Golden Girl: Goldie Hawn Goes From Ditzy To Seriously Funny

This month (Nov. 21) Goldie Hawn turns 72 years young! From ditzy blond to seriously funny, Goldie talks career, grandparenting and what it took to get her back on screen.

Fifteen years. That’s how long Goldie Hawn had been out of the game. She had not made a movie since she and Susan Sarandon played former groupies on a nostalgia trip in The Banger Sisters, back in 2002. In the meantime, she had published her memoir, Goldie: A Lotus Growing in the Mud. She had written a self-help book, 10 Mindful Minutes. Through her Hawn Foundation, she had created an international program called MindUP, which was imparting meditation techniques to a million schoolchildren in eight countries. And she was relishing her role as grandparent to five kids. Her mind was miles away from Hollywood.

“I was immersed in a new life, with people who were changing the world,” says Hawn, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “I was endlessly stimulated and inspired. So did I ever wish I was making a movie? No. Never.” Besides, the movie roles for women her age had no appeal. As far as she was concerned, her days of playing the bubble-headed blond in fish-out-of-water comedies were long gone.

Until Amy Schumer asked if she would play her mother.

Hawn recalls their first awkward encounter. “I met Amy on an airplane, and she went, ‘Oh, I have got this script, blah, blah, blah.’ We sat down, and she said, ‘I know you didn’t recognize me.’ I said, ‘I actually didn’t recognize you.'” A few months later, their paths crossed again at an awards gala in London. Schumer marched over to Hawn’s table, where she was seated with daughter Kate Hudson and made her pitch: “I met you before and I have this movie and I really want you to do it!” Dutifully, Hawn looked into the project, noted that a major studio was behind it and checked out its 40-year-old director, Jonathan Levine, who had made comedies about spinal cancer and zombies (50-50, Warm Bodies). But it was Schumer who brought her on board. “She was the one who pushed this through,” says Hawn. “It was her wish. And I was happy to be part of her wish.”

And so a 71-year-old grandma took a break from changing the world one child at a time to share top billing with Hollywood’s hottest gross-out comedy star. The movie, which opens in May on Mother’s Day weekend, is Snatched, a mother-daughter vacation farce that takes a dysfunctional duo from rowdy hijinks at a South American beach resort to being kidnapped by bandits in a jungle hellhole … in other words, a fish-out-of-water comedy.

Hawn doesn’t seem in any rush to promote it. I was hoping to hear wild tales of doing tequila shots with Schumer after cavorting on location in Hawaii. The film’s trailer certainly packs a wallop—scenes of Hawn slathering Schumer with a whole bottle of suntan lotion, and Schumer getting caught in a men’s washroom refreshing her crotch at the sink. But in the course of our interview, Hawn doesn’t dish. Instead, she talks about shooting a comedy as if it were quantum physics, with Schumer as a star pupil at the head of the class.

As a movie star accustomed to people assuming she’s as ditzy as her characters, Hawn soon recognized the brain behind Schumer’s rude bravado. “She’s got her style, she’s got her delivery,” she says, almost dismissively. “Then I met her and saw she’s a really smart, good girl. And very much a family person. I saw how much fun it would be to work with somebody who really gets it. And she did not disappoint. She looks at comedy as seriously as I do. She looks at a way to fix things. Because comedy is hard. You have to know where the joke is, how to get to the joke. It’s a science project. It’s a mathematical equation.”

That takes me back to watching Goldie with my family 50 years ago on the TV show that made her famous, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. I remember her in front of a blackboard with a pointer explaining time zones, as if there were nothing funnier than a dumb blond doing a science lecture. Hawn would make a fine art of flubbing her lines and batting her eyes as she turned every sketch into a comedy of errors—when she wasn’t go-go dancing in a bikini and body paint. In the era of three-channel TV, Laugh-in was a No. 1 show, watched by one in four Americans. And Goldie Hawn its sparkplug. Cast as a post-modern cliché from the Swinging ’60s, she was America’s free-spirited sweetheart, romancing an age of innocence that had already passed.

