Toni Collette is certainly a name that comes to mind with brilliant Australian actresses that have risen through the ranks of Hollywood. From her Academy Award nomination for her breakthrough performance in The Sixth Sense (1999), to her widely acclaimed role in horror film Hereditary (2018), Collette always brings her trademark element of authenticity and complexity to everything she is cast in. As she stated in an interview with the Guardian UK, "I look for challenging work, [...] complicated, layered, dense and honest. And unusual." Taking a look at her filmography, Collette clearly delivers on this — here are nine of her top performances of all time!
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Annie in Hereditary (2018)
Ari Aster's cinematic horror masterpiece is a disturbing tale of grief, psychological trauma and occultist rituals, where Collette plays an artist (Annie) who makes eerie, miniature versions of "real-world doll houses" for a living. After the death of her mother, Annie's family are plunged into a living nightmare that takes on macabre twists and turns.
Anyone who has seen Hereditary will never forget Collette's blood-curdling screams of anguish if nothing else. Even in less dramatic scenes though, Collette truly captures the essence of a woman in grief. At first, we see her somewhat detached after the death of her estranged, mysterious mother. An early scene of note is when Annie attends a grief support group, where she delivers an unnerving speech about the mental illnesses that plagued her mother, father and brother as she was growing up. The offhanded tone and then slowly-building awareness of her own traumas is so authentically played, as if Collette herself has felt everything in Annie's life.
In the second part of the film where Annie's daughter then also dies in a truly horrific way (yes, we're talking about the decapitation bit here), Collette perfectly highlights Annie's inner turmoil as she seems so eerily, emotionally distanced from her own circumstances; at one point, we even see Annie almost serenely working on a miniature "doll house" of her daughter's grisly death. Unsettling scenes of Annie sleepwalking into her son's bedroom and others where the family descends into tense arguments over dinner, all make room for Collette to lose herself in the role; her facial expressions and body language taking each scene to new psychologically horrifying levels. One thing is clear — Hereditary really would not be as effectively disturbing if not for Collette.
Sheryl Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The artfully made comedy-drama, Little Miss Sunshine, is about an eccentric family that is determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant. Collette plays Sheryl Hoover, mother of young Olive (Abigail Breslin), who leads the way in taking the family on a cross-country trip in a small, yellow VW bus to the "Little Miss Sunshine" competition.
Nominated for a BAFTA Award for this film, Collette really does shine as the quietly protective head of her dysfunctional family. We can see Sheryl's motherly affection and selfless love towards her oddball daughter and angsty teenage son (Paul Dano), her helplessness towards depressed brother Frank (Steve Carrell), and her continual mild irritance with failed-motivational-speaker husband (Greg Kinnear). In fact, the indie hit truly portrays Collette's abilities to enact personal relationships as if they were her own. Throughout the scenes of family dysfunction and drama, Collette also adds a level of dry humor that weaves together brilliantly with the quirky, light-hearted nature of the whole film. Certainly one to watch if you haven't yet!
Lynn Sear in The Sixth Sense (1999)
When you first watch The Sixth Sense, the main aspect of the film that will stay with you is the infamous M. Night Shyamalan twist. Re-watch it and you'll discover so much more - not least of which is Collette's incredible performance as worried mother, Lynn Sear, of withdrawn and shy Cole (Haley Joel Osment).
As Cole seeks the help of child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), audiences come to realize that the young boy is actually a medium who can communicate with the spirit world. Collette plays a working-class, single mother from Philadelphia who is trying to keep her small family unit together and fighting to understand her son's source of fear. Through Collette's performance, we can see Lynn's increasing helplessness at her son's situation. Collette never exaggerates the part, but instead, always has notes of warmth in interactions with Cole and builds up more dramatic intensity when needed in singular scenes — for instance, when Cole finally tells his mom about his supernatural abilities, her expressive reaction adds so much emotional integrity to the film.
Fiona Brewer in About A Boy (2002)
The film adaptation of Nick Hornby's famous novel, About a Boy, tells the story of immature and cynical bachelor, Will (Hugh Grant), as he one day decides to attend a single parent support group to pick up women. The fateful decision leads him to eventually meet Fiona (Toni Collette) and her son Marcus (Nicholas Hault). While the unconventional friendship between awkward, 12-year-old Marcus and 38-year-old Will is the centerpiece of this rom-com drama, there is much to be said about Collette's brilliant performance as Marcus' depressed mother as well.
In the witty, comedic style of the film, Collette is often shown crying in several scenes over nothing of note; she spills milk and cries, she boils a kettle of water and cries. Certainly a relatable predicament for those of us who have suffered from the woes of depression. In fact, she seems to illustrate the realities of depression with just the right hint of humor — not making light of the situation, but instead, almost reflecting her son's own confusion to his mum's state of mind. As well as comedy, Collette plays the role of Marcus' well-meaning mother with warmth, completely absorbing herself into the role of a slightly-eccentric, hippie, vegetarian, tree-hugger who is simply trying her best in a hard situation, "Will, am I a bad mother?" "No. No, you're not a bad mother. You're just a barking lunatic."
