Goldie Hawn: 5 essential performances

Celebrating a handful of her most memorable roles, we raise a toast to one of Hollywood’s most underrated comic actors.

21 November 2015

By Alex Davidson

Private Benjamin (1980)

Goldie Hawn was one of Hollywood’s most successful actors from the 1970s to the early 1990s. She starred opposite some of the great comic actors of the era – Chevy Chase, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Peter Sellers – and played off each with great chemistry. Although typecast as ditzy heroines (particularly in the 1970s), she has a great range in both comedies and dramas, although she has rarely had the chance to appear in the latter.

She hasn’t acted in a film since The Banger Sisters (2002), another box office hit. It’s our loss, as few can rival her comic timing or her immediately likeable persona. The films below offer a taster of her best work, but only scrape the service – her Oscar-nominated turn in Private Benjamin (1980) narrowly missed the cut, as did Housesitter (1992), one of the funniest films of the 1990s.

Cactus Flower (1969)

Director: Gene Saks

Cactus Flower (1969)

Hawn won the best supporting actress Oscar for her first major film role as Toni, the free-spirited mistress of a ‘married’ dentist (Walter Matthau). Devastated when he splits up with her, she attempts suicide, but is rescued by her hunky neighbour, while her guilt-ridden lover vows to marry her after splitting up with his wife. Only thing is, he isn’t really married, and needs to ask his nurse colleague (Ingrid Bergman) to pretend to be his wife in front of Toni to give truth to his lie (this is movie logic, after all).

Cactus Flower is a very silly farce, and its Broadway origins show, but Hawn shines in the role, effortlessly stealing the film from Hollywood legends Matthau and Bergman. Her great comic timing lifts all her scenes, while her not-so-dumb kook schtick would be refined in many of her future comic roles.

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Director: Steven Spielberg

The Sugarland Express (1974)

Although there are many very funny moments, Hawn took on a much more serious role in The Sugarland Express, the second feature-length film from a promising director named Steven Spielberg. She plays Lou Jean, a young mother who breaks her lover (William Atherton) out of jail to help secure their child from foster care. Things start to go wrong almost immediately, the pair rashly decide take a police officer hostage, and they find themselves pursued in a slow-motion car chase as they drive across Texas to reunite with their child.

Hawn is deeply sympathetic as the desperate mother, who longs to have her son back but lacks the smarts to carry off the hare-brained plan. The scenes where she relishes the media attention and support of the public are both funny and poignant – this is a woman who hasn’t received much love in her life. You can’t help hoping the underdog fugitives will get their happy ending, even if common sense dictates that they are probably heading for disaster.

Overboard (1986)

Director: Garry Marshall

Overboard (1987)

By the 1980s, Hawn was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. In Overboard, her second major film with Kurt Russell (following 1984’s Swing Shift), she stars as a spoiled heiress who humiliates a handyman on her yacht (Russell). When she falls overboard and develops amnesia, he sees his chance for revenge, and convinces her that she is his husband, getting her to look after his kids.

It’s one of Hawn’s greatest performances, not least because she overcomes the misogyny of the plot – an update of The Taming of the Shrew – to create a hilarious comic monster. At the start she is a miserable snob who earns the viewer’s loathing, but by the end she is a hero you root for, as she starts to earn the children’s love, at the expense of the overly easygoing father. And, unsurprisingly, she has great comic chemistry with Russell, her real-life partner since 1983.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Although it received mixed reviews on its release, Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis’s black comedy about vain rivals in Los Angeles who are desperate to look as youthful as possible, whatever the cost, is now regarded as a classic, with drag queens in particular relishing the catty dialogue. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn make a fantastic pair of frenemies – at this stage in her career, Streep was not known for comic roles, but she ups the ante to match Hawn in the many showdowns. The violent scene where the ladies batter each other with shovels is camp heaven.

Streep gets the lion’s share of the best lines, but Hawn makes hers zingers count. Best of all is her calmly critical line after Streep has blasted her with a shotgun, leaving a massive hole in her stomach: “That was totally uncalled for.”

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

Director: Woody Allen

Everyone Says I Love You (1996)

In her last few films, Hawn moved from romcoms to ensemble pieces, ranging from the good (The First Wives Club), the bad (Town & Country) and, in one of Woody Allen’s last great comedies, the downright wonderful. In Everyone Says I Love You, she plays Steffi, the ex-wife of Joe (Allen). The pair are still very fond of each other – he still has romantic feelings for her, while she wants to find him another partner. This leads to one of the most shamelessly romantic moments in Allen’s filmography.

After reminiscing about their relationship on a trip to Paris, Steffi and Joe walk down to the Seine. After a gorgeous rendition of ‘I’m Thru with Love’ (Hawn’s singing talents have hardly been used in cinema), Hawn and Allen dance by the river and magic takes hold, with Steffi literally floating on air. It’s a sequence heady enough to make you want to make peace with your ex.