First-wave feminists condemned her Laugh-in character as a bimbo stereotype, but she knew exactly what she was doing. Goldie (who deserved to be a one-named star as much as Cher or Madonna) was the wide-eyed naïf who could steal a scene with a pickpocket’s sleight of hand or melt hearts with a coy bite of her lower lip. She re-engineered the cliché of the secretly smart dumb blond and parlayed it into a stellar film career. Goldie was Marilyn Monroe recast as Peter Pan. Instead of dying young as a narcotic martyr to wasted glamour, she became Hollywood’s ageless flower child, now pushing her girlish insouciance into her 70s. Along the way, she subverted the giddy stereotype in popular fables of female empowerment such as Private Benjamin and The First Wives Club. And after weathering two divorces, she’s found stability in her 34-year unmarried partnership with actor Kurt Russell, along with their extended family of four grown children and the five grandkids. Reshaping her mind and body like a never-ending school project, she looks preternaturally young, still the hippie princess with long golden tresses. And still a star.

Goldie belongs to a select constellation of Hollywood actresses. Even after a 15-year hiatus, she’s one of the few women of her generation who can still command a leading role in a studio picture—along with Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton and (possibly) Helen Mirren. But unlike those five A-list peers, who boast a collective total of 40 Oscar nominations and eight wins, she has never been considered a “serious” actor. In her 50-year career, she has picked up only one Academy Award, winning Best Supporting Actress for her first significant film role, as a lovelorn ingenue in Cactus Flower (1969). After that, over the course of another 25 movies, she received just one more nomination, for 1981’s Private Benjamin, which remains her biggest hit.

Next: Goldie made comedy look effortless…

Though they say dying is easy and comedy is hard, Goldie makes it look effortless. There’s no question she’s a superb actor, but she’s not the kind to disappear into a role or carve a performance into a monument to her own virtuosity. She’s always Goldie. And with a few exceptions (The Sugarland Express, Swing Shift), she has happily surrendered to her fate as a comedy star. “As time went on,” she says, “I was asked about being typecast. But the reality is this: one doesn’t have unrealistic expectations.” Flipping into the third person, she adds, “Looking at myself from 30,000 feet up, she was a funny girl. She was also dark and deep and did Shakespeare, but that’s not how people wanted to see her. They wanted to see her be funny. I wasn’t going out to show everybody what a great actress I am. I didn’t need that for my ego. The joy of sneaking into the back of the theatre and hearing people laugh might have been the greatest gift of all. Because I felt in some way I was doing service. So that’s the way I looked at it. It was my destiny.”

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Goldie Jeanne Hawn seems to have inherited her flair for showbiz and her practicality from her parents. Her father, a Presbyterian of German and English descent, was a bandleader; her mother, the Jewish daughter of Hungarian immigrants, owned a gift shop and a dance school. “My father,” she recalls, “always said, ‘Stick with reality. Goldie! You gotta know what’s real.’ And my mother was very, very practical.” Yet there’s a fairy-tale magic to Goldie’s creation story. Studying ballet from the age of three, she always wanted to be a dancer. She felt the thrill of performance for the first time as a terrified 10-year-old understudy, who was tapped to guide a partially blind prima ballerina, the legendary Alicia Alonso, onto the stage at a Ballet Russe performance of The Nutcracker. As Goldie recalls in her memoir, the moment she stepped from the wings, she was enraptured. Later, amid the applause, she made her first charming miscue—cradling a rose that had been thrown to the stage, she stepped out to take a bow with the show’s star.

From the get-go, Goldie flourished in the spotlight. She made her theatre debut at 15 as Juliet in a Shakespeare festival and fondly recalls breezing through reams of iambic pentameter without a hitch. Majoring in drama at university, Hawn dropped out to teach ballet, then danced professionally in a showgirl grind that took her from a Can Can revue at the World’s Fair to Andy Griffith’s Uptown-Downtown Show, a special on CBS. She also worked the clubs as a go-go girl, then hit rock bottom on stage in a New Jersey dive when she saw a man masturbating right in front of her.

It was not the only time she suffered gross sexual harassment. In her memoir, which is mostly full of sweetness and light, Hawn describes a vile encounter with the famous one-legged cartoonist Al Capp (creator of Li’l Abner), who lured her to his Manhattan apartment to audition for an NBC show. As Capp asks her to raise her skirt, she recalls in her memoir, “a shiver runs up and down my spine. When I let my eyes drift slowly back toward Mr. Capp, I see that my host has parted his silk robe to reveal a flaccid penis resting heavily against his wooden leg.”

