19. Catherine O’Hara, For Your Consideration. 2006. Dir. Christopher Guest.
Like Eddie Murphy, it was difficult picking one of O’Hara’s many terrific performances to highlight on this list. With brilliant roles in such films as Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, Beetlejuice and Best in Show, there are just so many worthy choices. But, O’Hara’s work in For Your Consideration has such depth and poignancy to it.
The film is about a low-budget film that somehow gets Oscar buzz, and is mostly about how three of the film’s stars attempt to navigate the chaos that ensues. As veteran actress Marilyn Hack, O’Hara is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The film in general and O’Hara’s performance in particular, has much to say on the way Hollywood treats actresses over thirty-five. Maybe it was the “through the looking glass” aspect of the film that scared away Academy voters, and cause Catherine O’Hara to be denied a much deserved Oscar nomination.
20. Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday. 1940. Dir. Howard Hawks.
Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday remains a gold-standard in the comedy genre, thanks in large part to the fantastic comic performances of Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy. But it’s Rosalind Russell, as ex-ace reporter (and Cary Grant’s Walter Burns’ ex-wife) Hildy Johnson, who is the heart of the film.
Not only does she get many of the best lines, but she delivers them with such fast-paced gusto (indeed, the whole film moves at a break-neck speed). How nobody at the time acknowledged the comic brilliance of her work is anybody’s guess. She also wears some of the damnedest hats you’ve ever seen.
21. Peter Sellers, A Shot in the Dark. 1964. Dir. Blake Edwards.
Now, Peter Sellers was nominated for three Oscars, including one for Best Actor for Dr. Strangelove, the same year that A Shot in the Dark was released. Obviously, Sellers’ work in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is brilliant and deserving of an Oscar nod. But, then again, so was his performance as Inspector Jacques Clouseau in A Shot in the Dark.
Sellers’ was a master at slapstick, and this film is a showcase for his particular brand of comic genius. Whether it be fighting his loyal manservant Kato, attempting to play billiards or awkwardly navigating his way through a nude colony, everything Sellers does in this movie is funny.
22. Michel Serrault, La Cage aux Folles. 1978. Dir. Edouard Molinaro.
Yes, Mike Nichols’ American remake The Birdcage with Robin Williams is a terrific comedy, and Nathan Lane is sensational in it, but Michel Serrault’s performance in the original is astonishingly hilarious. La Cage aux Folles was, in fact, nominated for three Oscars, including a Best Director nod for Edouard Molinaro, but Michel Serrault’s hysterical performance was ignored.
Serrault plays Albin, who is forced by his husband, Renato (played by Ugo Tognazzi), to play straight for the benefit of their son’s ultra-conservative prospective in-laws. As far as farces go, it’s comic gold. Some scenes have fallen into comic legend, such as the moment where Renato attempts to teach poor Albin how to butter his bread like a man.
23. Lily Tomlin, Nine to Five. 1980. Dir. Colin Higgins.
On the surface, Nine to Five is a funny revenge comedy about three fed-up office workers getting even with their misogynistic idiot of a boss. However, the film rarely gets credit for being a mainstream comedy that dared to get angry about rampant sexism in American society. There’s a scene early on where Lily Tomlin’s character, Violet, learns that she has been passed over for a promotion by a man with less experience.
Violet is indignant, furious, and says to her boss (played by the great Dabney Coleman): “the boys in the club are threatened, and you’re so intimidated by any woman that won’t sit at the back of the bus.”
For this scene alone, Tomlin should have gotten some awards recognition. It’s a great comic performance, but there’s real fire, and a true sense of injustice in her words. Thirty-five years later, Tomlin’s speech rings as authentic as it did in 1980.
24. Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein, 1974. Dir. Mel Brooks.
Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ loving homage to the Universal Studios monster films of the thirties and forties, remains a comedy classic. It features a spectacular ensemble cast including Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman, but, at the heart of the hysteria is star and co-writer Gene Wilder as Dr. Federick Frankenstein.
It’s an inspired portrayal; Wilder captures his character’s mania perfectly. For most of the movie, Wilder is playing it at fever pitch; it’s a performance of sustained madness. Also, few actors are as good at the slow-burn into fury as Wilder is.
25. Fred Willard, Best in Show. 2000. dir. Christopher Guest.
Fred Willard’s role as the outrageously out-of-his-depth dog show announcer was filmed in a day and a half, but it’s some of the improv all-star’s best work. As Buck Laughlin, Willard dominates his scenes with stories of exceeding crassness that have absolutely nothing to do with dogs, much to the disdain of his co-anchor (nicely played by Jim Piddock).
On the Best in Show audio commentary track, Christopher Guest admitted he just turned on the cameras and microphones, stood back and let Fred Willard just do his thing.
The result is an impressive comedy free-for-all. Like the other performers on this list, Willard’s work in Best in Show demonstrates that comedic actors work just as hard to create their characters as their dramatic counterparts do, and it’s high time that we acknowledge the art and craft of comedic acting.
Author Bio: Adam Gray is a teacher, film critic and writer. He writes about film at his blog: https://topshelfmovies.wordpress.com/.