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You’ve heard the saying “Dying is easy, but comedy is hard.” While that might bear some truth, it’s not always easy for a comedian – or an actor known for comedy – to transition into “serious” dramatic acting. In fact, it’s hardly ever met without extreme skepticism from movie lovers.
And why wouldn’t it be? When we’re familiar with certain actors hamming it up on the silver screen, television or even at a stand-up comedy show, it can be difficult for us to take them seriously when they tackle more dramatic works that can be more complex and character-based than their previous roles and performances.
Tate Taylor’s drama The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, hits theaters tomorrow. The film focuses on racial tension in 1960s Mississippi and stars Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone lalongside a stellar ensemble ... wait a minute. Emma Stone?
Yes, you read correctly. The fresh face known for her comedic chops displayed in Superbad, Easy A and most recently Crazy, Stupid, Love is co-headlining a serious drama. I’ll be reviewing The Help (Check it out on Player Affnity tomorrow), and while I have hope that Stone can hold her own while not necessarily providing us with laughter, there are others who probably have their fair share of doubts.
With that being said, we at Player Affinity have decided to take a look at five powerful and acclaimed dramatic performances from actors who traditionally tickle the funny bone.
5. Jim Carrey (The Truman Show)
When it comes to mainstream feature actors, Jim Carrey is as animated as they come, so it makes sense to throw him into wacky, cartoonish roles. However, something dangerous happened between 1994’s The Mask and 1997’s Liar Liar: the comedic talent was typecast. Not only had he become known for caricature, he’d practically become a caricature himself.
Giving Carrey the role of someone who’s within inches of sanity would seem like a joke, but luckily, director Peter Weir didn’t believe that for a minute. In 1998, the world was introduced to Truman Burbank, as portrayed by Carrey, in Weir’s satirical drama The Truman Show. Poking fun at society and its fascination with voyeurism, Andrew Niccol’s script disturbingly predicted the rise of reality television.
More or less a highly extended version of TV’s Candid Camera, The Truman Show sees Truman living in a world that has been scripted for him since his birth. The big catch, of course, being that he has no idea. Even his friends and family life are all part of an elaborate television series that’s viewed the world over.
Thankfully, Carrey takes the performance seriously but doesn’t actually act too seriously, but if you think that’s a bad thing for the film, you’d be mistaken. The world that’s been crafted for television – Truman’s real world – isn’t entirely different from what one might see on an old sitcom like Leave It to Beaver. As such, there’s plenty of acting in the film that borders on caricature – not just Carrey – but since that universe fits into a different period of time, it aids in telling the brilliant and surprisingly emotional story.
4. Mary Tyler Moore (Ordinary People)
If you asked people in the 1960s about Mary Tyler Moore, they’d probably point you to The Dick Van Dyke Show, for which she became a household name and won two Emmy Awards. Ask the same question in the 1970s, and they’d most likely tell you about her self-titled comedy series and its spinoff Rhoda; the former series won her four Emmy Awards, two of which came in the same year.
People today are probably most familiar with the gifted actress for these roles as well, but 1980 brought her recognition for something far different than any of the aforementioned properties. It saw her making a serious crossover into dramatic material with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. The family drama won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and earned Moore a Best Actress nomination.
Her comedic timing can’t be denied, but when it comes to drama, it’s hard to imagine that some weren’t skeptical. Moore’s bright smile and naturally exuberant personality didn’t exactly invoke a somber mood, and her comedic chops and familiarity with that genre didn’t really help matters either. Throw into the mix that this is her first high-profile venture into this different genre – also serving as Redford’s directorial debut – and you could have a recipe for disaster.
Even with all of that working against her, Moore is able to give an incredibly natural, nuanced, and powerfully affecting portrayal as a conflicted mother in Redford’s drama. Unlike the boisterousness of her other performances, she tones everything down to a disturbing subtlety. She never goes into extremes with her character. It’s something that initially strikes as odd, but as the film progresses, we see that she’s putting together a heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a character and of a highly dysfunctional family.
3. Jack Lemmon (Days of Wine and Roses)
He was always a respected presence in the entertainment industry, but Jack Lemmon was more or less known as a funnyman. Even when it came to acclaim and awards attention, his first Academy Award nomination – and first win – came for his role in the comedic 1955 film Mister Roberts. In 1960, he dabbled into drama some with Billy Wilder’s romantic dramedy The Apartment alongside the remarkable Shirley MacLaine, but he’d yet to act in a straightforward drama.
However, Breakfast at Tiffany’s director Blake Edwards helped change all of that with the 1962 drama Days of Wine and Roses. Lemmon and Lee Remick lead the film as a married couple who must battle against their alcohol addictions and consequent behaviors. It sounds like an awful afterschool special, yes, but it all works quite well actually thanks to how Lemmon and Remick are able to portray their characters; Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s hand in the exceptional music doesn’t hurt either.
Remick is just as affecting in her portrayal as Lemmon is, but the latter actor shines particularly bright because he’d never done such “serious” work up until that point. The two actors take us into the depressing journey from a young happy couple to a distraught and broken marriage. The change from the former point to the latter develops gradually, helping for the story to sensibly flow and stray from predictability. As such, the cautionary tale truly devastates and captivates.
2. Whoopi Goldberg (The Color Purple)
Today she’s mostly known for co-hosting The View alongside Sherri Shepherd and others, but back in the day, Whoopi Goldberg was a huge presence in the world of comedy. Sure, she instills laughter every now and again on the aforementioned talk show with her no-nonsense attitude and commentary, but it was completely different in the ‘80s and ‘90s with films like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Soapdish, and Sister Act.
Singing nuns aside, however, it was her debut performance in Steven Spielberg’s epic drama The Color Purple that put her on the map as one to watch in the motion picture industry. Leading the film as Celie Johnson, Goldberg completely develops this character and makes everything work in such a way that you’d never think it was her first time in a movie.
It’s probably starting to sound redundant given the other performances that made this list, but Goldberg puts together something that’s transcendent and real. She doesn’t hold anything back in revealing this character, but she takes her time with the material as well. In one of the film’s climactic moments, she absolutely breaks your heart and brings everything that has happened in the film thus far to a devastating point.
Goldberg serves as the best aspect of The Color Purple, but Margaret Avery, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey – yes, that Oprah Winfrey – also deliver some gripping work. Goldberg would then go on to win an Oscar for the movie Ghost.
1. Mo’Nique (Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire)
Until Precious, Mo’Nique was perhaps most notable for her role on the comedy series The Parkers. She also took various parts in comedic films like Hair Show and Soul Plane, but she never settled for just humorous material. She played roles in the drama Baby Boy and the action films Domino and Half Past Dead.
In 2005, the same year she did Domino, Mo’Nique starred in Lee Daniels’ Shadowboxer alongside Cuba Gooding Jr., Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dame Helen Mirren. While that film was a critical and financial travesty, working with Daniels on this film was certainly no mistake.
Flash forward to 2009, and Mo’Nique picks up tons of acclaim and dominates the awards season for her turn in Daniels’ drama Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. As the abusive mother from hell, she completely absorbs the screen every time she appears and immediately grabs your attention with just her presence alone.
If her role sounds like a more evil version of the stepmother from Cinderella, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but Mo’Nique never lets the role slip into caricature. Yes, the performance can be quite loud and over-the-top, but it’s necessary to bring this character to life. What’s more, she never fails to bring some kind of nuance to her moments on screen. Solidifying her work as one of the most powerful moments in recent screen acting memory – and probably of screen acting history – she delivers her final scene with a damaged emotional conviction that isn’t common in modern acting.