5. Jack Nicholson as Melvin Udall in “As Good as It Gets”
Nicholson’s filmography is dominated by crazy, wild, intense characters. From “The Shining” to Tim Burton’s “Batman” (and even to Adam Sandler’s “Anger Management”), one of Nicholson’s biggest (and greatest) trademarks is to play intense guys. This has earned him a total of 12 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, making him one of only two men who have won 3 acting Oscars.
And one of these Awards comes from one of the best and most famous romantic comedies from the ’90s: “As Good as It Gets”. Here, Nicholson once again plays a neurotic, intense character—Melvin Udall, a misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive, New York novelist that falls in love with a waitress (played by Helen Hunt in an Academy Award-winning performance of her own).
But what makes his acting in this film outstanding compared to his other comedy films (besides such awards), is that Nicholson uses all that intensity of his to create a charming and somehow likable character.
Even when making casually racist comments or throwing his neighbor’s dog into the dump, the way Nicholson features this character and his development through the film, makes the audience feel empathy for him. And so, he creates one of his funniest and most charismatic characters, in a career that features several classics.
4. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street”
From the very start of his career, DiCaprio has delivered strong performances and difficult characters; and through the years, he has proven his commitment to his works. This makes him, according to many (both critics and audiences), one of the best actors of his generation, having been even able to work with heavy directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Christopher Nolan and, of course, Martin Scorsese.
And it is with Scorsese directing him that DiCaprio has delivered his best performances. Sure, DiCaprio has showed great work in every character he has played. But in a career that has been dominated by disturbed, complicated guys, the controversial Jordan Belfort stands out. An character that, while morally bankrupt, has a lot of wild, wild fun, involving women, drugs, money, and some other weird stuff. And of course, DiCaprio’s mad performance can be credited, in part, to the director.
Because even when dealing with a serious, dark subject, Scorsese manages to make it into a comedy—and to be honest, there is no comedy like a Martin Scorsese comedy.
So, while the pair has worked previously on modern classics like “The Aviator,” “The Departed,” “Gangs of New York,” and “Shutter Island,” it is in “Wolf” where the audience gets to see DiCaprio doing things that they never thought he could do—and as a result, getting a fourth Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Comedy.
3. Johnny Depp as Edward D. Wood Jr. in “Ed Wood”
Depp’s career is full of strange characters. From small indies to big franchises, his portrayals of eccentric characters has been his major trademark. And while some of his latest works may not have been exactly well received, it cannot be said that portraying such characters hasn’t worked out well for him. It has proven successful under directors such as Jim Jarmush, John Waters, Terry Gilliam, and, especially, Tim Burton.
And then it was with Burton that Depp made one of his finest performances. Of course, Burton and Depp have worked together several times. But on “Ed Wood”, the actor manages to use his love to create strange characters while portraying an actual person: the “worst” director of all time, Ed Wood. A person that, despite failing to address any of the problems involved in making a film (from budget, to critics), keeps going – and at the same time, he enjoys dressing as a woman.
Wood is a character that allows Depp to make use of his talents in a very natural way—not using any make up, nor special outfits (besides dressing as a woman) and that (with the help of a black and white photography), captures perfectly the eccentricity of the director. It earned Depp a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy and is considered by many to be one of his (if not ‘the’) best performances of his career.
2. Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey in “Tootsie”
While at this point, Hoffman has many comedy films on his filmography, when he burst into film during the “New Hollywood” era, the actor starred in several drama films — many of which turned into famous classics. From “Midnight Cowboy” to “Kramer vs Kramer,” Hoffman became one of the biggest and strongest stars in the industry.
So, when Sidney Pollack’s “Tootsie” came along, it was quite a surprise to find Hoffman playing an actor that pretends to be an actress in order to appear on a soap opera. However, the actor managed to take the character (and the character’s drag character, and the fake drag character’s soap opera character) in a brilliant direction.
Hoffman brings a completely different side of himself to the role without becoming a self-parody of any kind and, in matter fact, he knows how to drive the character’s ridiculous situation and turn it into one of his most famous performances. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards and the film became a comedy classic.
1. Robert De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy”
De Niro is mostly known for portraying tough characters. From gangsters to cops, mercenaries to psychos, De Niro has created a filmography with plenty of powerful (and sometimes controversial) characters that no other actor could have pulled off. Even when he appears in comedies, his characters are often complex, dark, and intimidating.
And the best example of this is his portrayal of the obsessed and disturbed Rupert Pupkin, in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy”. Once again, there ain’t no comedy like a Scorsese comedy; and here, De Niro gets to play a stand-up comedian, striving to be famous… even if that means that he has to destroy his idol, Jerry Langford (played by actual comedian Jerry Lewis).
With a character that has been compared to his performance of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” De Niro uses what made Bickle so dark and serious, to make Pupkin just as dark, but somehow funny, in a film that was quite controversial and underrated upon its release.
But it showed the audience that De Niro can take any kind of role and use his talent to make it interesting and charismatic. And while neither the film nor De Niro’s acting received any nomination, Scorsese himself has said that Pupkin is his favorite character from his seven collaborations with the actor.
So, which other comedy performance by a drama actor would you add? Let us know on the comments!