Arts·Governor General's Awards

The 10 best performances from Catherine O'Hara, Canada's true national treasure

From Home Alone to Home Fries, SCTV to Six Feet Under, these roles prove her reign as Catherine the greatest.

From Home Alone to Home Fries, SCTV to Six Feet Under, these roles prove her reign as Catherine the greatest

Catherine O'Hara in (left to right) Home Alone, Schitt's Creek and Beetlejuice. (20th Century Fox/CBC/Warner Bros.)

Catherine O'Hara will receive the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. Watch the televised special celebrating the laureates on CBC Television and CBC Gem on November 26 at 7pm ET.

Very few people qualify as a Canadian national treasure quite as iconically as Catherine O'Hara. The Toronto-born actress, comedian and writer has been giving us endless reasons to be proud across a career that spans nearly 50 years. And this week, she'll be honoured for that work with a Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards (adding to a heavy mantle that already includes Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG Awards and Canadian Screen Awards). It could not be more deserved.

We figured this would be a welcome opportunity to take a trip back through the decades of O'Hara, highlighting her 10 best performances across film and television. The list is chronological (ranking her best work seemed way too daunting) and is obviously subjective to this writer's tastes, but hopefully it provides a small testament to why Catherine is truly the greatest.

SCTV (1976-1984)

Just 20 years old at the time, O'Hara got her first big break in 1974 when she was hired as an understudy for Gilda Radner at Toronto's sketch comedy theatre troupe The Second City. Two years later, she'd been promoted to regular performer when Second City Television (more commonly known as SCTV) debuted as the troupe's TV offshoot. Joining the likes of Eugene Levy, John Candy, Andrea Martin and Harold Ramis in the series' original cast, O'Hara stood out for her incredible celebrity impressions (including Katherine Hepburn, Brooke Shields, Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor — many of which you can find online). The show would run for 135 episodes over 6 seasons, launching O'Hara's career... and leading to a new chapter on a bigger screen.

After Hours (1985)

Just after SCTV ended, O'Hara got her cinematic feet wet with an impressive one-two punch, landing roles in films by inarguably legendary directors Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols. The latter (1986's Heartburn) offers some very fun scenes where O'Hara plays a gossip columnist opposite Meryl Streep, but it's the former (1985's After Hours) where she really steals the show. As an unhinged ice cream truck driver who gets entangled in the lead character's very bad night, O'Hara lights up the screen with her chaotic energy. The film (probably the weirdest of Scorsese's career) also interestingly foreshadows two of the roles she'd soon be so beloved for: it was originally supposed to be directed by Tim Burton, and it co-stars her Home Alone husband John Heard (O'Hara and Heard share a moment of screentime, at which point you can't help but think how in just a few years time, they'd play the most famous fictional parents in the world).

Beetlejuice (1988)

My own introduction to O'Hara (and absolutely the performance of hers I've rewatched the most times) comes with a significant personal anecdote, if I may: I spent most of the fall of 1988 in the hospital with a bad bout of meningitis, which led me to completely lose hearing in my right ear. I got out of the hospital in early November, and on the first night I was home, my mother rented a VHS copy of Beetlejuice to help make up for my missing Halloween. I've watched it basically every Halloween ever since, introducing it to whoever I watch it with as "the first movie I ever heard with just one ear." It's also the first time I ever fell in love with O'Hara's work, who took the opportunity director Tim Burton gave her as narcissistic artist Delia Deetz and crushed every moment of it. (If this list were ranked, O'Hara's Delia would definitely be top 3).

Home Alone (1990)

Like millions of children around the world, I stood in line outside a movie theatre on November 16, 1990 waiting to get a ticket to the opening night of Home Alone. But unlike what I assume is the vast majority of those millions of children, the primary draw for me was not Macaulay Culkin — it was his on-screen mother. I'd become mildly obsessed with O'Hara since seeing Beetlejuice, particularly after I found out she was Canadian and had grown up mere hours from my hometown. And while I was disappointed the movie wasn't more about her, I'll attest to this day that the warmth of her performance as Kate McAllister is the best thing about it and its 1992 sequel. Home Alone also made more money than basically all of O'Hara's other movies combined ($476 million, at the time making it one of the highest grossing films ever made), so while I remain of the unpopular opinion that it's overrated, I'm glad its existence made a whole new generation aware of its greatest asset.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

A somewhat unheralded aspect of O'Hara's storied career has been her extensive voice work, which she started in television cartoons in the 1970s and continues as recently as this year's Netflix animated film Extinct (which I have not seen, but apparently has O'Hara voicing an extinct llama-like animal that is transported from 1835 to modern day Shanghai?). The standout from this work is perhaps her 1993 reunion with Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now considered a seasonal classic (of both Halloween and Christmas), it stars O'Hara as Sally, a Frankenstein-esque rag doll who, as a character, has become a goth icon. With Sally, O'Hara also got to show off her impressive singing voice, most notably through the character's anthem, "Sally's Song."

