Out of nowhere, the year’s funniest female performance comes courtesy of 84-year-old journeywoman actress June Squibb, whose turn as an expletive-hurling mom in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska will have you in stitches. She’s also set to star as Lena Dunham’s grandmother in Girls. Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourselves for June Squibb.
It has been, by all accounts, an abysmal year when it comes to comedy films. The cinema-going public has been force-fed dog-shit sequels (The Hangover: Part III, Grown Ups 2), DOA star vehicles, e.g. Tina Fey’s Admission, Steve Carrell’s The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and Vince Vaughn’s The Internship, a pair of underwhelming Melissa McCarthy projects (Identity Thief, The Heat), and the celluloid calamity that is Movie 43. Sure, there have been some low-key gems here and there, like the apocalyptic comedies This Is the End and The World’s End, but it’s still been, by and large, a disaster.
In recent weeks, however, we’ve been granted a brief respite from this mindless assault on our senses (and wallets).
First, there was the prank flick Bad Grandpa, which sees Jackass MC Johnny Knoxville wreak havoc as an octogenarian wild man with an epically saggy scrotum.
And then there’s June Squibb.
As Kate, the thorny wife of ex-boozehound Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, in Alexander Payne’s sublime black-and-white road dramedy Nebraska, Squibb is an absolute force of nature. When her dementia-addled spouse receives a publisher’s clearing house ticket in the mail, he becomes fixated on the pseudo-prize, and embarks on a journey from Montana to Nebraska with the hope of cashing it in. He’s accompanied on the journey by his feeble son, David (Will Forte), and is later joined by their other son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Kate.
“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire!” exclaims Kate, when first hearing of the “prize.” “He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”
Yes, Kate curses like a trucker. Under her sweet, granny exterior lies a woman who has entirely run out of fucks to give, so she doles ’em out aplenty. Kate is also a hilarious gossip, calling past acquaintances “sluts” and “whores” at will.
There’s a great scene midway through the film—Squibb’s favorite—that sees Woody, Kate, and David standing over the Grant family plot at a Nebraska cemetery. All are silent … until Kate perks up.
“There’s Woody’s little sister, Rose,” she says. “What a whore.”
“Mom!” David replies.
“Naw I liked Rose,” says Kate, “but my god, she was a slut.”
“Oh, fuck is my favorite curse word,” says a cheery Squibb. “But saying things like, ‘Oh, his sister was such a slut,’ was so much fun, too.”
“Right before shooting, I decided to get rid of all other bad language in the film so that Kate’s would stand out in relief,” adds director Alexander Payne, of Election and Sideways fame. “The movie has two ‘fucks’ and a ‘cocksucker,’ and I knew it would have more impact if salty language would be more sparingly used, and I knew she’d get a whole lot of laughs. That being said, not everyone can take a flashily aggressive, salty part and make it so real and funny.”
The sharp contrast between, as Payne calls it, the “defanged and emasculated” Woody and the hotheaded Kate is one of the film’s many triumphs, and Squibb’s is the funniest female turn of the year (so far). Payne saw a lot of parallels between the character of Kate and his own mother—a fiery woman whom he says wore the pants in the family.
“I remember one time my Dad was describing a certain dynamic he had with my mother: ‘Sometimes, women think, ‘Big ME, little YOU!’” he says. “I think you see it a lot.”
The 84-year-old Squibb had worked with Payne previously, as Jack Nicholson’s late wife in 2002’s About Schmidt, but the director didn’t think of her immediately for the part. He asked Squibb to audition on tape—she was based in New York at the time. She initially refused, since she was working on a stage version of Liberace, playing his mother, but Payne’s office called again asking her to audition. So, she went to her agent’s office and taped the cemetery scene opposite a young office assistant. After providing several different takes on the character, she said to Payne, “I could do it 50 different ways. What do you want?” He replied, “We want you.”
Squibb, who grew up in the tiny rural town of Vandalia, Illinois, also saw a lot of her own mother in Kate—as well as Woody, a former alcoholic.
“My mother always felt that what she thought was it,” says Squibb. “And my mother was an alcoholic. There was an uncertainty there where you’re never sure what they’re going to be—the loving mother, the virago, or somewhere in between. As her life ended she was very ill, and she’d still be demanding martinis. The doctor told us not to, but everyone figured she wasn’t going to be around much longer, so I just gave her martinis!”
It took Squibb a long time to make it to Hollywood, let alone her role as Kate—which is receiving plenty of awards buzz.
She studied theater at the Cleveland Play House for five years before moving to New York at the age of 27, in 1957. Her first break came the following year, when she landed the role of Dulcie in The Boyfriend, an off-Broadway production. In 1960, she made her Broadway debut in Gypsy, opposite Ethel Merman. Squibb played Electra, a stripper.
“The dance number was ‘You Gotta Get A Gimmick,’ and it was three dancers: one was a ballet dancer, one blew a trumpet, and my character had lights in … strategic places,” says Squibb. “I had to shimmy to switch on the lights!”
What followed was a 30-plus-year career on stage, including USO tours, cabaret, and cruise performances. Squibb traveled all around the world, from New York to Asia. Then, in the late 1980s, Squibb had had enough of musicals. She approached her agent and said, “I think I should start doing more film and television.” She was married to an acting teacher, Charles Kakatsakis, who encouraged the transition, and coached her. She made her film debut in the Woody Allen film Alice (1990), at the age of 55. What followed were roles in Scent of A Woman, and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, as well as In & Out and Far From Heaven.
But nothing’s compared to the ride she’s been on with Nebraska. When the film debuted at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it received a 10-minute standing ovation. And walking the long red carpet to the magnificent Grand Théâtre Lumière is a memory Squibb says she will never forget.
“We were all arm-in-arm—the producers, Will, Bruce, me, and Alexander,” she says. “When you’re on the red carpet and going up, they stop you when you’re about halfway up and you look out and see this sea of people, and they’re all film lovers. My god, that was exciting!”
One month after Cannes, Squibb shot a two-episode arc on the HBO series Girls, which she also booked by auditioning on tape.
“I play Lena’s grandmother, and I’m in the hospital all the time,” she says. “Lena didn’t direct the episode I was in, but I acted in a lot of scenes alongside her. I loved Lena. She’s heaven. And so young!”
Right after Girls, she booked an episode of the HBO series Getting On, playing a frail woman in a geriatric ward. The series premieres on Nov. 24, and Squibb will appear in the second episode. Her favorite TV shows, she says, are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones (“the dragons … don’t you love them?”)—she’s seen every episode of both shows—and, because of all the buzz she’s receiving from her scene-stealing turn in Nebraska, she has no plans to return to the stage anytime soon.
“Things are sort of heating up!” says a beaming Squibb. “It has been a long journey. I’ve been discovered so many times, but this is something very, very special.” She pauses, giggling with glee. “This is film, which is a very special medium. I love it because I know people will keep on watching these movies and enjoying them over and over again long after I’m gone.”