easy A (2010)

Emma Stone is ace as Olive Penderghast, the sharp-witted, sassy and grounded teenager who is as mocking of herself as she is of her credulous peers. When rumours about her sex life spread like wildfire around college, she agrees to lie about sleeping with people in order to increase their social standing. Harlot, tramp, temptress, tart, floozy, trollop… Olive ticks every box. Stone plays a relatable protagonist who, unlike many coming-of-age films, does not conform to a specific stereotypic high school role. Instead, she finds a balance between confidence and self-deprecation, always unable to prevent herself from verbally declaring her after-thoughts. SY

Sandra Bernhard in The King of Comedy (1982)

Let’s get something straight. Masha is funny in the same way that Brexit is funny. Both are terrifying and best avoided at all costs. However, The King of Comedy sets a tone of grim hilarity into which Masha slots, like a wild queen. Martin Scorsese’s satire on fame-hungry stars Robert DeNiro as an aspiring talk show host who enlists an obsessive fan to help him kidnap Jerry Lewis. Sandra Benhard is magnificent and magnetic and totally beyond redemption in her madness. She disappears into the skin of a woman whose fixations and desires are singular, sincere and somewhat odd. Sophie Monks Kaufman

Jennifer Salt in Hi, Mom! (1970)

Talk about being thrown in at the deep end! Jennifer Salt’s first major role in a feature film involved her trying to awkwardly rebuff the sexual advances of an extremely randy Robert De Niro who wants nothing more than to capture their late night escapades on candid camera. Hi, Mom! stands at the pinnacle of Brian De Palma’s cycle of early funny ones, its bone dry take on leftist middle class mores landing punch after punch after punch. The film’s funniest sequence comes during a prolonged courting ritual where Salt – beyond perfect as inexperienced naif Judy – must be wined and dined over and over in order for De Niro’s charming predator to have his wicked way. DJ

Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

“You think you’re hot shit, but you’re just cold diarrhea”. If you’ve ever been called a dyke or a dog or made to feel inferior by a basic bitch who still haunts your Facebook feed with her Michael Kors watches, this is the film to watch while basking in your own triumphant weirdness. Heather Matarazzo is deadpan beyond her years and her costumes are everything. We’re talking neon green leggings with flamenco blouses. We’re talking loveheart earrings and scrunchies upon scrunchies. Glorious. Aimee-lee Abraham

Shelley Duvall in Popeye (1980)

When it comes to obvious casting decisions, few could argue with Robert Altman’s sage choice to have his long-time collaborator Shelley Duvall play lanky, rabbiting wife-to-be Olive Oyl in his charming, Disney-endorsed Popeye. Aside from getting the high-pitch, incessant dialogue delivery bang on (per the original cartoon incarnation), she manages to emulate Olive’s string-bean flexibility too. Her scenes with Robin Williams’ lovably demure Popeye make for a wonderful pairing, and the film hits its dewy-eyed apex during their duet of the now-classic love song, ‘He Needs Me’. DJ

Lena Dunham in Tiny Furniture (2010)

Aura is an entitled twentysomething New York brat fresh out of university and prone to tantrums when she doesn’t get her own way. Lena Dunham mopes about lying face down on the floor and delivers sharp commentary on the crisis of young adulthood in her first feature film. She is absolutely awful at times, but Dunham’s performance is by turns dry and deeply sincere. There’s a twinkle in her eye whenever she’s up to mischief with this role acting as a precursor to her turn as the similarly selfish Hannah Hovarth in her TV show Girls. Katherine McLaughlin

Diane Keaton in Manhattan (1979)

Manhattan’s Mary is the game face we all put on when the city feels like a big and lonely place to be. Beneath the blanket of bitter wit and pseudo-intellectualism, Diane Keaton oozes a quiet, bewitching warmth few can resist. Deviating from the la-di-dah goofiness of Annie Hall, the role showcased her comedic versatility and cast in her in a new light. She shines coldly but brightly; her unscripted chemistry with Allen more tangible and enviable than ever. ALA

Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth (1937)

