When people talk about Goldie Hawn, she’s often framed as a lovable kook. She’s got those big wide eyes, that even bigger, wider smile, and that laugh that’s evolved from a girlish giggle to a throaty cackle in the decades since she broke out on Laugh-In. But Hawn’s career amounts to so much more than kooky. As a young girl she was a born star, with a nymph-like presence that ensorcelled audiences with her wit and charm. And if you trace her body of work from variety-show comedienne to Oscar winner to reemerging elder stateswoman of Hollywood, you’ll see one of the most dynamic performers of her generation.
Over the course of 50 years in show business, Hawn has acted, sang, danced, and done pratfalls with so many icons, measuring up to them at every step along the way. At 24, she won an Academy Award with her first major screen role in Cactus Flower. At 25, she stole scenes from Peter Sellers in There’s a Girl in My Soup. At 35, she did a musical TV special called Goldie and Liza Together with Liza Minnelli. At 46, she dusted off those dancing shoes once again and made every mom’s favorite movie, The First Wives Club. She’s acted opposite Walter Matthau, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Ingrid Bergman, Burt Reynolds, Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, Dean Martin, Diane Keaton, and Warren Beatty. She’s also one of the reliably best presenters you could ask for at any Oscars ceremony. Hawn’s spectacular career may be popularly defined by her comedy, but what’s made her so compelling across decades is her ability to communicate vulnerability and strength with such nuance it’s like she’s casting spells.
After a 15-year absence from the screen, Hawn returns to the theaters this week opposite Amy Schumer in the mother-daughter comedy Snatched. If you want to put together a Hawnathon to savor what you’ve been missing after all this time, here are our picks for the actress’s ten best performances. We know you’ve been loving your life at home with Kurt, Goldie, but please never leave us for that long again.
1. Cactus Flower (1969)
Hawn’s most famous role is probably Private Benjamin, but she won her Academy Award for playing opposite Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman in Cactus Flower. At 24 years old, Hawn embodied the idealistic 1960s pixie girl, and her distinctive facial features made her a singular screen presence. She was ebullient without being overwrought, and gave real depth to a character that could have easily been reduced to a stock younger woman for her formidable co-stars to act over. Hawn proved early on that she would never be constrained to just playing the girlfriend.
2. There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970)
Goldie Hawn and Peter Sellers. This was only the actress’s second big movie, but she matches wits with Sellers the whole way, playing off of one of cinema’s true greats. Their first scene together sees Hawn reject Sellers’s sexual advances by deconstructing his masculine gamesmanship until he’s too demoralized to continue; it’s one of the best of her career. Hawn is one of the great rom-com stars of all time, but Soup sits apart from the rest for its surprising, unconventional ending.
3. Butterflies Are Free (1972)
In her early roles, the bubbliness of Hawn’s characters implied an obliviousness and simplicity, but those were just surface notes. Her characters waxed about freedom and liberation, but longed to find purpose through connection and to be seen as something more than a reusable object for the enjoyment of men. Butterflies takes place almost entirely in a dingy apartment, and Hawn plays a young girl who befriends her blind neighbor. Since he can’t see her, it allows Hawn to play the character outside of a man’s expectant gaze. The fact that she spends the much of the movie in her underwear doesn’t feel exploitative so much as it does like a shedding of self-consciousness. It’s funny and sweet, and has one of the best emotional climaxes of any of her movies.
4. The Sugarland Express (1974)
Even though Hawn won her Oscar playing to her obvious physical strengths (those eyes, that mouth) for comedic effect in Cactus Flower, she used them to paint a picture of a woman gone mad in this, Steven Spielberg’s sophomore feature. As Lou Jean, Hawn plays a mother desperate to be reunited with her son, which leads her into a days-long car chase across Texas after she takes a police officer hostage with her fugitive husband. Hawn spends most of the movie in the back seat of a car, which becomes a stage for her to swing back and forth between violent fits of rage and heartbreaking tenderness as she imagines life with and without her baby. It’s a performance that manages to be both bigger than life and entirely natural, and it proved that despite her early ingenue roles, Hawn truly had range.
