"The first time I ever fell in love with a movie star," said Reese Witherspoon recently, "it was Goldie Hawn." Anyone familiar with Witherspoon’s early roles — from the easily underestimated and electrifyingly perky Elle Woods in Legally Blonde to the uptight-until-she-isn’t Annette Hargrove of Cruel Intentions — could already sense as much. Like Hawn, Witherspoon made a name for herself playing petite blondes with a gumption for beating the odds. And, like Hawn, Witherspoon switched to and won acclaim for dramatic roles with surprising ease. Again, old news — but it was good to hear Witherspoon come out and say it.
Earlier this month, as Hawn and her long-term partner, Kurt Russell, finally received their long-overdue stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an excitable, tearful Witherspoon, who marked the occasion by wearing an "I Love Goldie" pin, recalled growing up with movies like Wildcats and Private Benjamin, and TV shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In: early highs in Hawn’s long career. "It’s hard to articulate how important this was for me," said Witherspoon, "a tiny blonde girl, just to see this woman onscreen. And I’d always been described as, you know, bossy, and [told] that I talked a lot. And then I was seeing this person that was just like me." Hawn modeled what felt like a new kind of Hollywood star. "I saw that you could be feminine, and funny, and tough, and warm."
Audiences haven’t always been warm in kind. The last time Hawn made headlines was in 2014, when she and Kim Novak’s appearances at the Academy Awards sparked a disheartening debate about actresses and aging. It was a bitter reminder of what one of Hawn’s most popular characters, the actress Elise Elliot Atchison of The First Wives Club, famously explained to her plastic surgeon: "There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." At 71, Hawn is, by those standards, approaching Miss Daisy territory — but she has so far refused to go down that road. Like her First Wives Club character, Hawn has for some time been on an acting hiatus. For Atchison, it was 18 months. For Hawn, it’s been 15 years.
She’s been waiting for the role that would bring her back. Hawn recently told GQ she would have been acting all these years if she "had gotten something that’s just a bang-up character and a great role, it doesn’t matter how big it is" — but the role never came. This week, that changes. In the new comedy Snatched, Goldie Hawn plays Linda Middleton, the worrywart divorced mother of the adult child Emily (Amy Schumer), with whom, through a series of misfortunes, she gets kidnapped in Ecuador.
The movie is nothing to write home about: routine laughs enlivened only by Schumer’s knack for socially pointed self-excoriation and Hawn’s ability to make even the dumbest lines pop off the screen with a gleeful lilt. But the mere fact of Hawn’s reemergence is an event in itself. Hers is a career that has lasted for 50 years, many of them spent as a genuine box office star. You can feel Hawn’s influence in multiple generations of younger stars — the likes of Witherspoon, of course, but also Alicia Silverstone, Anna Faris, and the legion of contemporary comic actresses whose roles toy with our expectations of what they’re capable of.
"I always wanted to get to know you and find out what you were really like," says Dean Martin. "Oh," says Hawn. Dean continues: "Yeah, ’cause whenever I watch you on television you’re always pretending to be so dumb." The audience laughs in agreement. "Yeah, I’m not pretending: I really am dumb," says Hawn, to more laughter. "And what’s more, I’m proud of it. Dumb is beautiful."
It’s one of the more popular lines from Hawn during the era when she appeared on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which aired on NBC from 1967 to 1973. This was the show that gave Hawn the persona she’d maintain for her whole career: the gleefully clueless blonde. Emphasis on the glee. The character was vacuous, but Hawn herself was a virtuoso, tumbling through her persona’s half-baked ideas about, say, time zones ("If you’re having lunch in Chicago, it’s breakfast time in California. Of course, if you’re in Chicago, you wouldn’t feel like breakfast if you’re from California because you’ve just had lunch") or overpopulation at a rapid clip. She had an air of thoughtful thoughtlessness: In her hands, it was its own form of eloquence.
Hawn’s best roles give her room to work her face, with those always-astonished bright blue eyes, and her voice, which maintains the unfettered joy of a giggle, even when she isn’t laughing. Her major movie break was 1969’s Cactus Flower, for which she won Best Supporting Actress playing a delightfully wide-eyed and un-self-aware waif similar to her character on Laugh-In. Her second nomination, for Best Actress, came in 1981, for Private Benjamin, one of the highest-grossing movies of 1980. She played Judy Benjamin, whose second husband, Yale, dies on their wedding night — during sex! — and whose first husband just wanted her for her father’s money. She’s a spoiled, directionless 28-year-old who doesn’t know what to do unless she’s with a man. "I’ve never not belonged to somebody," she says, wistfully. Long story short, she finds herself: She joins the army. It’s a ridiculous movie — even amid basic training exercises, Hawn’s face is bright with makeup — and sort of fun for that reason. The gags aren’t great, but you always sense Hawn is on the verge of cutting loose and running away with the movie.
Hawn has gotten by for years on playing to type. The boring thing about Snatched, however, is that it doesn’t give Hawn much of a type to play with. Linda Middleton, her character, begins and ends as a comic stereotype: a divorced, technologically illiterate cat lady whose dating profile reads "Single. Animal lover. I love Grey’s Anatomy." "When Dad left, I thought I would never have sex again," she tells her daughter, Emily. "Turns out I was right." She’s become a fearful homebody, catering to her manchild of a son, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz), and trying to keep tabs on the romantic life of her daughter, who was just dumped by her boyfriend, and whose nonrefundable tickets to Ecuador will go to waste unless her only friend — her mom — joins her.
You can kind of guess where it all goes from there. One night, the heartbroken and insecure Emily meets a hot guy at their hotel bar; the next, she and her mother are fleeing the cartel that kidnapped them. The premise initially seems a little racist, but every joke is tilted sideways until it falls squarely on the cluelessly touristy white women Schumer and Hawn are making fun of. That gives Schumer plenty of room to play up her usual desperation, and, sure, Hawn still has a few classic ditz moments, like when she misunderstands "welcome," pronounced with a heavy South American accent, as "whale cum."
There are a few flashes of genuine humor in the movie. When the hot guy asks if Emily’s back tattoo is finished, she immediately shoots back: "Guys have certainly finished on it." Hawn’s skill set is done few favors by the movie. But Hawn gets to be just good enough in a middling role to make you wish for more, and better. You realize her joyous lilt and uncanny ability to put on airs has been missing from contemporary comedy for too many years. The fact is, there aren’t many roles left for an actress of Hawn’s age and style in Hollywood movies anymore — the other, similar actresses of Hawn’s generation, like Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, have wandered over to Sundance-friendly fare and Netflix. Snatched is a clear effort to combat that. But its misuse of its biggest star also, sadly, reinforces it.