Get Serious: Comic Actors in Dramatic Roles

Slide 1: Zach Galifianakis in It's Kind of a Funny Story

In a recent article on the Vanity Fair website, “Real World Toronto: When Comedians Stop Being Funny and Start Getting Real,” John Lopez explored the places where comedians play it (kind of) straight. Lopez noted that in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, “Galifianakis is as zany as ever, but with a new pathos, vulnerability, and sweetness that calls to mind Harpo Marx in a moment of quiet retreat.” This wasn’t Galifianakis trying to be dramatic, but rather, according to co-director Ryan Fleck, staying in character: “He wasn’t trying to be silly during the dramatic scenes. He knew what each scene was and what it required, and we just urged him to bring as much of his real personality into the role as he could.” While many early, silent comics like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin wove comedy and pathos into every role, later comedians were often typecast in only funny roles. So when they broke off and accepted a serious part, their talent became all the more visible. In this slideshow, we survey a group of other performances, much like Zach Galifianakis’ part in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in which otherwise funny actors get (somewhat) serious.

Slide 2: Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

As the deadpanned, quick-tongued comic from Saturday Night Live, Bill Murray proved early on that he was one of America’s great comedians. But as funny as he was, there was also something soulful and sad in Murray just waiting to get out. In films like The Razor’s Edge, Rushmore and Groundhog Day, Murray demonstrated his talent for playing emotionally complex characters. But perhaps nothing prepared audiences for his turn in Sofia Coppola’s 2003 Lost in Translation. Murray plays an American actor (not unlike himself) who’s been brought to Tokyo to shoot an ad for Suntory Whisky. There, in between commercial shoots, he connects to another lost soul, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is waiting at the Park Hyatt Tokyo for her husband to finish a photo shoot. In casting the film, director Coppola was so sure that only Bill Murray could flesh out the complexity of the Bob Harris character that she spent over five months tracking down the elusive actor. And even after Murray agreed to come on board, he didn’t appear on set until the very first day of shooting. But none of that mattered, since his performance was pitch perfect. In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Like Buster Keaton, his deadpan predecessor, Murray has a face that's tragically sad in repose, and the heroic way he copes with civilization's discontents makes you both laugh and shake your head in rueful empathy.”

Slide 3: Lucille Ball in Dance, Girl, Dance

Now we mostly remember the red-headed wonder of this film as the ditzy wife who has some “splaining to do.” But Lucille Ball could also play serious and sinister. One of her most outstanding turns was in Dorothy Arzner’s 1940 exposé of fame, Dance, Girl, Dance. Ball is not the lead, but a tart-tongued, ambitious dancing queen who pulls the film’s lead Maureen O’Hara down into the burlesque gutter with her. But it was not O’Hara people remember. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther gives voice to many people’s opinion that “it is Miss Ball who brings an occasional zest into the film, especially that appearance in the burlesque temple where she stripteases the Hays office.” But as good as she was in this serious role, it was comedy that paid her bills––in fact Ball’s TV comedy later bought RKO, the very studio that made this film.

Slide 4: Ben Stiller in Greenberg

Ben Stiller has a genius for creating characters we’re not really sure we like––but we find too funny to actually hate. Consider his turn as a corporate tool in Reality Bites, as the stalking would-be loser in There’s Something About Mary, as the foppish fashion model in Zoolander, or as the dastardly dodgeball player in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Each character is so amusingly ridiculous that we don’t care how bad they are. (You can review a few of his characters in our “Ben Stiller: From Slapstick to Satire” slideshow.) In Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, however, Stiller plays a character that is hard to like, and too complex to not take seriously. In his rave review, the New York Times A.O. Scott highlights the fact that “Stiller, suppressing his well-honed sketch comedian’s urge to wink at the audience, turns Roger into a walking challenge to the Hollywood axiom that a movie’s protagonist must be likable.” The dramatic integrity he brought to the role also gained him the admiration of Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote that his “performance [is] as clean and strong as the one Jim Carrey gave in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Slide 5: Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Jim Carrey’s physical contortions and facial grimaces––exploited hilariously in such comedies as The Mask, Dumb and Dumber and the TV show In Living Color––have made him one of the great clowns of our time. Indeed his style is so animated that it only took a small stretch for him to slip from human being to cartoon figure, either as the Riddler in Batman Forever or the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Like the face-painted mimes of Paris, Carrey uses his face to communicate his thoughts and feelings. But in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey goes in the opposite direction. His face becomes a cipher. Rather than showing us everything, it provides only a small glimpse of the enormous emotional upheavals taking place inside of him. Indeed the face of his character, Joel, becomes a tabula rasa, quite befitting a story about man seeking to erase his memory and feelings. Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly notes, “Carrey has often played timid, stammering nerds, but this is the first time he has eradicated any hint of stylization. He makes Joel a deeply vulnerable ordinary man, too 'nice' for his own good, haunted by dreams of romance he's scarcely bold enough to voice to himself.”

Slide 6: Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy

In may ways, Jerry Lewis may be America’s greatest clown. In film after film, the goofball Lewis throws himself into kooky, klutzy characters that can’t help but screw up. From The Nutty Professor to The Disorderly Orderly, Lewis embodies pure zaniness. For most people, the real Jerry Lewis appeared only once a year during his Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. But in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy, Lewis showed a side few had seen: the bitter businessman. In many ways, the brilliance of Lewis’ performance wasn’t that it was such a shift, but rather it was the other side of the clown we already knew. As David Ehrenstein astutely points out, “Critic after critic — even those hostile to the film as a whole — has remarked on the excellence of Lewis's performance. On an immediate level it's easy to see why. It's an assured, solid piece of craftsmanship—quite unlike anything he has ever done before. And there's the rub. Jerry Lewis—show business legend for over a quarter of a century, loved by the public, ignored by the critics, praised by French highbrows, damned by the American pseudo-elite—suddenly stands before us in a new guise. But is it really all that new? …it's a Jerry not all that removed from the off-screen/stage Jerry—the abrasive show businessman so often the target of critical barbs.”

