Classic Hollywood is synonymous with major star power and each star had a persona that they built up thanks in part to the studio system.
Henry Fonda was America’s mouthpiece reflecting the sentiment of the common man. Cary Grant was the epitome of a suave gentleman who could woo any lady on the screen or in the audience. Elizabeth Taylor was known as much for her immeasurable beauty and tumultuous love life as she was for her acting. James Cagney was the king of Warner Bros. Gangster films for a generation.
However, these are more a rule of thumb, and so things get especially interesting when these same stars dared to play totally against type or play a character with a new wrinkle. Heroes became villains. Dramatic actors became comedians and vice versa. Here are a few of the most notable examples in film history.
15. Gregory Peck in Boys from Brazil
Gregory Peck played corrupt heroes every once in a while, but more often than not he was still the hero and the star of a picture. However, in his illustrious career his biggest roles were almost always as true-blue heroes, the most obvious example being Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockinbird (1962). You cannot get anymore saintly than that.
So Peck playing a Nazi seems ludicrous and then it turns out to be the notorious Angel of Death Josef Mengele which is even more outrageous. It’s far from one of his best roles, because it is completely overly dramatic and his German accent could have used a little refining. But he must have been excited for such a change of pace putting him opposite another acting titan in Laurence Olivier. The utterly ridiculous plot fits the caricature-like characters, but it’s still good fun.
14. James Cagney in One, Two, Three
Cagney was the heart and soul of 1930s Warner Bros. Gangster flicks like The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). He also redefined his career as a hoofer most notably in 1942’s biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy. By the 1960s he was more or less on the way out entering the twilight years of a brilliant career. Thus, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) was a wonderful change of tone for a Cagney film.
To give you an idea it’s a Cold War comedy about a man working for Coca-Cola in West Berlin. “Mac” is trying to find all the thirsty Communists so he can to meet their soft drink needs, and yet things get complicated when his bosses’ daughter wants to marry one. It’s an utterly ridiculous plotline befitting Billy Wilder, and Cagney is great fun to watch. He’s a wheeler and dealer, but the edge is taken off his usual tough guy, making for a madcap performance.
13. Shirley Jones in Elmer Gantry
As a prominent atheist Burt Lancaster was all in when it came to playing shady traveling preacher Elmer Gantry based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. But to fill out the film he needed a hooker with vengeful intentions veiled behind a sugary sweet disposition. He finally decided on none other than Shirley Jones to play Lulu Bains, Gantry’s former lover-turned prostitute.
At first it seems like an odd choice. Before she was the patriarch of the Partridge Clan, her most memorable roles came in a trio of Musicals starting in the 1950s: Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956), and of course the Music Man (1962). However, Jones pulls it off exuding a sensuality and playfulness that commands attention. It’s an intriguing role because Bains does not enter the film until much later in the story and yet her character is such an integral part, reflecting an important piece of Gantry’s previous life.
12. Peter Sellers in Being There
Peter Sellers was perhaps one of the greatest comedies the world has had the privilege of seeing since he was such a vocal chameleon and ingenious improviser. He commanded the screen with his bumbling performance as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series. Then he turned around to take on three roles simultaneously for Stanley Kubrick black comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worry and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964).
However, his last great role as “Chauncey Gardner” in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) is in a whole other stratosphere altogether. Chauncey is socially isolated and so all his knowledge comes from his days of watching television. Out of this character Sellers crafts an ethereal, otherworldly figure, who transcends all the social constructs of society. He’s not playing for laughs or purposefully dumb.
However, we do find everyday snippets of humor in the misunderstandings and misassumptions that pop up in Chauncey’s life. More than any other character that Seller’s plays, this lowly gardener feels us with a sense of awe that it difficult to discount. The performance is absolutely magical and so very different from Seller’s usual forays.
11. Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate
Whenever I think of Dame Angela Lansbury I immediately think of inquisitive detective Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote or the hospitable tea cup from Beauty and the Beast (1991). After all she seems like a sweet lady and she’s still going strong. But her longevity is due in part to her acting ability and she has taken on some interesting roles.
Early in her career she was featured in the psychological thriller Gaslight (1944) and the Oscar Wilde adaptation The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). Arguably one of Lansbury’s greatest roles however, was as a villain in the quintessential Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
There is simply no other way to put it except she is an absolute terror. She embodies the paranoia at the time suggesting that our greatest enemies were not only the Soviets or the Chinese, but they might be sitting in our own drawing rooms. She brainwashes her own son to commit a murder and has the gall to even plant a kiss on his lips which was totally against 1960s sensibilities.
10. Ernest Borgnine in Marty
Before playing Commander McHale in the WWII comedy McHale’s Navy, Ernest Borgnine made a career off playing heavies and boisterous tough guys. Look at From Here to Eternity (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), or even The Wild Bunch (1969), and you get the idea. He was darn go at them too.
But I’m not sure if he had another pinnacle in his career quite like Marty (1955) and he worked well into the 21st century. The film was a modest picture and yet it won both Best Picture and the Palme D’Or at Cannes that year. It’s a wonderful leading role for Borgnine because he sheds the rough exterior and plays a sympathetic Italian butcher.
Marty is pressured by his doting mama to find a wife. He and his best friend Ange often sit around a café not doing much of anything. He’s a lonely man and yet he finds love, even when everybody in his life tells him that it’s no good. It’s a perfect role for Borgnine because he’s certainly not a dashing leading man, but he’s genuine and that allows Marty to be heartfelt without the need for huge Hollywood production values. Unassuming by today’s standards but still powerful even after all these years.
9. Peter Lorre in M
So Peter Lorre might seem like an odd inclusion on this list, after all, following his memorable performance as a child serial killer he moved onto Hollywood and played undesirable in classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). He was seemingly forever typecast with his beady eyes and distinctive voice, even going so far as playing the character for laughs in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953).
The funny thing is that before M and his transition to Warner Bros. as a supporting character, Peter Lorre was in mostly musicals and comedies, working often with playwright Bertolt Brecht. So to audiences at the time, Fritz Lang’s film would have been totally unexpected. This was far from the usual fare they were expecting from Lorre and it was in fact so impactful that he would get typecast as a complete different type of character altogether. It was a blessing and a curse to his career.