But Goldie never fell out of love with dance. “When I was pulled out of the chorus and was being discovered,” she told me, “it wasn’t a time where I went, ‘Oh, I’m on my way to stardom!’ I felt I really wasn’t finished dancing.” On Laugh-In, she stumbled to stardom when she had to read from cue cards and her mild dyslexia tripped her up. Goldie’s muffed line readings became a recurring gag, which the writers would milk by rigging the cards with mistakes and profanities. Anything to get The Giggle. That became her signature–in her first film role, a bit part in a Disney musical called The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), she is actually credited as “Giggly Girl.” (A 17-year-old Kurt Russell was also in the cast, but they wouldn’t meet for another 16 years.)

In 1969, Hawn’s Oscar-winning turn in Cactus Flower made her a movie star. With her sculpted pixie cut, chartreuse blouse and chocolate brown miniskirt and boots, she was the ultimate It Girl. And there was no doubt she could act. Hawn worked miracles with her role as an adorable doormat—an innocent trapped in an affair with a mendacious dentist (Walter Mathau), who pretends to be married with three kids—and even shone in the shadow of the legendary Ingrid Bergman. Cactus Flower was the first in a trio of hit movies based on stage plays, followed by There’s a Girl in My Soup and Butterflies Are Free. Then came The Sugarland Express. It was a gritty drama based on the true story of a Texas mother who springs her husband from prison and hijacks a cop car to rescue her child from a foster home—and it marked the Hollywood debut of an unknown director named Steven Spielberg.

Next: The world wasn’t ready for Goldie, the avenging mother…

The movie sank at the box office, but Hawn considers it possibly the finest work of her career. Nearly all the human drama takes place in a car, as the couple and the cop are trailed by a cavalcade of more than 100 police cars. As a gum-snapping white-trash desperado, Hawn gives a ferocious performance, cutting through her Southern-fried dialogue with scary intensity. “That was about as far from me as you could get,” she says, “The whole experience was like an aria. The choreography around it was amazing. And there was a tremendous amount of freedom. But they sold the movie with the wrong intention—with a big smile on my face, a gun and a teddy bear.”

The world wasn’t ready for Goldie, the avenging mother. But in 1980, they got what they wanted in the soft-core feminism of Private Benjamin, the story of a Jewish American princess who rocks the barracks, humiliates her dyke cartoon of a captain and leaves her philandering French fiancé at the altar, tossing her bridal veil to the wind. Hawn’s own marriage, to musician Bill Hudson, ended the year the movie came out. It had lasted four years—two less than her first marriage, to actor Gus Trikoni—and produced two children, Kate and Oliver Hudson. “Stardom and the baggage that came with it is what drove a wedge between us,” she says. But two years later, Hawn met her soulmate on the set of Swing Shift, a Second World War adultery drama. She starred as a young bride working in an airplane factory who cheats on her husband while he’s off fighting the Japanese, with Kurt Russell cast as her trumpet-playing paramour. It was as if Goldie had given herself an impossible challenge, to remain adorable as a scarlet woman. When the audience didn’t go for it, she blamed her director, Jonathan Demme. But Kurt was a keeper.

He and Goldie had a son, Wyatt Russell, in 1986. When Wyatt turned 16, so he could play junior hockey, the family moved from their Pacific Palisades home in Los Angeles to a Tudor-style house in North Vancouver. They also owned a cottage in Muskoka. But a few years later they moved back to L.A., selling the house and the cottage. “I thought I was a full-fledged Canadian,” Hawn sighs. “But I don’t have any Canadian blood any more.” Meanwhile, being a grandparent to Kate’s and Oliver’s kids has rejuvenated her, and she marvels at how it differs from being a parent. “When you have your children,” she says, “you don’t know that you can love each one in the same way with the same velocity. You just can’t believe the heart can take that much love. When you have grandchildren, you realize that there’s a part of your heart that hasn’t grown yet, and now that part has fulfilled me in a completely different way.”

By the end of our interview, Goldie has begun calling me “honey,” and I’m left with a maze of conflicting impressions. Of an earth mother still chasing her inner child. A practical romantic. An actor with the emotional intelligence of a dancer. A serious comedian. She reminisces about the joy of shooting Hal Ashby’s Shampoo with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie on a set where everyone got to do a little directing. She raves about finally getting to do ballet dancing in a movie, soaring over the Seine with Woody Allen in Everyone Says I Love You. Finally, I ask about a remarkable moment in The Banger Sisters, where Susan Sarandon’s demure character looks at Goldie busting out of a pink tank top and comments on her over-zealous boob job. Goldie swears she couldn’t remember the scene. “I guess you could say that I’m someone who doesn’t go backwards,” she says with a generous laugh. A laugh, not a giggle.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2017 issue with the headline, “Golden Girl,” p. 41-46.