In a few days we’ll get to witness Steve Carell make a stunning transformation in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. Early reviews have already pegged Carell for an Oscar nomination and Miller, who previously scored Jonah Hill an Oscar nomination, may have the distinction of bringing two actors from the Apatow productions over to the dramatic side of Hollywood. Like Carell and Hill before Miller, there have been many comedians (particularly women) who are unfairly pigeonholed into their genre. But every so often these comedians are allowed breakout and truly showcase their versatile acting abilities. Some have been rewarded far more than others in these attempts and re-defined their careers, others have only offered us a glimpse at what they’re capable of. With the hopes of seeing a further breakdown of regimented Hollywood casting, here’s a countdown of the best dramatic performances by comedic actors and actresses.
10. Shirley MacLaine in Bernie
Shirley MacLaine is a graduate from the Billy Wilder school of comedy, and while she too had her share of dramatic roles over the years, she was always best known for her charming sense of humor. Her role in Bernie (yes Bernie, not Steel Magnolias) as Marge Nugent, is completely devoid of charm. As a nagging, verbally-abusive widow, MacLaine adds dramatic credibility to Richard Linklater’s dark comedy and never allows her performance to be overshadowed by Jack Black’s. Her role in Bernie is wonderfully adventurous, and showed a new side of MacLaine.
9. Michael Keaton in Batman Returns
Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman was a controversial decision that seems even less likely to go over in the modern Hollywood-era of fanboys and internet forums. While not the best dark knight, Keaton was the first to give Bruce Wayne a real sense of tragedy and make superhero films convincing. His comedic talents surely proved instrumental in dealing with the absurdity of Burton’s Gotham. While he was overshadowed by the villains, Keaton still managed to carve out a memorable portrayal tinged with just the right amount of self-awareness. His dramatic skills are further shown in Birdman (out now), a performance that given time to age a little, will surely be added to this list.
8. Albert Brooks in Drive
Brooks made a surprising choice for the mobster, Bernie Rose. He’s not physically imposing, and he looks more like a suburban neighbor than the head of a criminal operation. But there’s so much conviction in his line delivery that every threat he makes carries weight. Considering how populated the movies are with gangsters, it’s particularly noteworthy that Brooks’ performance never feels like a cliché. For most of the film Brooks gives Rose a collected sense of control, and even when that control slips away, the performance never results in scenery chewing. He instead gives off the sense that Rose has a sense of humor just under the surface, but one that’s sadistic and startlingly unfunny.
7. Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross
Jack Lemmon is best known for his comedic aloofness in some of Billy Wilder’s best films and for co-starting in many a comedy with Walter Matthau. While he did some serious work over his long career, his performance as Shelley Levene stands apart from the rest. Lemmon always had the ability to shift wildly between emotions and make each change feel sincere. As an aging salesman, desperate to save his job and his sick daughter, Lemmon cycles through moments of extreme confidence and crushing depression. The naivety he imbued many of his characters with, is used here not for laughs, but sympathy. Lemmon creates a character so good-naturedly foolish that you can’t help but want to smack him and hug him in the same instance.
6. Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy
Jerry Lewis, one of the most famous comedians of all time, played it completely straight as a variation of himself in The King of Comedy. His performance as Jerry Langford, speaks to the dangers of celebrity and the tiring pull comedians must feel. Lewis gives you the sense that Langford enjoys the fandom but is also increasingly weary of the whole thing. Where Lewis really shines in the film is as a hostage duct-taped to a chair. Even when he’s unable to speak, his fearful eyes and constantly sweating face add inescapable tension that make DeNiro’s Pupkin into a credible threat. Lewis, the king of comedy, never provides a moment of honest humor and that’s the genius of the performance.
5. Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness
Though Will Smith’s star power has made his Fresh Prince and action star status difficult to completely shake, his performances have always been charismatic and magnetic. As Chris Gardner, a man in poverty brought to his lowest point, Smith was allowed to display a vulnerability and desperation his other roles have often lacked. While the film is at times overwrought, and it’s impossible to forget you’re watching Will Smith, the performance showcases the raw emotional power of an actor whose versatility has too often been forgotten and overshadowed by his status.
4. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jim Carey’s elastic comedic abilities made him the standout comedic star of the 90s, but offered him little opportunity for serious roles. Carrey’s role in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind allowed him to surprise audiences again. After years of essentially playing cartoons, his performance as the shy and isolated Joel Barish finally allowed him to tap into something human. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay went a long way in making Carrey relatable in his exploration of heartbreak (He did wonders for Nicholas Cage in Adaptation). It’s a shame Carrey hasn’t had the chance to do more drama, because it’s far more compelling than watching him retread the same old comedy routines.
3. Mo’Nique in Precious
Mo’nique’s performance in Precious is one those acting moments that completely blind sides you with its power. While she’s had some success on television, her film roles have never consisted of anything particularly noteworthy. But as Precious’s mom Mary Lee Johnston, she completely transforms herself into a frightening portrait of an abusive mother wrapped in hatred and self-loathing. It’s an ugly role, devoid of humor or redeemable qualities, and yet Mo’nique not only manages to create a terrible human being but elicits sympathy for her as well.
2. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting
Robin Williams was one of the few genius talents whose dramatic performances equaled his comedic abilities. There’s many roles to choose from, and while I almost went with his performance in the highly underrated One Hour Photo, it’s impossible to turn away from his performance in Good Will Hunting as Dr. Sean Maguire. Williams’ performance is filled with warmth and at times brutal emotional honesty. He makes Maguire’s love for his deceased wife so evident that he creates a fully realized portrait of a character who’s not even in the film. Out of all his roles, it this one that is his most compassionate.
1. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia
It’s hard to picture a time when Tom Hanks wasn’t a dramatic actor. But let’s not forget that before he was fighting off Somali pirates and saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks was a Bosom Buddy. While his performance as Forrest Gump is his most iconic dramatic role, it still put many of his comedic skills to use. His true breakout as a dramatic actor came the previous year in Philadelphia. His performance as AIDS patient Andrew Beckett is supported by a startling physical transformation. It’s a sincere performance that is filled with pain and fear, but also courage. Hanks’ brave performance brought a lot of awareness to the disease at the time of its release and defined his career from then forward.