A look back at the life and career of Eileen Brennan, one of Hollywood’s great broads

Eileen Brennan was a great broad.

I use that word very specifically, too. There was something about her in most of the work she did that is simply unapologetic. She is caustic, she can be a world class ball-buster given the right material, and she seems like she could drink, smoke, and curse you under the table with minimal effort on her part.

Her biggest cultural moment probably came from her work in “Private Benjamin.” The Goldie Hawn film was 14 years into her career, and she had certainly made a strong impression in some significant films already, but “Private Benjamin” was one of those big giant flashpoint hits when it came out. Howard Zeiff’s film was a comedy, but it also had a ’70s attitude that underscored that comedy with some very raw emotional material and with a sense of sadness. There’s almost a European feeling to some of the material, which makes for a sort of strange tonal collision with all the “pampered princess in the Army” stuff that basically boiled down to a battle of the wills between Hawn and Brennan. When you look at the Warren Oates/Bill Murray dynamic in “Stripes” a year later, it looks like they just gender-swapped the exact relationship from “Private Benjamin,” and it’s impressive how tough Brennan’s Captain Lewis is even when you set her side by side with Oates’s Sgt. Hulka.

Brennan was equally at home with both comedy and drama, and it was her collaborations with Peter Bogdanovich that I think really helped define her range in the ’70s. “The Last Picture Show” is a brilliant, piercing film that is cast right in every single role, and Brennan certainly makes the most of her scenes. “Daisy Miller” was a film that got savaged by critics when it came out, but Brennan certainly wasn’t repeating anything she’d done in the earlier role. And while “At Long Last Love” also got roasted when it came out, I think Brennan’s work in the film is tremendous. Funny and bawdy and totally committed. I think “Scarecrow” is another movie where she made a strong impression, this time playing a wise-ass bartender. She made the most of roles in comedies like “Murder By Death,” “The Cheap Detective,” and, much later, “Clue,” and something about her very serious and world-worn demeanor just makes her comedy work even funnier.

When I say she was a great broad, I mean that she wasn’t delicate at all. She never seemed to be under anyone’s thumb. Eileen Brennan was no wilting lily. She always seemed to me to have all the answers, someone who had lived enough to know what’s what and take no shit about it. When she had a near-fatal car accident in 1982, when she was riding high from the success of “Private Benjamin,” it could have easily knocked her out of the business. ISame thing with her somewhat public battle with the bottle or the breast cancer she battled in the early ’90s. And, yet, she never seemed to lose a step. She remained sharp and funny to the end.

I hope her work continues to be appreciated. When you look at a movie like “The Sting,” it is so much a combination of the various personalities and styles that were brought together by George Roy Hill that I can’t imagine how it would have worked with anyone else. Brennan is just great in the role, and that’s what directors realized about her. You could bring her in for a few scenes and she’d kill it, or you could give her a co-lead, and she’d kill that, too. She knew what her role was in each project, knew how to support and shine and steal a few scenes just for herself. And I think what I liked most about her is exactly what defined her as a broad. She wasn’t waiting for anyone to give her anything or do anything for her. She moved through her life and her career with a fearlessness that is rare in anyone, man or woman, and it gave her this aura of “I don’t give a shit” that made her enormously watchable.

She passed away Sunday after a bout with bladder cancer. She leaves behind family and friends and fans around the world, as well as a wealth of great work. She was something special. She was 80 years old.

We could use a lot more broads like her.