10 Best Mary Steenburgen Roles
Epitomizing the role of the snarky-but-sweet Southern woman in countless roles throughout her career, Mary Steenburgen is always a delight whenever she’s on-screen. Whether it’s film or television, one can be sure that an appearance from Steenburgen is going to be one of the standouts of the entire project. As a matter of fact, she’s often able to remain the best part of even the least enjoyable projects. As of late, Steenburgen seems to have settled into the role of the lovable spitfire. It’s like she’s embracing her funniest performances throughout the years (even though she has quite a few dramatic performances that are just as good as her comedic ones). Still, even if she sticks to funny features for the rest of her career, she’ll still deserve recognition for those excellent dramas and hysterical comedies.
Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as a man wrongfully terminated from his job after being diagnosed with HIV and the lawyer he hires to handle the case, Philadelphia sees Mary Steenburgen gives a riveting performance as a member of the defense Belinda Conine. Director Jonathan Demme’s movie was hugely important for its time, paving the way for a discussion about HIV and AIDS at a time where no one seemed to be willing to talk about it. For this reason, it remains Steenburgen’s best dramatic performance.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a dramatic and upsetting film about all kinds of heavy subjects — mental illness, obesity, domestic issues, just for starters. Mary Steenburgen plays a pivotal role in the film as married woman Betty Carver. Coupled with Philadelphia, Steenburgen is a strong dramatic voice.
Melvin and Howard
Another Jonathan Demme film, this one arriving 13 years before Philadelphia, Melvin and Howard follows a small-town man who becomes the beneficiary of over 150 million dollars after the death of Howard Hughes. It’s a true-to-life story, and Steenburgen shows off her comedic chops decades before she’d become known for them. Demme really knew how to cast Steenburgen in great roles.
Directed by Milos Forman and adapted from the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime follows a young black pianist living among an upper-class white family in New York at the start of the 19th century. Steenburgen is in a minor role here compared to others on this list, but her involvement in the project is as important as anything else she’s done.
The Last Man on Earth
Running for four seasons on FOX before being canceled in 2018, Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Will Forte vehicle The Last Man on Earth was one of the funniest and most original shows on television. Saying that Forte’s character Phil “Tandy” Miller wasn’t the last man on earth isn’t a spoiler — but revealing any of the hilarious circumstances surrounding him and the large cast (including Steenburgen near the top of her comedic game) certainly would be.
Back to the Future Part III
The final installment of the Back to the Future trilogy saw Doc Brown and Mary McFly heading back to the Wild West. Steenburgen plays the most important character in the film apart from the two main leads, a schoolteacher named Clara Clayton. This trilogy is a lot of fun, of course, but the third part lies heavily on the shoulders of Steenburgen.
Somewhere in the mid-2000s, someone decided that Steenburgen should play the motherly figure to Will Ferrell characters. It happened first in 2003’s Elf, then again in 2008’s Step Brothers. Regardless of which is funnier, Steenburgen deserves more recognition for the former instead of the latter. Her role is larger and sweeter here, giving the audience a lot to love.
Despite Anthony Hopkins being 16 years older than Steenburgen, she played his mother in the biographical film Nixon. Hopkins played the president, while Steenburgen played Hannah Nixon. Given everything that happened to Nixon, the film plays out like a classic Greek tragedy — naturally, the mother of the main character plays a big role.
Time After Time
A strange sci-fi adventure from the late 70s, Star Trek writer Nicholas Meyer’s film Time After Time sees classic writer H.G. Wells using a time machine to track notorious killer Jack the Ripper into the 20th century, where the murderer uses the time machine to evade being captured. Steenburgen plays a woman named Amy who ends up assisting Wells in his search. Don’t let the absurdity of the thing distract from the fact that Steenburgen really was perfect as a leading actress back in the last quarter of the 20th century.
For further proof, look no further than 1989’s Parenthood starring Steenburgen and Steve Martin. Serving as the inspiration for the hit NBC show of the same name, Parenthood follows the ins and outs of everyday life for the Buckman family. It’s exactly the type of role Steenburgen is perfect in: sweet and sarcastic, loving and comedic.
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