5. The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976)
Duchess is a crime caper in the guise of a spaghetti Western that stars Hawn as a showgirl and prostitute chasing down the easy life with a con man who’s lifted a substantial sum of money from a band of fellow criminals. It’s not the best movie in her filmography, but it is a rare early role in which Hawn isn’t playing some form of doe-eyed, free-spirited dream girl, and it ends up as a showcase for Hawn’s whole performance tool kit. She sings and dances, seduces and flirts, lifts her voice up to a higher register when she’s wooing a willing man, and drops it back down again after she’s exploited her prey. It’s like an early-Hawn sample platter.
6. Private Benjamin (1980)
Although she didn’t win, Hawn got her second Oscar nomination and perhaps her most enduring role as Private Judy Benjamin, a spoiled little rich girl who decides to take control of her life for the first time by enlisting in the Army. Judy is a woman in pursuit of a sense of self after a life defined by what men wanted from her, and even at her bratty worst, Hawn is so eminently relatable you never stop empathizing with her. When she’s at her best, there are few actresses more magnetic.
7. Swing Shift (1984)
Jonathan Demme’s nostalgic ode to American grit and determination during World War II is also the first onscreen pairing for Hawn and her future life partner, Kurt Russell. She plays a housewife who joins the war effort after her husband enlists in the Navy, and during his years-long absence she develops new, close friendships and a passionate romance with her factory supervisor. No actress has ever sold wide-eyed naïveté more effectively than Hawn, but as the movie unfolds she experiences love and lust and the thrill of a life unencumbered by wifely duties that she never considered before the war. The packaging of Hawn in demure mid-century dresses is humorously on the nose, but the actress brings a moving internal life to what could have been a one-dimensional character.
8. Overboard (1987)
The natural charm of Hawn and Russell together is rom-com gold, and Overboard is one of the highlights of the actress’s mid-career period. Hawn is endearing as always when she’s in working-class mom mode, but it’s her briefer time spent playing a spoiled rich lady that’s especially fun. It’s a shame Hawn didn’t play a complete bitch in more movies, because she’s excellent at it. When she narrows her eyes, slicks back her buoyant golden hair, and drops her voice lower, the girlishness that’s stuck with her through the decades washes away. Suddenly you can see her swapping in for Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, and you’re longing for a peek at the alternate ’80s timeline in which Hawn went full shoulder-padded ice queen.
9. Death Becomes Her (1992)
Despite landing poorly with critics, Death Becomes Her is an almost perfect film. Hawn and Meryl Streep play a pair of lifelong frenemies chasing after eternal youth as well as the same man (a young and bedraggled Bruce Willis). Death Becomes Her is big, brightly colored camp, with Streep and Hawn at one point sorting out their years-long rivalry through a shovel fight. Best of all, though, it lets Hawn twist her good-girl charms into something malicious. Obviously, Hawn was always much more than her beauty, but her sex appeal got benched in the 1980s for a kind of “mature” attractiveness. Death finally let her play sexy again, and devilishly so. The role fits her like a tight red dress.
10. The First Wives Club (1996)
Hawn has always been a physically adept comedic actress, and not just because of her animé-style features. She’s always had great timing and an understanding of her body in space, but in First Wives Club, she reaches a whole new level of slapstick. Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler function like a kind of Three Stooges, bumbling from one vengeance plan to the next as they work to take down their self-absorbed ex-husbands. Each actress is excellent in the big moments — the washing cart is tops among them — but as an Oscar-winning actress with a drinking problem, Hawn pulls your eyes to her in every scene. You laugh at her and with her, up to the point where you want to cry for her. In signature Hawn fashion, the outsize nature of her comedic performance makes her vulnerable moments hit even harder.