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Shelley Long’s Best Work, Ranked

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Why isn’t Shelley Long, who was born on this day in 1949, the kind of beloved icon that, say, Lily Tomlin is? She was ubiquitous throughout my childhood, but now only does the occasional television appearance. Admittedly she was the candle-in-the-wind of 1980s comedy actresses, in the sense that either she or her agent had odd taste in scripts and she ended up in more than her fair share of stinkers. (She also had a flighty, princess-y quality that contributes to that perception, and had a reputation of being difficult on-set. Check out this video of Bette Midler talking about whether she’d work with Long again, just to start.)

But her brand of light, go-getter daffiness still has a shine many years on. And in honor of the lady’s birthday, here follows a consideration of the eight things she did that are still worth watching, a couple of decades on. Let’s start with the least watchable and move up.

7 & 8. Night Shift and Losin’ It

These two clunkers, each of which saw Long paired with a pop-culture icon — Henry “the Fonz” Winkler in Night Shift and Tom Cruise in Losin’ It — found Long playing the floozy to their straight men. She is the only watchable part of these horrific movies, which really isn’t saying much.

6. Dr. T and the Women

This late-period Altman film, which assembled basically every actress in Hollywood to play the foils to Richard Gere’s irritating Dr. T, did include Long’s kind-of-touching performance as the assistant who somewhat inexplicably loves him. Not as great as many of Altman’s works, but there’s a magic to the way that, in most scenes she’s in, Long is playing out another plot than the one that’s foregrounded, as Roger Ebert once pointed out — and also in the way she handles the huge cliché of the particular scene above.

5. Irreconcilable Differences

This was one of my favorite films as a kid, no doubt because the storyline suggested I could divest myself of my parents. It stars the still-tiny Drew Barrymore as a girl who sues for her independence after her parents treat her as a pawn in their divorce. Even the trailer’s pretty unwatchable now. The dread touch of Nancy Meyers is upon this film — the dialogue’s pretty flat and boring and clichéd. But it has a certain so-bad-it’s-good quality.

4. Hello Again

Also in the so-bad-it’s-good category is this 1987 comedy, which sees Long brought back to life after choking on, in the trailer’s memorable phrasing, “a giant south Korean chicken ball, a chicken ball that ended it all.” It’s all very slick and ridiculous in the way of so many 1980s comedies, but her daffy playing along is great.

3. Outrageous Fortune

Still the best female buddy movie ever produced, bar none, and yet we never talk about it anymore. A refined Long and a crass Bette Midler chase an absconding boyfriend to the ends of the earth, and both of them are great. Sure, they hated each other so much that by the end they were even fighting about top billing on the poster and had to split it — Long getting top billing in the east and Midler in the West. But they created a great deal of fun for the rest of us; that’s something.

2. Cheers

So iconic was Shelley Long’s character Diane in Cheers that she hardly needs an introduction. Her romance with Sam so captivated fans that the show got hate mail when Diane briefly hooked up with Frasier. Per GQ’s oral history of Cheers, Long promptly got a little territorial and weird about the nature of the character:

Shelley believed that she was the new Lucille Ball, and she would spend hours after the run-through talking with the writers about her character and the story, just talking it to death. They would indulge her, but they indulged her to a point where they couldn’t stand it anymore.

That said, whatever the vicissitudes of working with her, Diane still reverberates in the culture, as one of the first women on television who could beat the men at lovable, bookish pretentiousness. Let’s have another one of those soon, please.

1. Troop Beverly Hills

Putting this above Cheers might be controversial to some. But no woman of my generation managed to avoid this hilarious and ridiculous comedy about a spoiled Beverly Hills divorcée who finds herself guiding a troop of ersatz Girl Scouts. Jenny Lewis, Kellie Martin, Carla Gugino, and Pia Zadora appear, among other ’80s child stars. And it includes Long gamely dancing the Mashed Potato (see above). Perhaps not the thing everyone would choose to be known for to the grave, but there are worse things than being remembered for the way you inspired a generation of little girls to dance.