It’s unfair to say that comic actors are not taken seriously in the industry and among the public, but it’s also naïve to say they receive the same kind of recognition as their peers that lean into dramatic roles. Maybe that’s why so many of them feel compelled to take on a drama from now and then, or maybe they do it just to exercise their range.
Most actors who do comedy get stuck in a certain kind of role – their comic persona – and it’s not hard to imagine things get a little boring when you’re asked to do what is essentially the same role multiple times. That’s not to discredit their work, of course. Comic actors who do brilliant work within the genre are plenty, finding subtle variations of their persona and exciting new ways to employ it. It probably seems like a refreshing change of pace to take on a meaty dramatic role for them, anyway.
Here are 15 of the greatest dramatic performances by usually comic actors.
15. Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
It’s hard to admit that Adam Sandler can act, mainly because he makes such terrible, misguided comedies, but whenever he takes on a dramatic role he proves there’s something underneath all of it that’s unexplored.
The greatest example of this to date is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, probably the most dividing work of the master filmmaker’s career. Here, he plays a novelty supplier that falls in love with an English woman (Emily Watson), all the while experiencing comically absurd things in his life.
Sandler tackles the tragedy and the comedy of the character with stunning commitment, playing along with the film’s surrealism white at the same time delivering a performance that anchors it firmly in reality. Seeing what the much-maligned comedian of movies like Grown-Ups and Jack and Jill could have become is painful, but the performance stands as a beautifully realized piece of work.
Other times he went dramatic: Reign Over Me (Mike Binder, 2007); Funny People (Judd Apatow, 2009); Men, Women & Children (Jason Reitman, 2014)
14. Albert Brooks in Drive (2011)
Younger viewers might actually know Brooks mostly for his dramatic supporting roles, but he was (and is) one of the funniest comics Hollywood ever had. This new phase in his career is largely due to his celebrated performance in Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s riveting crime drama starred by Ryan Gosling as a stuntman/mechanic/getaway driver getting himself in trouble when he tries to help his neighbor (Carey Mulligan).
Here, Brooks composes one of the most terrifying villains of the last few years, giving him a soft exterior and the hardened heart of a cold-blooded killer and mobster.
A lot of critics were surprised when Brooks didn’t appear among the Oscar nominations for Drive, since he won almost every critic’s poll that year. His sole nod is still for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Broadcast News, in 1988.
Other times he went dramatic: A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014); Concussion (Peter Landesman, 2015)
13. Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Ferrell’s hysterical supporting turns in movies like The Producers and Zoolander, as well as his even more famous work as the lead in Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights, qualify him as one of the most resourceful comedians working right now.
The very few times he went dramatic, though, he proved there’s also a lot for him to explore in this weightier roles – Stranger Than Fiction is the prime example, of course, as he embodies an IRS auditor that starts hearing a narration of his own life by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), and the identity crisis it ensues.
Zach Helm’s ingenious script finds in Ferrell the perfect center, as the actor delivers a soulful, endlessly interesting performance and deftly navigates the subtle comedy/drama undertones of the movie. Though he was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Comedy/Musical category, this is probably Ferrell’s biggest dramatic role.
Other times he went dramatic: Everything Must Go (Dan Rush, 2010)
12. Steve Carell in The Big Short (2015)
Carell’s been shaping up as a dramatic talent for some time now. His bittersweet turn in Little Miss Sunshine, back in 2006, can be considered as much of a dramatic role than a comic one.
The same can be said of a movie like 2007’s Dan in Real Life, but recently the actor crossed the line with more gusto in Foxcatcher, which gathered him an Oscar nomination. His performance in this year’s The Big Short ended up out of the Academy’s list, but it is arguably his best yet, trading the broad sensibility of his John du Pont for a subtler approach to another real-life character.
Playing irascible Wall Street hedge-fund manager Mark Baum, he traces a precise character arc, as he starts to realize the amount of people getting hurt for him to profit out of the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. Carell has a promising career ahead, so better watch out for more brilliant dramatic turns from him.
Other times he went dramatic: Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2006); Dan in Real Life (Peter Hedges, 2007); Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014); Freeheld (Peter Sollett, 2015)
11. Patton Oswalt in Big Fan (2009)
In Robert D. Siegel’s terrific Big Fan, Patton Oswalt went darker on his usual riff on geek obsessions, playing a football fanatic that enjoys a small amount of fame as a regular caller to a sports talk-radio show, and eventually gets beaten up by his favorite player.
Oswalt’s performance here is a portrait of a man entirely defined by his passions and his obsessions, with nothing happening in his personal or professional life. It’s riveting, shocking, relatable and depressing all at the same time, and Oswalt deals with every layer of that performance smoothly.
One of the most prolific actors working right now, Oswalt has taken a few other dramatic roles, notably in Young Adult, in what’s basically a different version of the character he played in Big Fan.
Other times he went dramatic: Young Adult (Jason Reitman, 2011)
10. Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls (2006)
Murphy has very rarely gone dramatic – the only notable exception in his long career is Bill Condon’s musical Dreamgirls, that casts the comedy star as a passionate soul singer whose fame fades away as his more commercial label mates (the central group of the film, based loosely on the Supremes) score a bunch of hits.
His intense work scored him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, so maybe it’s not a bad idea for Murphy to get out of his comfort zone from now and then.
In the few scenes he’s in, he’s tremendously compelling, filled with rage and fury for the years he’s been working and pandering to his mostly white audience. The movie feeds on this insane energy while he’s around, and loses some of it when he’s gone.
Other times he went dramatic: Mr. Church (Bruce Beresford, 2016 – yet to be released)
9. Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy (1983)
In Scorsese’s underestimated showbiz dramedy The King of Comedy, legendary comedian Jerry Lewis plays Jerry Langford, the idol of the film’s antihero, played by Robert De Niro. An old talk-show host and TV comedian, Lewis’ character is a different version of his own Buddy Love, a character he created for The Nutty Professor.
Lewis goes dark and deep into this insincere and misanthropic persona, representing the kind of success and admiration De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin wants, and the kind of personality he mirrors himself, a phony showbiz entity that doesn’t feel exaggerated as much as it feels like angry parody.
The role earned Lewis a BAFTA nomination, but it didn’t impact the awards this side of the Atlantic, unfortunately.
Other times he went dramatic: Max Rose (Daniel Noah, 2013)