‘Designing Women,’ an extraordinary recent run on HBO, and a significant body of work in between
Jean Smart is blowing up bigger than the bangs on Designing Women. After critical praise and Emmy nominations for dramatic roles on Watchmen and Mare of Easttown, the veteran actor is now breaking the streaming as brassy Vegas comedienne Deborah on a third HBO property, Hacks. Season 1 found a strong audience, playing young writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) off Smart’s worldly stage doyenne, and the show’s success is a major serve to an industry notorious for sidelining female comics. The professional romance shows no signs of fading: the media company just signed off on season 2. (Creators dedicated Thursday’s finale to Smart’s husband Richard Gilliland, who died in April.)As Smart’s career arcs back into the streaming spotlight, the depth of her filmography reminds us that she’s been here all along.
It’s worthwhile to point out that Smart has been steadily putting in diverse and interesting work for 40 years, apart from her breakout role as naive Charlene on Designing Women. She’s a Tony-winning thespian who’s also done voicework for decades; she’s got dark comedies, tense procedurals, blue-collar dramas, soulful indie hits, and Emmy-winning television roles under her belt. More recently she worked with Noah Hawley, first as icy criminal matriarch Floyd in Fargo, then as mutant mentor Dr. Melanie Bird in Legion.
Sure, there are a few raisins in the potato salad: a string of salacious made-for-tv movies in the early 90’s, a Nell-esque film called The Yarn Princess that stymies all description, and a cringey turn as Camilla in William & Catherine: Royal Romance. But her formidable experience can power-steer even the clunkiest jalopies, and in fact Smart is such a dependable performer that it’s easy to take for granted the surprising scope of her career; revisiting her previous gems is like finding mom’s breakdancing trophies in the attic.
The Brady Bunch Movie
The 1995 parody of the classic show rested on the humor behind generational culture shock, pitting the obliviously clean-living Bradys against the savagery of modern life. Smart is Deena Dittmeyer, the boozy cougar wife of an amoral real estate developer (Michael McKean) who schemes to bulldoze the Bunch’s retro home while the Mrs. pursues her private agenda of sexually harassing the Brady men. Smart’s sloshy vamping paired with McKean’s avarice are a gleefully slimy counterpoint to the TV family’s wholesomeness.
Youth in Revolt
In the 2009 cult movie based on the C.D. Payne novel, Estelle Twisp is a chain-smoking DMV worker whose shy son Nick (Michael Cera) falls in love on vacation and turns to a smooth anarchist alter ego to win the girl’s heart. Smart soldiered through filming with a broken leg, channeling Estelle’s trailer-glam neuroses like her character’s child support payment depended on it. The critically-meh’ed movie also stars Zach Galifianakis, Ray Liotta, Steve Buscemi and Fred Willard.
The Man Who Came to Dinner
The Hacks star walks out her Transatlantic accent and live comic timing as brash, bombastic Lorraine Sheldon in the 2000 revival of the Broadway classic. Her physical wit and hilarious repartee with Nathan Lane earned her a Tony nomination; that same real-time poise on Frasier and Samantha Who? also earned all three of her Emmys.
Overkill: The Aileen Wuornos Story
Smart played the serial killer in a made-for-tv movie 11 years before Charlize Theron got uglied up for her Oscar-winning role in Monster. Shot like an episode of Matlock with wailing saxophones and pickup lines like “well baby you can stop searching, ’cause now you found me,” Smart had her work cut out for her. But despite the restrictive television format at the time that censored grittier parts of the story, Smart nails it – she’s seductive, vulnerable, defiant, furious and broken all at once.
The actress’s comic chops serve her well in her voicework (Kim Possible, Homeward Bound, Big Mouth). In 2001 she popped up in the short-lived WB cartoon The Oblongs, a dark comedy about a family mutated by pollution from a wealthy neighborhood. Matriarch Pickles Oblong is basically an animated Karen Walker, a chain-smoking alcoholic who defected from the rich side of town to marry Bob (Will Ferrell) and hides her resulting hair loss with a towering wig.
While Jean Smart is a stunning character actor, she can still use some help getting into certain roles. Smart plays the greaseball mother of star Zach Braff’s friend Mark (Peter Saarsgard), who does things like bait her lover against her son and encourage the boys to pursue a real estate scam while smoking weed with them. She’d never smoked from a bong before, so Braff and Saarsgard had to teach her how.
Best line: “Don’t stay in here all day. I took the batteries out of the carbon monoxide detector, it was beeping all night.”