The comedy film is a balancing act between the goofy and the sublime, the funny and the tragic. For a genre so specific and nuanced, it’s odd how little respect comedies get. Dramas, for instance, usually get much more critical attention, and at awards time, few comedies, if any, receive recognition.
This is especially true regarding the Academy Awards. Sure, a couple of comedies have won Best Picture, most notably You Can’t Take It With You, It Happened One Night and Annie Hall, but those are few and far between. There are some films with comedic elements to have won Best Picture, but The Sting and Terms of Endearment are hardly comedies.
Comedic actors also have a hard time getting recognition for their comic work. Although a handful of actors have won Oscars for comedic roles, they’ve usually been for supporting roles (and the list gets significantly smaller if you remove all the Oscar winners from Woody Allen films).
Most of these performers in their winning roles, such as Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets, were really dramatic performances with some funny behavior. Very rarely do actors get nominated for funny movies. Steve Carell, for instance, gave brilliant comic performances in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, but it was his strong dramatic turn in Foxcatcher that earned him a nod for Best Actor.
It seems strange that so many respected critics and film award institutions find it difficult to see the art and craft in comedy, especially considering that some of the medium’s most gifted and original artists were first and foremost comedians. Charlie Chaplin did get a few Oscar nominations, in addition to one statue and two honorary Oscars; but his only acting nomination was for his work in The Great Dictator.
Maybe part of the issue is that humor is subjective; not everybody finds the same things funny. As the great Louis Armstrong once said, “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them.” If someone doesn’t find something funny, someone else can’t, no matter how articulate they may be, convince that person otherwise.
That being said, there are countless terrific comic performances that deserve more critical recognition. Out of that need to spotlight some of these neglected gems of cinematic acting, this list was created. There was only one real rule for the list: all of the films had to be true comedies, and not dramatic films with comic elements. Of course, there are many more than twenty-five Oscar-worthy comic performances; this is simply a starting point. The selections are in alphabetical order.
1. Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski. 1998. Dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
The Dude may abide, but the Academy just couldn’t accept that Jeff Bridges’ performance as the lackadaisical and perpetually stoned bowler/amateur detective was one of the five best leading actor portrayals of 1998. Of course, time has been more than kind to this cult classic, and it’s clear that Bridges’ role as the Dude stands as one of the best performances of the 1990s.
The Dude is at once enigmatic and familiar, a fool and a prophet. There are broad comic moments aplenty in the film, but also subtler comic touches (such as The Dude’s written check to Ralph’s grocery store for 69 cents). The wackiness of the story works because The Dude, for all of his ridiculousness, grounds the film. Jeff Bridges’ performance as The Dude will stand as one of the great comic performances.
2. Tim Curry, Clue. 1985. Dir. Jonathan Lynn.
There is a manic, unhinged energy that Tim Curry brings to Clue that cannot be overstated. Although the entire ensemble cast is exemplary (including Eileen Brennan, Madline Kahn, Michael McKean, Christopher Lloyd, Lesley Ann Warren and Martin Mull), the film belongs to Curry. Simply put, his Wadsworth, the sneaky and put-upon butler, is an amazing creation of comic genius. It’s a rare thing to steal the thunder from comedy greats like Kahn, McKean and Mull, but Curry manages to do it.
Clue doesn’t often get praised for the delightful comic explosion that it is, and that’s a shame. Clue is the comedy equivalent of a freight train, and at the center of the chaotic hilarity is Tim Curry, in his prime. George C. Scott once said the secret to acting is the joy of the performance. He could have been talking about Tim Curry in Clue.
3. Margaret Dumont, A Night at the Opera. 1935. Dir. Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding.
Groucho Marx once referred to her as “practically the fifth Marx Brother,” and he wasn’t wrong. It’s hard to imagine the zany antics of the Brothers Marx being quite so, well, zany without Dumont as the epitome of the straight-laced society matrons.
Dumont played opposite Groucho in many of their best films, and one could argue a case for any of those performances. But, her work in A Night at the Opera is so good, plus, this has the classic crowded cabin scene, which is one of the funniest scenes in any movie. A Night at the Opera once again proves that Margaret Dumont was a vital member of the Marx Brothers’ ensemble, more so than Zeppo, that’s for sure.
4. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel. 2014. Dir. Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson’s charmingly beautiful tribute to 1930s and 1940s comedies in general and Ernst Lubitsch films in particular highlights, once again, Anderson’s great skill at getting comic performances from dramatic actors. Not too surprisingly, he was able to coax a phenomenal comic portrayal from Ralph Fiennes.
Fiennes is a tremendous actor, but isn’t known for his comedy chops. Fiennes’ work as M. Gustave, the smooth and sophisticated concierge, a gentleman’s gentleman, is a perfect mix of the suave and the slapstick. It’s a role that’s unlike anything Fiennes has ever done, and it’s absolutely hysterical. It was a travesty that Fiennes’ work was ignored by the Academy.
5. Ruth Gordon, Harold and Maude. 1971. Dir. Hal Ashby.
Many best remember actress/playwright/screenwriter Ruth Gordon for her Oscar-winning turn as Mia Farrow’s nosy neighbor Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby, but as great as she is in that film, her best performance remains as Maude in the late, great Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude.
Generally considered one of the finest unconventional love stories, Harold and Maude remains a cherished film in large part because of the terrific lead performances by Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. Gordon has perfect comic timing, which makes sense considering that she, alongside her husband Garson Kanin, wrote many of Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn’s most popular comedies, including Adam’s Rib.
Like Tracy and Hepburn, Cort and Gordon have an effortless chemistry together which lights up the screen. Ruth Gordon’s work in Harold and Maude is hilarious, sweet and touching. The film, like many of the best comedies, blends the tragic with the comic.
6. Charles Grodin, Midnight Run. 1988. Dir. Martin Brest.
Buddy action films are a dime a dozen, but the truly special ones tend to stand out. One of the best remains Midnight Run, which features Robert De Niro in one of his loosest and funniest roles, as bounty hunter Jack Walsh. In many ways, though, the film really belongs to Charles Grodin, who portrays Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, a mob accountant who embezzled fifteen million, gave it to charity and promptly skipped bail.
The bulk of the film has Walsh attempting to deliver The Duke back to Los Angeles, where he awaits trail. The film works because the relationship between De Niro and Grodin is so contentious. Grodin whines, complains, fidgets, moans, lies and generally makes life difficult for De Niro.
One of the film’s funniest scenes takes place on an airplane, as Grodin desperately attempts to explain that he is terrified of flying. It’s a hysterical moment; “these things go down! It’s too big!” Grodin’s performance is a gem, and helps make Midnight Run such a terrific entertainment.