Oscar-nominated actress Eileen Brennan has died in a Burbank hospice after a long battle with bladder cancer. She was 80.
Brennan played a string of world-weary characters in the 1970s and ’80s in movies like Scarecrow, Murder by Death, and Clue, in which she played the dotty boardgame character Mrs. Peacock. Peter Bogdanovich was so taken with her work as Genevieve in 1971’s The Last Picture Show that he cast her again in his Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller three years later. Her best-known role, though, may be as the tough-talking drill sargent Capt. Doreen Lewis in the comedy Private Benjamin, the only performance that ever netted her an Oscar nomination. Opposite Goldie Hawn as the title character, Brennan became the female equivalent of R. Lee Ermey, imposing and fierce… but absolutely hilarious.
It was Brennan’s knack for comedy that will be her last legacy. She discovered subtle notes of irony playing the whorehouse madame Billie in The Sting, the perfect burnt-out companion to Paul Newman’s weary cardsharp Henry Gondorff. Just look how she milks every note of her near-wordless rendition of “La Vie en Rose” in Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective. It’s total absurdity yet somehow sincere to the last frame. Brennan’s work shows just how hilarious an actor can be when treating comedy as a very serious matter.
Brennan is survived by her two sons, Patrick and Sam.