Catherine O’Hara: More Than Kevin’s Mom

Hara1Last week on this site an article examined the career of SCTV regular-turned-movie dad Eugene Levy, so now let’s turn to a look at his distaff counterpart, a gifted comic actress from the Great White North who’s also gone on to big-screen notoriety for a parental role, albeit one who was a little more forgetful than Levy’s American Pie pop. A passing mention of a woman suddenly sitting up in her airplane seat and yelling out “KEVIN!” should be enough for filmgoers to know that I’m talking about Home Alone mother Catherine O’Hara.

A native of Toronto, Ontario, O’Hara was born in March, 1954. Her career in comedy began at age 20 when she joined the company of Toronto’s Second City Theatre, whose roster in the early ’70s included the likes of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Gilda Radner. When Second City TV began in 1976, Catherine would be among the stage regulars making the jump to the small screen as a performer/writer. Along with cutting impersonations of  everyone from Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep to Tammy Faye Bakker and Brooke Shields, she also created such unforgettable characters as booze-loving singer/dancer Lola Heatherton (a send-up of Joey Heatherton), bawdy stand-up comedienne Dusty Towne (based on “party record” favorite Rusty Warren), and clueless quiz show loser Margaret Meehan, who had a knack for prematurely pushing the buzzer and giving host Alex Trebek (Levy) the wrong answers to his unasked questions (“Cheese omelets, Alex?” “The Dewey Decimal System?”).

After debuting on the big screen with small roles in a pair of 1980 features–the Anthony Perkins thriller Double Negative and a romantic comedy with Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers, Nothing Personal–O’Hara signed with SNL during its troubled 1981-82 incarnations, only to back out without ever appearing (She would get to host the show twice in 1991-92, though). She also said goodbye to SCTV as a regular in 1982 to continue her film career. Her first key role came in director Martin Scorsese’s 1985 dark comedy After Hours, in which she plays an ice cream truck driver who is among the parade of  troubled–all right, certifiable–women that Manhattan office worker Griffin Dunne encounters during one wild night in Soho. The following year she was seen as a Washington Beltway gossip maven opposite Streep and Jack Nicholson in Heartburn. 1988 would find O’Hara playing one of her most memorable “mom” roles as would-be sculptor Delia Deetz, whose proto-Goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) befriends the ghosts (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) haunting their new home, in Tim Burton’s supernatural romp Beetlejuice.

Supporting turns in such films as Betsy’s Wedding and Dick Tracy followed, as did a voice role on the animated series The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley, as the sexy neighbor of fellow SCTV alum Martin Short’s title character. 1990, however, was the year Catherine cemented herself in the pop culture consciousness when she was cast as Kate McCallister, the frazzled housewife who, in the midst of getting the family to the airport for a Paris Christmas vacation, inadvertently leaves eight-year-old son Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) home alone.

O’Hara had a rare lead role with Jeff Daniels in the 1992 indie comedy There Goes the Neighborhood, but made a much bigger impression on audiences as the voice of Sally, the patchwork girlfriend of Halloweentown hero and would-be Santa Jack Skellington, in Burton’s 1993 stop-motion Yuletide gem The Nightmare Before Christmas. Director/co-writer Christopher Guest would sign Catherine to play opposite Fred Willard as one-half of a husband/wife amateur thespian team in his 1996 film Waiting for Guffman. Along with Willard, SCTV colleague Eugene Levy, Michael McKean, Parker Posey and other actors, O’Hara would become part of Guest’s gifted repertoire company–improvising much of their on-screen dialogue based on outlines and background info supplied by the filmmaker and co-writer Levy–in the critically acclaimed “mockumentaries” Best in Show, A Mighty Wind (which, like Nightmare, gave her a chance to demonstrate her singing abilities) and For Your Consideration.

In between her “Guest shots,” Catherine’s also worked in more mainstream fare (Wyatt Earp, Orange County); supplied voices for animated films (Chicken Little, Monster House, and as one of the titular creatures in Where the Wild Things Are); and made some memorable appearances for HBO (Six Feet Under, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the movie Temple Grandin). And next month you’ll be able to see O’Hara on the big screen in the Katherine Heigl-Ashton Kutcher action/comedy Killers, in which she’ll play…of all things…Heigl’s mother. At least she won’t have to worry about leaving her child behind this time.