Eileen Brennan’s scene-stealer eyes made exasperation a pleasure

Eileen Brennan's turn as Capt. Lewis in "Private Benjamin" earned her an Oscar nomination for supporting actress.
(Warner Bros.)

It is the face of Eileen Brennan that will stay with me as much as any one of the performances the quintessential character actress packed into her very long career.

Not a classic beauty, her face was arresting for its very distinct abilities. The eyes alone were scene-stealers, so often carrying the weight of the world. Whether they were being called on to condemn or forgive, Brennan somehow left you feeling that she was handling the petty frustrations of life for the rest of us.

Her voice is what got her a start in the business -- singing on stage -- though what lingers is the sound of a gravelly alto that seemed stained by whiskey and cigarettes whether she smoked or drank a day in her life. You knew she could say “Hey, sailor,” and make it stick.

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The voice fit the generous features set off by a tangle of rich auburn hair. And the actress, who died Sunday at 80, seemed destined for roles that were long on irritation and irony. You could feel it in so many scenes, in so many characters -- it was as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was being asked to deal with at that particular moment.

One of those particular moments was as Genevieve, a bone-tired waitress in a rundown West Texas café, who finds a table of obnoxious teenagers on her hands in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1971 classic “The Last Picture Show.”

Though she had more than a few choice words over the years that she saturated with knowing sarcasm, Brennan could say more with her lips than most could with a dozen lines. The smile was always slightly off-center, it never came at you straight on or full out. And the sneer....

In the 1980 comedy “Private Benjamin,” she used it full throttle. I swear it lifted Goldie Hawn’s new recruit a few feet off the ground. After that, Brennan’s character, Capt. Doreen Lewis, needn’t have bothered to dress the private down, though she did, and with flair. The supporting role would earn Brennan her only Oscar nomination.


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Often the confidant, Brennan was a good listener on screen. Those roles allowed her to show exactly what she could do with that malleable face. Opposite Paul Newman’s con artist in “The Sting,” she always seemed one step ahead of any joke, and one behind any surprise. Moments of realization always striking with such eyes-wide clarity, the “ahhh, I get it” signaled by the nod of her head, would become something of a signature over the years.

Characters with fuses that were already lit seemed to gravitate Brennan’s way. Sometimes it burned long, sometimes short, but you were always braced for the actress to rock things at least a little. Not one to fade into the background, any project she worked on felt Brennan’s presence.

In later years, she spent most of her time on television in comedies like “Taxi,” “Will & Grace” and “Newhart.” She kept turning up like a bad penny on the family drama series “7th Heaven” as a long-time church member. Gladys Bink tended to provide a “teaching moment” for Rev. Camden to use in counseling his flock or his brood. She made sneaking a smoke despite an oxygen tank more fun than it should have been.


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One of Brennan’s great appeals was the way her characters seemed to embody the realities of working-class stiffs. It was in the slump of her shoulders, a random sigh, the way she could stand as if her feet hurt but making clear she would carry on just the same.

Carry on she did, working as much as Hollywood would let her nearly to the end. Her last credit was as Gram Malone in a film called “Naked Run” in 2011. The movie is not one I saw, but from the looks of it, the comedy was about as bare as its title -- but cheeky, like Brennan, which somehow seems right.



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Twitter: @BetsySharkey