Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What about Joan?: More than just an acting sidekick

Joan Cusack rocks. There’s something about her that is very likable. She’s got that down-to-earth realness about her that shines through every character she portrays. Perhaps it’s because she’s succeeded in living as “normal” a life as possible as a working actress. She’s prioritized family values and parenthood; she’s made her home in Chicago where she was born and raised rather than in Los Angeles where so many actors call home. She’s not followed by paparazzi everywhere she goes or headlining magazines every week; she succeeds as an actress solely on the merits of her work and balances acting with a stable personal life.

The first time I remember seeing Cusack in a movie was in Sixteen Candles. She played the unfortunate geeky girl with a neck brace, unable to bend over to drink from the water fountain. As her career progressed, she was relegated in the early years to playing buddy sidekicks or awkward, geeky secondary characters. Cusack herself said, “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.”

Though Cusack’s quote aptly describes her movie career, her best friend roles were damn good ones and they got her noticed. One in particular was her mainstream breakout role in 1988’s Working Girl alongside Melanie Griffith. Cusack played, Cyn, the tough-talking, New York-accented best friend with big hair and heavy make-up. Her role was small, but she commanded the screen in every scene she was in and the role earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

She went on to more supporting roles in comedies like Nine Months and Grosse Pointe Blank, opposite her brother, John Cusack. She captured real magic when she starred in 1997’s In and Out opposite Kevin Kline. In the comedy, Cusack plays a jilted bride-to-be whose fiancé discovers his true sexuality. Cusack was pure comedy gold in the film and the role earned her widespread praise and a second Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. It was an important nomination at the time since comedic roles had been rarely recognized by the Academy in many years.

The hits continued for Cusack with roles in commercial hits like Runaway Bride and School of Rock. A self-titled television sitcom – What About Joan? – didn’t quite register with viewers and was cancelled after only 11 episodes due to low ratings. This previous lackluster television enterprise didn’t deter Cusack from working in television again, though. Currently, Cusack can be seen playing her oddest of characters – Sheila Jackson – an agoraphobic, fetishist with a heart of gold in Showtime’s cable-drama Shameless.

Sheila Jackson doesn’t just serve as the show’s strange and perverse character; at least, Cusack has made the character so much more. She’s a loving mother with a seriously debilitating phobia who struggles so hard to overcome it, but simply can't no matter how hard she tries.

Cusack has created in Sheila a wonderfully complex character. Sheila is unable to control her phobia and cannot leave the house, yet she’s in total control and doing exactly what she wants while inside her home. She comes off as a meek and mild-mannered homely woman who keeps an immaculate home and recreates gourmet recipes from the food network with ease and success, but her sexual tastes aren’t nearly as meek as her demeanor. Cusack portrays Sheila’s dichotomous character so believably and naturally; at once having her way with her love interest, Frank Gallagher, and at other times desperately struggling to muster enough courage and strength to leave the house then collapsing in defeat when she’s unable to will herself out the door. In playing Sheila, Cusack displays her superb comedic chops and also showcases her remarkable dramatic talent to characterize a woman with so many layers and complexities that is anything but a buddy or a quirky sidekick.

What are your favourite Joan Cusack roles? Let us know in the comments section.


  1. love her in School of Rock. She almost steals the film from Jack Black. The moment she has to tell the parents their kids are lost is hilarious and the bit when the rocker tells her she's hot crack me up every time!

  2. I haven't seen the show Shameless, although I've seen stills of Emmy Rossum on seemingly every non-religious website there is (not that I'm complaining, mind you.)

    I would have first seen Joan in the 1983 movie Class, but I didn't really remember her name until 1988 when I saw her in three movies - Married to the Mob, Stars and Bars, and Working Girl.

    I'm drawing a blank on what I would consider her best role. I can't think of one that really stands out above the others. I can't think of a role that I thought she was bad in, either.

  3. Other than being the voice of Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl in the Toy Story movies. I would probably say High Fidelity where she has this great scene where she curses out John Cusack for things he did to his ex-girlfriend.

  4. @Pete - I couldn't agree more. Joan Cusack is great - and really funny - in School of Rock.

    @Chip Lary - Shameless is a good show. It certainly lives up to its name because it got pretty dark and twisted at times in season 1. Emmy Rossum is really good in it. It's quite a departure from her other roles.

    @thevoid99 - Ah yes, that's a great scene. I also like her opposite her brother in Grosse Point Blank.


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