Often considered the greatest screwball comedy ever made, Leo McCary’s The Awful Truth chronicles a drawn-out divorce between Cary Grant’s galavanting cad and Irene Dunne’s society dame – the twist being that the pair simply want to punish one another for dismissing the deep, soulful connection that they still, despite everything, are able to maintain. Dunne can rightly claim to being one of the all-time funny screen sirens – each syllable of the script is delivered like a poisoned dart. But, as an actress, Dunne was the whole bit: she later went on to deliver one of the great tragicomic performances in McCarey’s 1939 film, Love Affair, in which she captures with immaculate precision the giddy thrill of falling in love and the heartbreaking depression of thinking that love might slip away from you. DJ

Audrey Tautou in Amélie (2001)

Amélie Poulain’s internal reality is one we all secretly long to inhabit. Though sickly sweet and borderline psychotic in her positivity, it’s impossible not to fall a little bit in love with Tautou as she breathes life and whimsy into the meddlesome romantic from Montmartre. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear, wondering what might happen if you too had the bravery to look for the things no one else catches. ALA

Bette Midler in Outrageous Fortune (1987)

Hailed as the ‘first female buddy action comedy ever made’ at the time of release, Outrageous Fortune sees Bette Midler and Shelley Long play a pair of scorned women who strike up an unlikely friendship with predictably farcical consequences. It’s great too, if a little far-fetched. Well worth seeking out for the catfight-in-the-morgue scene alone in which Midler delivers the classic line: “Does the phrase ‘needle dick: the bug fucker’ mean anything to you?” For more mid-’80s Midler gold, see also: Ruthless People. Adam Woodward

Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953)

Calamity Jane is in control of her life and body, and Doris Day’s joyous performance deliberately avoids creating any sense of female mystique. Jane moves with a sense of purpose, taking decisive action without aiming to please any of the male characters. Rather than remaining on the margins, she gamely participates in male conversations, jokes and even bar room brawls. By adopting the traits of the hyper-masculine cowboys around her, Jane holds up a parodic, often startlingly funny mirror to male pride and demonstrativeness. It’s one of the most transgressive cross-dress performances from classical Hollywood. Elena Lazic

Salija Ibraimova in Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Have you ever seen a four-foot tall bride escape a gypsy wedding, leave her dress with a husband she didn’t choose, hide in a box to fall through a trapdoor and then roll in a barrel to get on a boat? If not, maybe Salija Ibraimova’s malicious glance will convince you to run and see this late ’90s masterpiece by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica. MD

Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married (1896)

Not a great female comedy performance but, technically speaking, two. A film that could so easily have been just another forgettable ’80s prom-com, Peggy Sue Got Married is elevated by a quite literally transformative Kathleen Turner, whose eponymous middle-aged protagonist wakes up in her own past after fainting at her 25-year high school reunion. In truth, not everything about this breezy time-jump fantasy has aged well, but Turner’s pitch-perfect lead turn certainly has. AW

Ellen Page in Juno (2007)

Honest to blog, Juno is one of the best characters ever written. In Diablo Cody’s dream of a screenplay, every line is designed to tickle your funny-bone. All Ellen Page really needed to do was show up to make it work. Lucky for us, she did way more than that. With Juno, the devil is in the delivery, and Page pitches it perfectly, her deadpan style tentatively giving way to glimpses of the vulnerable girl beneath the bravado. What makes her performance so memorable is its humanity: Juno is your friend. She’s someone you love. BP

Eszter Balint in Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

The most disconcerting appearances are often the ones you remember and Eva’s arrival in New York City is no exception. A suitcase, a paper bag, a Walkman playing ‘I Put a Spell on You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Eszter Balint’s shadow fading into the black-and-white sidewalk… It would be enough to simply describe her strangeness were it not for the fact that her nonchalant honesty makes her far more than your typical free-spirited Jim Jarmusch heroine. MD

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

Published 23 Jul 2016

Tags: Anne Ramsey Audrey Tautou Bette Midler Carmen Maura Diane Keaton Doris Day Ellen Page Emma Stone Eszter Balint Heather Matarazzo Irene Dunne Jean Arthur Jennifer Salt Kathleen Turner Lena Dunham Melissa McCarthy Salija Ibraimova Sandra Bernhard Shelley Duvall Tatum O’Neal

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