She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing the role of Lynda Dummar in Jonathan Demme's 1980 film Melvin and Howard.
Steenburgen, who studied at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1970s, also received a Golden Globe nomination for the 1981 film Ragtime, a BAFTA TV Award nomination for the 1985 TV miniseries Tender is the Night and an Emmy Award nomination for the 1988 TV film The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank.
Other performances have been: in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), as a woman who is having an affair with the title character (played by Johnny Depp); the role of Hannah Nixon in the Oliver Stone biopic, Nixon (1995); and in the Will Ferrell 2003 comedy Elf, as a woman who discovers that her husband is the father of one of Santa's elves.
In recent years, she has been in the comedy films, Step Brothers (2008), starring Will Ferrell, playing the mother of Ferrell's character; Four Christmases (2008) opposite Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon; and The Proposal (2009) opposite Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.
She worked as a server at Magic Pan and for Doubleday while studying under Will Esper.Dirty Girl, which features Steenburgen along with Juno Temple, Milla Jovovich and William H.Her other film appearances include Cross Creek (1983), Parenthood (1989), Back to the Future Part III (1990), Philadelphia (1993), What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Elf (2003), The Brave One (2007), Step Brothers (2008), The Proposal (2009), and The Help (2011).Steenburgen is also an active humanitarian who is involved with various groups ranging from human rights to environmental causes.Steenburgen's big break came when she was discovered by Jack Nicholson in the reception room of Paramount's New York office and was cast as the female lead in his second directorial effort, the 1978 Western Goin' South.
Steenburgen had a leading role in the 1979 film Time After Time as a modern woman who falls in love with author H. Wells, played by her future-first husband Malcolm Mc Dowell.