It’s going to be hard for the new animated Addams Family film to match the greatness of the franchise’s two live-action movies. It will be even harder for it to give us a villain as memorable as Joan Cusack’s Debbie Jellinsky. The black widow of Addams Family Values stands as one of the best, most entertaining baddies in movie history, a femme fatale with style and grace who could make us laugh just as easily as she could blow us up with a box of dynamite. Twenty-five years after she was electrocuted into a pile of dust, she remains a perfect character in a perfect movie.
How many sequels to great comedies have matched—let alone are arguably better than—the original film? It’s an impossibly short list, but Addams Family Values is on it. Even though 1991’s The Addams Family is genuinely incredible and a yearly must-watch during the Halloween season, it doesn’t have Debbie Jellinsky, the homicidal maniac who targeted Uncle Fester to be the fourth rich husband she killed on their wedding night.
Debbie is a fantastic character on the page. She’s smart—fooling her victims with believable aliases and charm—and resourceful—evading the authorities for years. She’s also cunning and focused, rightfully marking Fester as an ideal target for her latest coffer-filling plot. And no murderer has ever had such style; her fondness for the finer things in life, especially alluring and frilly dresses of white and pastel, being one of her most distinguishing traits. Her bright smile and lively fashion choices were the perfect cover for a twisted heart, a greedy soul, and the fact she was totally insane.
All of that made her an exceptional foil for the Addams Family. She was their opposite visually, yet very much like them. It’s why they could relate and feel sympathy for her even while she was trying to murder them all. Debbie was a perfect character to put alongside Raul Julia and Angelic Huston’s Gomez and Morticia. The two Addams Family movies had a sharper comedy edge to them than the slapstick live-action TV series ever did, and also a much darker edge. Debbie not only fit seamlessly into that world, she highlighted what made them so entertaining.
But while the script and costume department were the foundation for a great character, Joan Cusack’s performance elevated it to something special. In an instant she goes from sweet and innocent to maniacal and frightening, and then back again. Her face conveys evil, anger, and revulsion as easily as feigned innocence, and every contortion, snarl, and sneer is funnier than the last. She also delivers some of the best lines in a movie that is full of amazing actors constantly being hilarious, like when she doesn’t want to sleep with the virgin Fester. “Have you really never had sex? Well then how do you know we’re not having it right now?” Or when she met the baby Pubert and said, “Oh, I just adore little babies. I just want to grab ’em and squeeze ’em ’til there’s not a breath left in their tiny little bodies.”
Every scene she is in, whether she’s licking Thing’s fingers in a way that is both sensual and funny, dancing to “Macho Man” while waiting for her husband to blow up, or responding to Fester’s request to give him a kiss by saying, “Give me a twenty,” she dominates the screen. Considering Julia, Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci, Christine Baranski, and Peter MacNicol are all truly amazing in the movie, it’s almost impossible to think anyone could overshadow them. But Cusack is so wonderful and entertaining, she does.
The genius of her scene-chewing performance culminates with her final scene, when she shares the story of her life to (nearly) the entire Addams clan with a slide show explaining why she murdered so many. It all started with her parents at the age of 10 when they didn’t get her a Ballerina Barbie. She turns the phrase “Malibu Barbie” into art before yelling, “That’s not what I wanted! That’s not who I was. I was a ballerina—graceful, delicate! They had to go.”
By the end, when she justifies all her actions in Addams Family Values‘ subtle homage to The Merchant of Venice by saying, “So I killed. So I maimed. So I destroyed one innocent life after another. Aren’t I a human being? Don’t I yearn and ache and shop? Don’t I deserve love? And jewelry?” we don’t even hold it against her she wanted to murder characters we love.
She might have been a psycho, but she did deserve love and jewelry, because Debbie Jellinsky was won of the best villains ever.
She still is.