June 26th, 2017

Ten comedic actors who turned dramatic

10. Ben Stiller in Greenberg

After hosting his own highly-influential if little-seen television variety show (The Ben Stiller Show) in the early 1990s, Ben Stiller’s career as a comedic actor, writer and director steadily rose to the point where, in the early 21st century, he rivaled Will Ferrell for the title of most bankable comedic performer in the United States.

Since appearing in Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, Stiller regularly works with the comedy-without-laughs clique of Anderson, Noah Baumbach and the brothers Wilson, releasing small, critically-acclaimed films in between the broad comedies which spend weeks at the top of the box office. Baumbach’s Greenberg is a cruelly heartfelt depiction of a privileged thirty-something struggling to make sense of the world, fumbling his way through awkward romantic encounters and social situations. Stiller is completely unlike the over-the-top caricatures he plays in just about everything else, playing the conflicted Greenberg with understated inner tension and just the right amount of self-pity.

9. Marlon Wayans in Requiem for a Dream

Everyone else in this list was relatively well-respected as a comedic actor (or stand-up comedian) before turning to drama, but the same cannot be said of Marlon Wayans. The Wayans brothers’ careers in film can be described as spotty at best, ranging from the worse-than-cancer (The Glimmer Man) to the generally unwatchable (Major Payne), so it was a great surprise to see Marlon Wayans’ creditable appearance in Requiem for a Dream, a film which depicts the mental and physical destruction of four drug addicts over the course of a year.

While Wayans is the least focused-upon of the four, his character’s desperation to escape the streets and make something of himself is central to the events which lead to the group’s decimation. Wayans’ own upbringing in the housing projects of New York City would have prepared him well for the role of the small-time drug crook Tyrone, who ends up in jail, alone, his life utterly destroyed. The film netted Ellen Burstyn her sixth Oscar nomination and had great performances all round, but Wayans more than holds his own.

8. Billy Connolly in The Last Samurai

Billy Connolly is unique on this list in that, although he remains one of the world’s most recognisable stand-up comedians, he’s never been well-known for comedic performances on film. After four decades at the top of the stand-up world he could be forgiven for retiring to a mansion in the Scottish countryside, spending his days plucking at his banjo, but to his credit he not only continues to work in comedy but also occasionally takes on a film role or two.

While the angsty teens of the world would most appreciate his work in The Boondock Saints and the serious art scholars would probably name his BAFTA-nominated turn in Mrs. Brown as his best, my personal favourite of his performances is in the sprawling samurai/war epic The Last Samurai. Connolly jokes that he has a knack for playing characters who die early in his films (he said of Muppet Treasure Island, “I even died in a fuckin’ Muppet movie!”), and that’s certainly the case here with his character barely lasting five minutes into the first major battle. But while his character is alive he steals every scene in which he appears, which is no mean feat in a film also featuring Tom Cruise and Timothy Spall.

7. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

Robin Williams’ career is not easy to pigeonhole. Coming through the Juilliard drama school (where acting legends like Kevin Spacey and Steve Guttenberg also studied), his first big break was as the alien Mork in a single episode of the post-shark Happy Days and five years starring in its spin-off Mork and Mindy, before striking big as a stand-up comedian. Since making his name as a comedian he’s done straight comedy (Mrs. Doubtfire), comedies with a dramatic edge (World’s Greatest Dad), and voice acting (Aladdin, sparking the industry’s nonsensical obsession with casting “name” actors in voice acting roles), but every few years he seems to pop up in dark, sinister and occasionally blackly comedic roles that stand in stark contrast to his manic on-stage persona (Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo).

One performance that stands apart from the dark thrillers and screwball comedies is his role as the therapist/father figure Sean Maguire to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting. Maguire is tasked with getting through to the brilliant but troubled youth, and in the process comes to terms with mistakes he’s made in his own life. It’s a good performance in a good movie, and it won Williams an Oscar for best supporting actor in a year which, some believe, the award should have gone to Burt Reynolds for Boogie Nights. But you can’t deny that after his career as a dramatic and comedic actor, Williams status as an Academy Award winner is well-justified.

6. Eric Bana in Chopper

These days Eric Bana is known for starring roles in American blockbusters like Black Hawk Down, Hulk and Munich, but Australians of my vintage will fondly remember his work on sketch comedies in the 90s, and his wonderful bit-part as Con Petropoulous in one of most hilarious Australian films of all time, The Castle. I often wonder if the millionaire producers who cast Bana in major Hollywood action flicks are aware that, to Australians, he used to be a bogan named Poida.

Chopper, Andrew Dominik’s biopic of the notorious Australian gangland figure Mark Brandon Read, took the country by storm not least due to Bana’s remarkable transformation from larrakin comedian to vicious killer. He put so much of himself into the role, not only physically but mentally and emotionally, that Roger Ebert noted that “[Bana] has a quality no acting school can teach you and few actors can match. You cannot look away from him”. Chopper’s character has entered Australian folklore thanks in part to Heath Franklin’s comedic pastiche, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Bana’s gleefully twisted depiction of the sadistic murderer in Chopper.

5. Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful

This selection might seem like cheating because – though it’s not strictly a comedy – Life is Beautiful is a wonderfully funny film, combining uproarious slapstick with quick-fire Italian wit during the first half. But the film’s second half takes place entirely within a concentration camp during the Holocaust, with Roberto Benigni’s character Guido trying to protect his son by willingly bringing him to the camp and attempting to hide him from the guards. Some of the most touching scenes in cinema history follow as the son’s innocence and playfulness continually put Guido in danger, leading to one of the most distressing endings in film history.

