Joan Cusack: Friend to the Working Girl


“I was never the ‘babe,’  so I knew I’d never get those big roles. I’d always be the best friend or the quirky sidekick.” So said comedienne/actress Joan Cusack about a body of work that has garnered her many fans (including, in spite of the comment, her fair share of male admirers) and two Academy Award nominations, all for following in the Hollywood tradition of Joan Blondell, Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter, and others known for playing the heroine’s wisecracking gal pal.

The second of five acting siblings (Ann, Bill, Susie, and, of course, John Cusack), Joan was born in New York City in October, 1962. Her interest in performing may have come from her father, an ad man-turned-documentary filmmaker and actor. Joan’s first screen turn was in a little-seen 1980 coming-of-age tale, Cutting Loose,  and  later that year she played a put-upon high school outcast in My Bodyguard.

In 1983, Joan and younger brother John had small roles in the teen comedy Class, the first of  10 movies they would appear in together. Following minor roles in Sixteen Candles and Grandview, U.S.A.,  Cusack got a chance to show her comedic ability on TV as a regular on Saturday Night Live’s 1985-86 season, in a cast that also included Robert Downey, Jr.Anthony Michael Hall and Jon Lovitz. After playing  a harried newsroom worker in Broadcast News and a Mafia wife in Married to the Mob, Joan won her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination as the big-haired, gum-popping friend of career-minded secretary Melanie Griffith in Working Girl.

“Quirky” would certainly describe a lot of Cusack’s work in the 1990s: an eccentric nurse who has an affair with Jessica Lange’s teenage son in Men Don’t Leave; the murderous gold-digger after Christopher Lloyd in Addams Family Values;  the super-efficient secretary to brother John’s hit man in Grosse Pointe Blank; and the voice of rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl doll Jessie in Toy Story 2. 1997 saw Joan, playing In & Out’s left-at-the-altar fiancee of “wrongly” outed teacher Kevin Kline, garner her second Oscar nomination.

Cusack returned to TV in 2001 as the star of her own short-lived sitcom, What About Joan. More recently, she was seen as the principal of The School of Rock, was one of Jennifer Anniston’s Friends with Money, and played Isla Fisher’s mother in Confessions of a Shopaholic, as her well-received and idiosyncratic career path continues.