Top Ten Performances in a Christopher Guest Film

Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey and Eugene Levy star in Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. Courtesy of Warner Home Video.

Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Christopher Guest, Parker Posey and Eugene Levy star in Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. Courtesy of Warner Home Video.

Watching Christopher Guest’s comic masterpiece “Best in Show” with my high school theatre troupe was an experience akin to a little league team watching their baseball heroes triumph in a championship game. I have never heard so much laughter in my life (before or since) and when I met Guest ensemble member Jane Lynch at last week’s Chicago Film Critic Association awards night, I couldn’t help reminiscing about it. The sheer genius of Guest’s ensemble is awe-inspiring, particularly to moviegoers who have ever acted–or attempted to act–themselves. Improvisation has played such a key role in modern independent cinema that it has often been taken for granted, yet Guest’s films remind us of what can be achieved when improv is raised to the level of an art form. Guest skewers his eccentric, misguided characters while still holding a great deal of affection for them. His satire can be uproariously merciless, but never does it become mean-spirited (Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “The Book of Mormon” also treads this line brilliantly).

Though Guest’s films are nothing if not a group effort, some characters end up taking on a life of their own. Here’s my list of the top ten performances in a Christopher Guest film, complete with side-splitting clips. Caution: you may not laugh or laugh forever, and still find things to not laugh about.

10. Bob Balaban as Lloyd Miller

Perhaps the most unsung hero of Guest’s films is the timid, long-suffering straightman effortlessly embodied by Balaban. He captures all the anxiety and humorlessness of every socially awkward square ever forced in front of a microphone. Yet none of his public embarrassments come close to equaling his mortifying collaboration with the profoundly untalented Corky St. Clair (Guest) in “Waiting for Guffman.” As a theatre-turned-music director in the quaint town of Blaine, Missouri, Balaban is faced with a daunting task. He must lend some semblance of credibility and sophistication to a jaw-dropping new stage production detailing the history of Blaine. Balaban’s squirming and sighing has never been funnier, especially when he can’t quite bring himself to protest…

9. John Michael Higgins as Scott Donlan

A scene-stealer from the very first frame, Higgins’ proudly flaming dog owner could’ve easily been a shrill caricature if tackily handled. Yet in the midst of the dysfunctional couples populating “Best in Show,” Higgins and his partner (charmingly played by Michael McKean) are refreshingly devoid of neuroses. Their exuberance is infectious as they navigate their way through the crowds at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show, though Higgins’ unapologetic flamboyance threatens to cause a scene at every turn. He can’t even visit a butcher shop without asking to inspect a pepperoni stick (“I just wanna hold it,” he explains).

8. Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean as The Folksmen

The transformation of the legendary faux rock and roll group known as Spinal Tap into the veteran folk band, The Folksmen, is one of the great joys to behold in Guest’s brilliant musical, “A Mighty Wind.” Part satire, part homage, Guest’s film painstakingly captures the rhythm, language and spirit of classic folk tunes in its staggering avalanche of original songs. It’s magical to watch Guest, McKean and Shearer revive their chemistry, whether they’re recalling the curious construction of a previous record (which wobbled helplessly on turntables, due to its lack of a hole) or performing disarmingly catchy diddies like “Never Did No Wanderin’” or “Loco Man.” Shearer is particularly hilarious when he begins to question his sexuality, culminating in a riotous final sketch. Here’s “archival footage” of The Folksmen performing their rousing hit, “Old Joe’s Place”…

7. Jane Lynch as Christy Cummings

“Looks like a waitress on an oil rig,” quips Higgins when faced with the formidably ambitious dog trainer played by Lynch in “Best in Show,” nearly a decade before she achieved mega-stardom as bullying high school coach Sue Sylvester on “Glee.” When I met Lynch, she told me that Guest’s film not only jump-started her career, but it also did wonders for her confidence. The environment Guest created for his actors onset proved to be an ideal place for Lynch’s creative juices to flourish (she previously had appeared in one of the director’s Frosted Flakes commercials). She instantly established herself as a perfect fit for the ensemble, garnering many of the picture’s biggest laughs. Incidentally, Christy Cummings shares many traits with Sue Sylvester: indomitable ego, spectacular self-assurance and the uncanny knack for peppering her lines with outlandish revelations (see below)…

