Beetlejuice at 35: An Unofficial Catherine O’Hara Vehicle

The occupation of a scene-stealing performer is always to make their film, and leading co-star’s performances, better. The great six-time Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter, for example, would enhance a masterpiece or spin a middle-ground bronze picture into cinematic gold with the slightest quippy one-liner. But sometimes a scene-stealer can leave such an impression that they can turn their project into a vehicle for themselves. That is certainly the case with Catherine O’Hara in the 1988 horror-comedy classic Beetlejuice

Always a consummate supporting/ensemble player, Catherine O’Hara inadvertently turns the 35-year-old picture into a showcase for her talents through sheer comical force. Although O’Hara was already a mainstay in television thanks to the Canadian sketch comedy series SCTV, Beetlejuice served as a beacon signaling the film star she’d eventually become. Before Kate McCallister, Marilyn Hack, and Cookie Fleck, there was Delia Deetz. Even before O’Hara won an Emmy for playing Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek, she made her mark playing a “schitt-ier” mother (with the same amazing fashion sense). A stepmother, to be exact. 

In her very first scene, as the Deetz family begins moving into the Maitland house, Delia gives a bitter proclamation (“A little gasoline. Blowtorch. No problem”) as she observes her modest-looking household. Unlike her husband Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and stepdaughter Lydia (Winona Ryder), who are more at peace with their predicament, it’s evident through that affirmation and her scorned lip curl that Delia is flustered with being thrust away from her beloved city life and into the countryside. It’s more clear who runs the marriage once she and Charles have a slight squabble. 

While she’s willing to let Charles move them to a more tranquil environment, being an artist and a sculptor, Delia forces Charles to allow her to remodel the house to fulfill her need for creative expression. When their small quarrel begins, Delia’s voice starts out as calm yet assertive: “I will live with you in this hellhole, but I must express myself.” Yet, within a span of seconds, her voice escalates from insistent to manic as she shouts, “I will go insane AND I WILL TAKE YOU WITH ME!” After the visibly petrified Charles gives into Delia’s demands, she responds with a soft “Okay.” 

O’Hara similarly orchestrates her ability to turn on a dime in an early sequence where Delia has her friends over for dinner. Embarrassed when her friends leave because the undead Maitland couple refuse to show themselves, Delia angrily bangs on the attic door to force them to appear. Though filled with fury, Delia switches modes when calmly giving Lydia a bit of life advice on always seizing control and not letting people make her feel inferior. Right after her rare motherly moment, she pivots back into fury mode. 

Delia’s outburst opens up yet another layer to her personality – she’s more afraid of feeling inadequate and letting people step all over her than she is of the undead beings haunting her household. After Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) goes into snake mode and terrorizes the family, her initial fear becomes second nature to her shared willingness with her husband, as well as her associate Otho (Glenn Shadix), to exploit the ghosts for personal gain and turn their quiet rural town into a supernatural tourist attraction. However, while Charles plots this for the profit of it all, Delia likely just wants the perks of being on top, refusing to let the supernatural forces at play make her inferior, no matter how hard they try to scare her and her family out of the house. 

In the film’s most famous scene, Delia becomes possessed into lip-syncing “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” by Harry Belafonte – a possession that hardly fazes her. Look closely at O’Hara’s facial reaction as Delia bursts into song; she’s instantly confused, but as she and almost everyone in the dinner table is controlled into dancing and lip-syncing, she goes along with it. When she gets to the line “Work all night on a drink of rum,” the face she gives and the way she holds up her hands both show that Delia decides to give herself to the rhythm, despite not knowing what’s bewitching all of them or why. O’Hara’s well-timed lip-syncing is equivalently noteworthy.

Between her ability to switch emotional gears within the same moment, and her gift for physical comedy shown in the aforementioned lip-sync scene, O’Hara’s interpretation of the diabolically inept artist shows how, as a performer, she’s able to pull off being manic without being caricatural. Also, despite not being the leading lady, O’Hara still exudes enough charismatic energy to match that of Michael Keaton’s work as the titular bio-exorcist. Like Delia, she takes charge every time she enters the room. As her subsequent work shows, the same can be said of her in general. 

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