13. Steve Martin, All of Me. 1984. Dir. Carl Reiner.
While many of the comic performances on this list were not nominated for many, if any, major awards, Steve Martin’s astonishing, physically demanding performance in All of Me won the Best Actor awards for both New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, in addition to being nominated for a Golden Globe. This helps show just how out of touch the Academy Awards were by excluding Martin’s extraordinary work.
Steve Martin plays a lawyer who winds up having half his body possessed and controlled by a recently deceased millionaire, played by Lily Tomlin.
Watching Martin in this film, like in the scene where he attempts to walk while only having control of fifty percent of his body, is a joy. His absolute mastery of physical humor is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis, Gilda Radner, Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. It remains one of his finest performances, and it more than deserved an Academy Award nomination.
14. Groucho Marx, Duck Soup. 1933. Dir. Leo McCarey.
Today Duck Soup is rightly recognized as one of the funniest movies ever made, and many critics have referred to it as one of the best political satires of all time (sample line: “If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it”). The Marx Brothers made many memorable comedies, but Duck Soup is the one that showcases their mad talent the best.
At the center of the anarchy is Groucho himself as Rufus T. Firefly, newly appointed president of the tiny country of Freedonia. The performance is a hailstorm of puns, one-liners, asides, songs, riddles, jokes and put-downs; Groucho’s rapid fire delivery reminding one of a machine gun. His relentless energy is truly a thing of beauty.
Marx also gets to show off his physical comedy prowess in the classic mirror sequence, which is too hilarious to explain here. Of course, the Academy didn’t get the joke, and failed to nominate one of the most iconic comedy roles of all time.
15. Rick Moranis, Spaceballs. 1987. Dir. Mel Brooks.
Spaceballs, Mel Brooks’ parody of the Star Wars films, probably has as many detractors as it has fans. While the film lacks the sly, subversive wit of The Producers or Blazing Saddles, it makes up for it with its silly, ridiculous gags. Spaceballs isn’t usually mentioned as containing one of the funniest comic performances of the 1980s: Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet, the Vader-esque villain of the film.
Yes, the film also contains some very funny turns by John Candy, Joan Rivers, Dom DeLuise, George Wyner and Brooks himself, but Rick Moranis gives this film its comic momentum. Moranis takes the “power-mad nerd” joke and runs with it, creating a remarkable comic performance.
16. Eddie Murphy, Trading Places. 1983. Dir. John Landis.
When the Academy finally nominated Eddie Murphy for an Oscar for the film Dreamgirls, it felt in some ways as an apology for all of the great comic roles of Murphy’s that went unnoticed. Yes, Murphy was very good in the film, but in some ways it’s a shame that the only recognition he’s gotten is for a non-comic role.
Picking just one Eddie Murphy role to spotlight was a little difficult; he also gave Oscar-worthy performances in Coming to America and Bowfinger. But, his work as street hustler turned respected businessman Billy Ray Valentine in Trading Places is a work of comic genius.
This was only Murphy’s second movie, and already the young comedian was an old pro. More than just a terrific comic performance; it was the confirmation that Eddie Murphy was the real thing.
17. Bill Murray, Groundhog Day. 1993. Dir. Harold Ramis.
Of all the comic performances that were ignored or misunderstood by the critics or the awards circuit, the most surprising and egregious just may be Bill Murray’s performance as Pittsburgh-based weatherman Phil Connors in the late Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day.
The bitter and jaded Connors, for reasons thankfully unexplained, is forced to live the same day, Groundhog Day, over and over; all the while stuck in the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The plot gives Murray the veritable equivalent of a field day; as Phil quickly learns that the normal rules no longer apply. The fact is that this is some of the most complex, nuanced acting you will see in a big-budget comedy, and the film remains Bill Murray’s best performance.
If the film had been a drama, there’s a chance he may have been nominated. But once again, nobody could believe that a comedian gave one of the best performances of the year.
18. Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! 1988. Dir. David Zucker.
Leslie Nielsen had been a dramatic actor for decades before David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (known as the ZAZ team) picked him to skewer his seriousness in Airplane! (ZAZ also cast Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves in the film for this exact reason).
This began a new career for Nielsen, who basically became the Robert De Niro of parody films. His best performance remains Lt. Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun, which was a spin-off of the short lived cult television series Police Squad! Nielsen’s performance is a master study in the art of the deadpan; Nielsen plays it completely straight, which makes it funnier.
Nielsen’s work in the original remains a highpoint in comedy acting; and Nielsen would be playing variations of this character and this movie for the rest of his career.