This role marks only the second time in history a filmmaker has directed themself to an Oscar, the other being screen legend Laurence Olivier some fifty years earlier with Hamlet.

4. Tom Hanks in Philadelphia

Tom Hanks couldn’t really be called a comedic actor any more. He is, after all, a two-time Oscar-winner whose best and most famous roles are all firmly in the drama category. But at the time he made Philadelphia his biggest hits to that point had been: the baseball comedy A League of Their Own, the buddy-cop-with-a-dog flick Turner & Hooch, the pseudo-body-swap comedy Big and, who can forget, the best movie ever made about falling in love with a mermaid, Splash.

But along comes Jonathan Demme with the tender courtroom drama Philadelphia, and Hanks is gifted an Oscar for best actor and a new career as a dramatist, which would eventually lead to Hanks becoming one of the highest-grossing actors in film history. Latter-day sins (The Da Vinci Code) won’t spoil his reputation built upon appearances in some of the greatest films of the past 25 years.

3. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation

If Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell personify comedy in the 90s and 2000s, the 80s definitely belongs to Bill Murray. Along with former Saturday Night Live castmates Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, Murray showed that big-budget comedies can not only work, they can become all-time classic summer blockbusters with his work in Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters.

In the latter part of his career through the 90s (after his best all-round performance in Groundhog Day) he alternated between quirky independent comedies — like those of Wes Anderson — and small parts in wallet-stuffers like Charlie’s Angels. But it is his turn as Bob Harris, a lonely movie star alone and adrift in Tokyo, in Sofia Coppola’s surprise hit Lost in Translation that will end up his most critically-acclaimed performance. It even looked like it might revitalize Murray’s career, until he again started accepting bit parts in travesties like the horrendous Garfield movies, although the upcoming Ghostbusters III might hopefully restore Murray to his rightful place in the pantheon of comedy if it ever gets made. A similar thing worked for his old mate Chevy Chase with Community, after all.

2. Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love

I may be in the minority among film buffs in that I genuinely love some of Adam Sandler’s early films; especially The Wedding Singer, 50 First Dates and Big Daddy, where he tones down the childlike schtick that made his stand-up comedy so hard to watch and plays the comedy relatively straight. But it is his partnership with Paul Thomas Anderson in the criminally underrated Punch-Drunk Love that convinced me of Sandler’s competence as a dramatic actor. The role isn’t without its quirky PTA humour, but it allows Sandler to venture into relatively tender romantic drama territory, and Sandler is incredible likeable in the role of world-weary loser Barry Egan.

In the context of his career it came completely out of nowhere – nestled between two terrible “comedies”, The Animal and Mr. Deeds – and prompted New York Times reporter A.O. Scott to make some rather flattering comparisons:

“It might have been interesting if Mr. Sandler had departed from his usual doofus man-child persona, but what he does within that persona — infusing it with a vulnerable, off-kilter humanity that recalls such great film comedians as Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati — turns out to be even better.”

1. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Rubber-faced Jim Carrey began his comedy career during the late 1970s, appeared in a few ill-advised films during the 1980s and eventually landed a spot on the Wayans brothers’ sketch television show In Living Color in 1994, so you could say he built his career the hard way. His first major hit film was the magnificent first Ace Ventura film in early 1994, followed in quick succession by the mega hits The Mask and Dumb & Dumber, turning him into one of the biggest names in comedy in the space of a little over a year.

After warming up with a couple of semi-dramatic roles in the late 1990s and early 2000s with The Truman Show and The Majestic, Carrey surprised everyone as Joel Barish in the imaginative Michel Gondry/Charlie Kaufman psychological tragedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As he travels through his own mind attempting to find traces of a love he paid to have erased from his memory, Barish personifies so many different formative influences on his psyche, from humiliating childhood moments through to troubled adulthood, that I don’t think anyone else in Hollywood — not even those in this list — could have pulled it off quite like him. Terribly unlucky not to even be nominated for the Oscar he should have won (which went to Jamie Foxx for Ray), it remains the performance against which all comedians taking on dramatic roles will be compared.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.


  1. Top 3 here are pretty much flawless examples, with the others being good to ok. Marlon Wayans was never funny to begin with and I particularly disliked Greenberg, I’d probably go more for Stiller’s role in “The Royal Tenebaums” instead. Although it is somewhat humorous, the line “I’ve had a rough year dad” qualifies it enough for a dramatic performance, that shit is heartbreaking.

    I’d like to suggest Jerry Lewis in “The King of Comedy” and Peter Sellers in “Being There”. Although King of COmedy is totally De Niro’s show, Lewis provides a seriously meaty role in comparison and the film probably wouldn’t work without his stature and confidence. Sellers in Being There is an absolute marvel to watch, and even though the film may not be that great, his performance as the dim-witted gardener mistaken for a genius is priceless and worth the viewing of the film alone.

    Sweet list though dude.

    • Ugh, I can’t believe I forgot Jerry Lewis. I only just watched The King of Comedy for the first time at MIFF, too. Excellent call, it was completely out of character for him but he played the role so well.

      (And I know I’m in a tiny minority for liking Greenberg, but Tony Martin is in that minority too so it can’t be that wrong!)

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