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There was that moment in the 1988 comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels where Headly first appears that made me first take notice of her. Unconventionally beautiful from the Hollywood standard, she had a kind of Golden Age look about her that popped with energy and sizzled with sexuality, and yet, she had the comedic chops and timing to make it all work in incredibly rewarding ways. That’s no easy feat when your co-stars are Michael Caine and Steve Martin. Throughout that film, she played the supposed dope in the men’s con game but ends up having a few surprises of her own. It’s a fantastic performance that established a long career of great work for which she will long be remembered.
While she spent a lot of time on TV in the past few decades, her roles in film are the real highlights. She made several early appearances in some well-known movies, starting with short parts in Arthur Penn‘s Four Friends and the Dan Aykroyd comedy Doctor Detroit. She earned a part in the Kevin Costner drama Fandago, which though small, is quite memorable, before a string of small bits landed her the role of Janet Colgate in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which served like a floodgate for what was to come.
Many might best remember Headly for her real breakout role in Warren Beatty‘s Dick Tracy, the comic strip film adaptation that became a kind of minor phenomenon at the time. She plays Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s girlfriend and earned praise for her work among a large cast of some of Hollywood’s now legendary stars, including Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and a controversial role by Madonna who got a lot press at the time. I always liked Headly in that movie, again her charisma and elegance really fit the part, her old school looks and presence making her seem like the only one in the cast who captured the feel of the times. There was something about the tilt of her head and that playful smile that weakened the knees.
I was next really impressed with Headly in an HBO film called And The Band Played On, a story about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In the movie, she plays Dr. Mary Guinan, an investigator for the CDC, working again with a large ensemble cast, including Matthew Modine, Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Ian Mckellen, Alan Alda and many, many others, though she is a lead and does great work as a compassionate fighter for the cause. Not a romantic role, she is nonetheless as radiant light in the dark story. This is a must for Headly fans and a great film all around.
She had a rather thankless part in the Macaulay Culkin/Ted Danson comedy Getting Even With Dad but got a better chance to shine in Richard Dreyfuss‘ Mr. Holland’s Opus, a little-seen but stirring drama about a high school music teacher aspiring to be a composer. She plays his wife who is tested by his passions. It’s a great film and she’s well worth watching, even is she is overshadowed by Dreyfuss.
Headly pretty much moved on to television after a few roles in underwhelming films, landing a 9 episode run on the hugely popular medical drama E.R. playing Dr. Abby Keaton before beginning a kind of second career on TV series, popping up every once in awhile in a film, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s porn addiction drama Don Jon and a substantial role in the failed Tom Hanks drama The Circle. Her last film, still in post-production is called Villa Capri, with Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, set to release in November. She was also filming for a Seth Rogen sci-fi comedy television series on Hulu called Future Man. She earned high praise for her excellent work in the acclaimed BBC mini-series The Night Of playing attorney Alison Crow, charging the character with just what we expect from Headly, tons of feminism and great ferocity.
Glenne Headly was a great talent, an actress who never quite got the superstardom she might have deserved but made a huge imprint on entertainment. Her classic looks and comedic charms made her unique in a land of copycats. She will be missed.