Slide 7: Peter Sellers in Being There

Soon after Jerzy Kosinski novel's Being There was published in 1971, Peter Sellers began a dogged quest to obtain the film rights, knowing that the simple-minded gardener at the story’s heart captured something essential about his own comic sensibility. The cover of a 1980 Time Magazine entitled “Who is this Man? The Many Faces of Peter Sellers” highlighted the comic actor’s chameleon talent for creating characters. A little grease paint, a pasted-on moustache, and maybe a new hat and––voila!––Sellers transformed himself. But Chance’s character in Being There was all about the absence of character, the blank reflection that gave others the permission to project onto him whatever they wanted. Sellers knew the character all too well, as he once noted to writer Kosinski, “My whole life has been devoted to imitating others.” But the difference between those hilarious comic personae and Chance is all about intention. As AMC film critic Eric Meyerson explains, “While Sellers made his cinematic fame falling down staircases and engaging in zany mix-'em-ups, this massive departure is the finest performance of his career… In Being There, Sellers creates a character that's empty, vapid, and with nothing to say, but exuding profundity, calculation, and utter Zen.”

Slide 8 Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple

Whoopi Goldberg must have seemed an odd choice to play Celie Harris, the spirited, badly abused black girl in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s famous novel.  Even odder was Goldberg’s audition strategy; she created a skit about a stoned E.T. getting arrested for possession in Oakland. For Spielberg it wasn’t so much her humor, but the expressiveness of her face that got the stand-up comedian her first film role. Roger Ebert later would call it “one of the most amazing debut performances in movie history.”

Slide 9: Mo'Nique in Precious

Stand-up comedy is not a place for the faint of heart. For comedians whose aggressive take-no-prisoners approach is so specific to a stage persona, one wonders how they could channel it into a narrative character. But when the big and bawdy Mo’Nique was cast by director Lee Daniels to play the sadistic mother in the heart-wrenching drama Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, the sassy comedienne harnessed her stand-up experience to reveal the corrosive interior life of a very angry black woman. In later interviews, Mo’Nique confessed how hard it was to hold all of that inside. But she did so with grace. Rolling StonesPeter Travers wrote, “The role could have been a caricature of cruelty, but Mo'Nique — a stand-up comic with real acting chops — refuses to play her the easy way. This monster has her reasons, shocking though they are. There is one word for Mo'Nique: dynamite. She tears up the screen and then, in a climactic scene with Precious and Ms. Weiss, tears at your heart. If Oscar has a sure thing this year, Mo'Nique is it.” And his predictions were right on the money as Mo’Nique did in fact walk off with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Slide 10: Rodney Dangerfield in Natural Born Killers

As a stand-up comedian, Rodney Dangerfield built a career out of never getting any respect. But when Oliver Stone cast him as the cruel and abusive dad of Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis) in Natural Born Killers, the director made sure that this character did not deserve any as well. It could have seemed like simply a bad joke, portraying a horrifyingly abusive and incestuous father as the head of a light-hearted family sitcom, as Stone did with his use of canned music and a laughter soundtrack. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman explains, “A flashback to Mallory's adolescence is staged as a foulmouthed sitcom, with her fetid, incestuous father played by Rodney Dangerfield––a bit of casting that quickly turns your laughter to shock.” But what makes the joke so devastating is Dangerfield’s skill in playing the scene straight, never winking or nodding to the conceit.

Slide 11: Art Carney in Harry and Tonto

For many, Art Carney will always be Jackie Gleason’s elbow-nudging neighbor on The Honeymooners. Indeed he perfected that role to such a degree that producers regularly sought him out to play the doofus pal in popular comedies. And, in some ways, one could see his performance in Paul Mazursky’s 1974 film Harry and Tonto as an extension of that “good buddy” role, with the cat being the other buddy. Carney plays Harry Coombes, an elderly citizen who decides to take a cross-country trip with his cat after being forced out of his Manhattan apartment. But Carney’s performance was so surprising and original that it earned him the Oscar for Best Actor that year. As Roger Ebert points out, “Art Carney has, of course, fashioned a distinguished career for himself on the stage after all those years as Norton on The Honeymooners. Here, he flowers as a movie star. The performance is totally original, all his own, and worthy of the Academy Award it received. It's not easy to make comedies that work as drama, too. But Carney's acting is so perceptive that it helps this material succeed.”

Slide 13: Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People

Sweet, dependable Mary. Whether as Laurie Petrie helping up her hubby Rob (Dick Van Dyke) after he’s tripped over an ottoman in The Dick Van Dyke Show or as herself catching a flung hat at the start of each episode of her self-named TV show, Mary Tyler Moore is always the sweetest comedian in the room. But when she accepted the role of the emotionally frozen mother in Robert Redford’s classic melodrama Ordinary People, Mary was no longer Mrs. Nice-Girl. Her tougher-than-painted-nails portrayal of a middle class mom desperately clinging to her respectability, despite the fact her son has just attempted suicide, is more than just chilling––it’s dead on. But there is also a link between this chilly matriarch and the smiling, carefree gals she’s played before. In Time magazine, Richard Schickel acknowledged both Moore’s acting talent and her insight in the kind of women she’s often played: “Mary Tyler Moore deserves some kind of award for her courage in exploring the coldness that can sometimes be found at the heart of those all-American girls she often plays.”


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