6. Parker Posey as Libby Mae Brown

Though Posey’s monstrously neurotic Weimaraner owner in “Best in Show” is unforgettable (who can forget her “Busy Bee” diatribe?), my favorite role that this masterfully deadpan actress received was in “Waiting for Guffman.” As a longtime worker at the local Dairy Queen, Posey nails the mental delirium of a life  smothered in boredom. Her mind often appears to be elsewhere whenever she opens her mouth, which makes her onstage performances all the more hysterical. Just watch her sing the unseemly lyrics, “A penny for your thoughts/a dime for your dreams,” while performing some of the most spastic choreography ever captured on film, not to mention some of the most splendidly self-conscious blocking…

5. Eugene Levy as Mitch Cohen

Some critics complained that Guest liked his satirical target in “A Mighty Wind” far too much, thus causing the comedy to play second fiddle to the music itself. Yet what’s wrong with an added dose of poignance? The wistful scenes between former folk duo Mitch and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara) are so beautifully portrayed that they create their own emotional reality amidst the absurdity. Levy’s performance as a delirious folk icon struggling to recapture his former glory may be the very best of his entire career. He’s incredibly touching in scenes where Mitch achieves moments of clarity even as his mind continues to drift in a haze of perpetual bewilderment. Mitch and Mickey’s big number, “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” was nominated for an Oscar, and frankly, deserved to win. It’s pure melodic gold…

4. Jennifer Coolidge as Sherri Ann Cabot

With a face that appears to have been made entirely of collagen, and an elderly husband who appears to be one twitch away from kicking the bucket, Sherri Ann Cabot is as broad a stereotype as has ever appeared in a Guest film. But as brought to life by the singularly gifted Coolidge, this character earns a place in comic infamy. Sherri Ann is so thick-headed that her words take on a sort of morbid grandeur. Consider the scene in “Best in Show” where she orders a bucket of popcorn (“half butter, half salt”), and proceeds to chomp at it nervously, shoving the morsels into her skull as if attempting to fill the vacant space left by her absent brain. As the competition heats up, Sherri Ann explains that she’s going to stay put while listening to her inner instinct (“I’m going to wait for another message…from myself”). During her initial interview with her corpse-like hubby, she delivers what is truly one of the funniest lines in film history…

3. Catherine O’Hara as Marilyn Hack

Interesting how life imitates art, and how society imitates satire. O’Hara has long been regarded one of the great treasures in both film and theatre (even Pauline Kael gushed about her “freaky blue-eyed stare” in “Beetlejuice”). She’s one of the greatest improv artists of all time, not to mention one of the funniest actresses to ever grace the silver screen. So when Oscar buzz began swarming around her role in Guest’s awards season satire, “For Your Consideration,” I stupidly got my hopes up that she would finally snag a nomination. Yet just like her character, the veteran actress swept up by hollow media hype, O’Hara was ignored by the Academy (though she was named Best Supporting Actress by the National Board of Review). Her performance is both hilarious and shattering, especially when she unveils her new surgically modified face. As this clip undoubtedly proves, no one plays drunk better than O’Hara…

2. Fred Willard as Buck Laughlin

Here’s an example of a performance that’s so good that it ended up getting reincarnated in each successive film (Mike “Wha Happened?!” LaFontaine in “A Mighty Wind” comes to mind). This hopelessly misinformed, cheerfully inappropriate color commentator in “Best in Show” is the role of Willard’s career. As the dog owners hold their breaths in anticipation of the final verdict, Willard gradually takes over the film with his increasingly surreal observations, such as, “And to think in some countries these dogs are eaten,” or, “He went for her like she’s made outta ham!” The irreverence of his ad-libs are as inspired as the very best gags in “Airplane” and “Naked Gun,” hinting that Willard may indeed be the next Leslie Nielsen. Just watch his analysis of one judge’s hands-on approach to determining the winner…

1. Christopher Guest as Corky St. Clair

A force of nature rivaling many a bulging river, the gloriously named director of “Red, White and Blaine” (which serves as the climactic set-piece in “Waiting for Guffman”) is a comedic creation for the ages. Guest is both astonishingly funny and oddly touching in his portrayal of a small town theatre lover whose sexuality is glaringly obvious yet never mentioned out loud. He buys clothes for a wife who never materializes, while straining to portray a heterosexual man onstage, despite the fact that his line delivery is more evocative of Zsa Zsa Gabor than Clark Gable. Like all Guest protagonists, he’s awaiting a big break that will never arrive, and yet there’s a certain warped beauty in his spectacularly inept yet sincerely earnest stagecraft. The audience ends up loving Corky for precisely who he is, even as Corky himself remains oblivious to reality.

And let’s not forget the Corky dance…

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