The Christopher Guest Mockumentary Quaternity (1996-2006)

To offer just one slot on this list to the holy quaternity that is O'Hara's four collaborations with director Christopher Guest — Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best In Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006) — is by no means suggestive that their quality amounts to just one slot. They are, in my opinion, the crown jewels of O'Hara's film career and, if separated, would all rank in her top 10 performances (probably even her top 6). Because whether it's Guffman's Sheila Albertson, Show's Cookie Fleck, Wind's Mickey Crabbe or Consideration's Marilyn Heck, the largely improvised mockumentary style of Guest's films are a perfect match for O'Hara's comedic talents — not to mention Eugene Levy's, Fred Willard's and Parker Posey's. (I basically just lopped them all together so I could technically include 13 performances on this list... which I realize is a bit of a cheat.)

Home Fries (1998)

Catherine O'Hara with Drew Barrymore in Home Fries. (Warner Bros.)

In between making the Christopher Guest movies, O'Hara was unfortunately handed the raw deal so many actresses in their 40s have experienced (particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s): she was repeatedly cast as "the mother." From 1996 to 2010, she played supporting roles as the mothers of Jared Leto, Colin Hanks, Christina Applegate, Christina Ricci, Katherine Heigl and, in the 1998 film Home Fries, both Luke Wilson and Jake Busey (take a look at photos of those men and wonder how that's supposed to check out). And while Home Fries is by no means a good film (it is, in fact, very bad!), it does offer something different than the others: it allowed O'Hara to play a deliciously villainous role, and she looks like she's having a whole lot of fun (and is a whole lot of fun to watch) plotting to kill a pregnant Drew Barrymore. 

Six Feet Under (2003-2005)

Catherine O'Hara in Six Feet Under. (HBO)

The HBO series Six Feet Under was part of the first wave of something that thankfully continues to this day: prestige television that writes incredible roles for women over 40. And O'Hara was among the many women whom the series was lucky enough to include among their examples (others being Kathy Bates, Patricia Clarkson and Francis Conroy), playing Carol Word, the self-involved, unstable boss of Lili Taylor's Lisa over several episodes. O'Hara made many memorable guest appearances on TV shows around this time (Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock), but Six Feet Under stands out in part because of how much O'Hara's embodiment of Carol feels like a blueprint for Moira Rose.

Temple Grandin (2010)

O'Hara would receive her first Emmy nomination for acting for a rare dramatic role in the 2010 HBO movie, Temple Grandin. Grandin follows the real-life titular character (Claire Danes), an acclaimed animal scientist and autism advocate who herself is on the autism spectrum disorder. Danes rightfully got the lion's share of acclaim in this carefully considered and refreshingly unsentimental biopic, but O'Hara — in perhaps her most low-key performance — is wonderful as Grandin's aunt, who introduces her to life on a farm and helps her develop her theories on how we can humanely handle livestock. 

Schitt's Creek (2015-2020)

What more can be said about O'Hara's endlessly mesmerizing work as Moira Rose on Schitt's Creek? Over six seasons, the series grew from a cult following to a genuine phenomenon, ending its run by sweeping basically all the award shows — including trophies for O'Hara at all 5 major American TV awards (the SAGs, the Emmys, the Critics Choice, the Golden Globes and the TCAs), not to mention a sixth Canadian Screen Award (she won for every single season). Few full-circle moments are quite so perfect: after decades of momentous work in America, O'Hara came back to Canada to make a series with her longtime co-star Eugene Levy... and it deservedly won the entire world over. Which in no way suggests O'Hara has anywhere near completed her circle — it's just great that with Schitt's, she truly got the recognition she's deserved all along.

Watch the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureate ceremony November 26 at 7pm ET on CBC Television and CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now