Pam in The Way Way Back (2013)
The indie-comedy drama, The Way Way Back, can only be described as a coming-of-age classic. Here, Collette plays Pam, mother of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who is dragged along on summer vacation with his mother and her controlling boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). The story follows Duncan's struggles as an awkward teenager, until he unexpectedly forms a friendship with Owen (Sam Rockwell), the manager of a nearby water park.
Collette has certainly played a lot of mothers; as she comments in an interview with The Scotsman, "Mothers wear so many hats and have very passionate relationships with their kids, and with life. [...] I want to show the complexity of trying to balance all those different aspects.” However, her role here as Pam is somewhat different to the typical selfless mother archetype — instead, she plays more of a flawed parent who fails to protect her son from her partner's intimidating nature. Despite her fewer lines, Collette still manages to perfectly embody the character of shy divorcee, Pam. From her early restrained interactions with Trent, to her increasingly courageous stands against her partner and with her son, Collette truly adds a brilliant undertone to the film with these heartfelt, quieter moments of resilience.
Tara Gregson in Unites States of Tara (2009)
Winner of a Primetime Emmy for this show, Collette plays Tara, a suburban mother who is trying to cope with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Right from the pilot episode, the show seems to be an acting portfolio, showcasing Collette's entire brilliant range as Tara's multiple egos re-emerge due to withdrawal from her medication. Collette plays a number of different personas all within half an hour segments, switching seamlessly from one to the next, including a 1950s housewife, flirty teenager "T", and even a war veteran, "Buck". Commenting on how she plays multiple personas in this series, Collette says in an interview with NPR, "They're complete, and I see them and I feel them and I taste them, and it's a very immediate response. There's almost not too far to travel to make them whole."
As well as the various characters in the show, Collette plays Tara in between her DID episodes brilliantly as well, allowing audiences to see the true underlying message of the series; here is simply a struggling mother who is trying to keep her dysfunctional family together. If you want to reach ultimate Collette cult fan mode, this show is for you!
Mother in I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)
Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a surrealist, enigmatic drama-thriller that will leave you with more questions than you started with. As Kaufman has explained in the past, he is not one to explain things to audiences — which, you could say, is putting it lightly with this film. The story follows Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his new girlfriend Lucy (Jesse Buckley), who are taking a long snowy drive to meet Jake's parents together for the first time (played by Toni Collette and David Thewlis).
Collette is a phenomenal addition to this bizarre tale, playing an eccentric and awkward mother who speaks in half-sentences, trailing off after laughing erratically aloud at her own jokes that only her husband seems to appreciate. The parents are never given names and have somewhat of an elusive backstory, all of which adds to the intrigue of the plot as a whole. One thing that stands out is the surrealist manner in which the parents rapidly age from one scene to the next, becoming increasingly frantic and confused as they do so. While the film takes a shift away from Jake's parents' home in the second half, the earlier scenes are truly a platform for Collette and Thewlis to come together and shine in eccentricity.
Muriel in Muriel's Wedding (1994)
Collette is the leading star of this Australian film from 1994, about a young social outcast who spends days alone in her room obsessively listening to ABBA and dreaming of her wedding day.
As her first leading role, it is remarkable to look back and see where Collette really started off. Even at this starting point, Collette is fantastic at playing Muriel with originality. She slides into the role so completely, playing a nervous, awkward, head-in-the-clouds, day-dreamer. Despite all the bleak turns in the story, like when Muriel's mother commits suicide, Muriel's Wedding retains a comedic tone throughout, full of nostalgic energy that is reflected in the ABBA-heavy soundtrack - an appropriate choice given Australia's reputation as an ABBA fan-nation. Collette captures the theme of female independence with just the right level of awkward humor, hopefulness and emotional subtlety — making the film stand out as one that stays relevant with time through its exploration of self-esteem and female empowerment.
Maureen in A Long Way Down (2014)
Collette plays a supporting role in this understated comedy-drama about four people who have a chance encounter on New Year's Eve, each trying to end their own lives. Despite the very bleak outlook suggested by the film's premise, the film is in fact a witty and light-hearted story of friendship and chosen family. Maureen (Collette) is one of the four friends, with Aaron Paul, Pierce Brosan and Imogen Poots also starring.
While some reviews suggest that the film shys away from its subject of suicidal depression, other critics credit the film's use of subtler emotional scenes. Whatever your opinion on how well the film reflects the Nick Hornby novel it is based on, Collette again adds some much-needed substance and emotional integrity as a woman who is struggling with guilt and loneliness as the single mother of a severely disabled son. As renowned film critic Roger Ebert comments, "The film's greatest value is further proof that Collette makes everything she's in better."