Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
That’s the old showbiz adage, but it’s one the Academy has never quite learned to appreciate. Comedians and comedies are traditionally ignored by the Oscars, meaning that if a great talent like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey wants the Hollywood hardware and immortality that goes with it, he has to shed the image of the jester that has made him famous in the first place.
In the upcoming romantic comedy Top Five, Chris Rock’s character, a movie star famous for a series of silly comedies about a crime-fighting bear named Hammy, makes a play for respectability by starring in an Oscar-bait film about the Haitian revolution, titled Uprize. It’s funny because it’s true: comedians yearn to be taken seriously. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
In the true-crime movie, Foxcatcher, which opens today, Steve Carell plays John du Pont, the eccentric philanthropist who murdered an Olympic wrestler in 1996. The former Daily Show correspondent and Anchorman sidekick, who first successfully dipped his foot into dramatic waters with Little Miss Sunshine, donned a prosthetic nose and successfully tapped into du Pont’s creepiness. Critics have lauded the dark performance and Carell is a serious contender for Best Actor.
Carell belongs on the list of versatile comedians who’ve successfully made the transition to “respectability.” Here are 10 superb dramatic debuts by a comic superstar—and five misfires that just made you wish they’d go back to being funny.
Jackie Gleason in The Hustler (1961)
Gleason, who was only five years removed from being TV’s Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, went toe-to-toe with Paul Newman as sharply-dressed pool shark Minnesota Fats. It’s a terrifically detailed performance that isn’t restrained so much as it is focused. The Academy agreed, nominating Gleason for Best Supporting Actor.
Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998)
Carrey was the rubberfaced maniac who’d delivered one blockbuster comedy after another when he paired up with director Peter Weir to play a sweet but naive man whose entire life is manipulated for a popular reality television show. “Peter cast me for several reasons,” Carrey told EW in 2010. “He felt that I was an Everyman type of character that people could live vicariously through and somebody who goes a long way to please. And also, I was just really coming into the realization that ‘Wow, I’m really famous’—not in an arrogant way, but in a ‘What will I do with this?’ way—so I believe that also attracted him to me in a way.”
Carrey was snubbed by Oscar—not for the last time—but Truman Burbank still stands tall as a truly timeless performance.
Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993)
No one doubted that Hanks had the chops after he brought such humanity to comically-inclined characters in Splash, Big, and Punchline—but the role of an emaciated AIDS victim was an enormous leap in prestige. The performance won Hanks the first of two consecutive Oscars for Best Actor, and everyone agreed never to mention Turner & Hooch again.
Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1982)
Lewis was recruited by Martin Scorsese to play a Johnny Carson-like character named Jerry Langford, the object of obsession for Robert De Niro’s fame-seeker Rupert Pupkin. Though there are elements of dark comedy throughout the film, Lewis, ironically, is the straight man as Pupkin and Sandra Bernhard’s crazed fan hold him hostage for a shot at celebrity. Somehow, Oscar looked the other way, but Lewis’ performance—and the entire film—only look better with age.
Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell was at the height of his Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby buffoonery when he stepped into the shoes of Harold Crick, a Truman Burbank-like character who finds that his life is being narrated and controlled by a famous author. The Golden Globes gave him a Best Actor nomination in a Comedy/Musical, though his comic reputation is the only reason it wasn’t considered for the dramatic category.
Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Sandler’s Barry Egan is a close relative of the volcanic but emotionally stunted characters he’d played in his successful broader comedies, like The Waterboy and Billy Madison. But under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, the actor never quite blows the lid off. It’s a sweet, gentle, and finely calibrated performance that was the perfect dramatic role for someone with Sandler’s gifts.
Robin Williams in The World According to Garp (1982)
Williams would go on to deliver even stronger dramatic performances, including his Oscar-winning role in Good Will Hunting, but Garp was a jolt for audiences who knew him only as Mork. Every dramatic turn he ever tackled—from Good Morning Vietnam to Dead Poets Society—was laced with his puckish energy, and the role of Garp is just bursting with promise.
Jonah Hill in Moneyball (2011)
How did Jonah Hill, Serious Actor happen? Where did he come from? After graduating from Judd Apatow’s school of yucks, his subdued performance as a baseball nerd who helps Billy Beane’s have-nots compete for the pennant earned him an Oscar nomination. Combined with Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller has proven to have a moneyball-like gift for spotting undervalued dramatic talent in the leagues of comedy all-stars.
Patton Oswalt in Big Fan (2009)
Remy the Rat and the King of Queens‘ sidekick went to dark places in this drama from the writer of The Wrestler (Robert D. Siegel), playing a homely single guy whose life revolves around his beloved New York Giants and sports talk radio—until his dream of meeting his hero becomes a nightmare. Big Fan barely received a theatrical release, but it’s a mesmerizing, tragic performance that deserves to be discovered.
Mo’Nique in Precious (2009)
Most comic actors struggle to be taken seriously because studios and audiences can’t look past their previous funny roles. Mo’Nique might have the opposite challenge now, after her ferocious Oscar-winning performance as the negligent mother of a sexually abused daughter. She bravely built one of the most terrifying and heartbreaking characters in recent cinematic history.
But for every revelatory Precious and The Truman Show, of course, there are the misfires where the laughter truly died.
John Candy in JFK (1991)
Candy landed a plum cameo in Oliver Stone’s paranoid conspiracy thriller, but whereas Tommy Lee Jones and Gary Oldman got the best scenes, Candy’s cajun lawyer suffered from dialog that he delivered as if he’d studied at the J.J. Hunsecker School of Acting.
Mike Myers in 54 (1998)
Playing Steve Rubell, the shady hedonist who ran Studio 54 at the height of its 1970s glamour and excess, felt too much like one of his SNL sketch characters. In fact, it’s impossible not to hear Myers’ Brooklyn accent for Rubell and wonder if he’s related to Linda Richman.
Jack Black in King Kong (2005)
Starring in a Peter Jackson CG spectacular might not be your typical prestige grab, but playing the devious filmmaker who brings Kong back to New York was a shift for Black after laughfests like School of Rock. Everyone involved was dwarfed by the magic of Andy Serkis, but Black’s performance, which he based on Jackson, wasn’t a highlight. Fortunately, Black wasn’t discouraged and his performance in Margot at the Wedding two years later was a better sampling of his dramatic skills.
Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge (1984)
Murray eventually proved his dramatic bonafides, and perhaps Edge was a necessary first step towards his goal to be something more than the craziest guy in the room. The ambitious film has some passionate defenders today, but few who saw it in 1984 envisioned the actor who would someday do Lost in Translation.
Bob Hope in Beau James (1957)
As the host of the Academy Awards, Hope got endless mileage out of the joke that he’d never been honored by Oscar. Beau James, a biopic of debonair New York City mayor Jimmy Walker, was an earnest attempt to play it straight and finally get such recognition. The New York Times crushed both it and Hope, writing that he “looks frightened almost out of his wits” in the lead role.