The saying goes: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Or so says 18th century Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed at least. But it is noteworthy that his quote is transcendent enough to still apply 188 years later. And it certainly does when you’re talking about the general lack of respect comedy gets compared to more “serious” fare in the art world.
Time and time again, comedy is treated as inferior to drama by both critics and even casual fans with the general perception being that to be successful, something must bother you emotionally to prove effective or meaningful. Too many times, laughter and joy are relegated as unimportant or superfluous and films that aim for that reaction are labeled derogatory terms such as “cheap” or “easy.” But just ask any actor who is worth one’s salt and they will tell you that the effort and skill in creating a character that is endearing and genuinely funny is exceedingly difficult. Those not in the know seem to have the common thought that a master thespian should be able to just flip a switch in their brain and all of a sudden be charming, endearing, clever and witty. That is just simply not the case.
But just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done. There have been several instances where actors have worked against type and have turned in great comedic performances, changing their perception in the process. Whether it is a proven action star relaxing their muscles and showing their softer side, a squirrely character actor revealing their depth when the spotlight is upon them, or anyone with a stoic presence reminding you that, yes, they too can be silly; here are ten great comedic performances from certified non-comedians.
1. Anthony Hopkins – The Road To Wellville (1994)
Anthony Hopkins is undeniably one of the greatest actors to have ever lived. With a resume that includes seven decades in the film industry, over fifty acting awards and eighty six combined nominations, nobody would ever accuse him of being unqualified for any role you can think of. But it was a bit surprising to see Hopkins take on the role of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in the 1994 film The Road To Wellville. Despite being based on the true story of the real life wellness enthusiast, the film is more or less a slapstick comedy that focuses heavily on Kellogg’s quest to run a clean-living asylum in Michigan that became known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
While Kellogg notably engaged in plenty of controversial and shocking activities throughout his life, including sterilization, castration and mandatory eugenics, Hopkins plays the role like a bombastic Foghorn Leghorn cosplayer, bug-eyed, sneering and smirking through scenes with maniacal energy and lunkheaded wonder. He is clearly having a blast being able to shed his menacing image and instead strap on a pair of comically large buck teeth and a goofy mustache and really seems to revel in the absurdity and fart jokes that the film paints Kellogg around.
2. Jeff Daniels – Dumb and Dumber (1994)
Coming off of co-starring roles in the prestigous historical drama Gettysburg and the action thriller Speed, Daniels was an unlikely choice to pair alongside Jim Carrey for 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. However, Daniels rose to the challenge by matching Carrey’s boundless energy and over the top performance while adding a loveable innocence and hilarious naivety to his character, proving as a perfect counterpart to Carrey in the Farrelly Brothers classic tale of idiocy.
In the years since, Daniels has continued to shift effortlessly back and forth between both comedic and dramatic roles; winning the lead actor in a dramatic series primetime Emmy award back in 2013 for his work on the HBO series The Newsroom and scoring a Golden Globe nomination for 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. But despite his many accolades, many will forever remember him for having the most noteworthy explosive diarrhea scene in film history.
3. Kathy Bates – The Waterboy (1998)
After her career defining role in the 1991 horror film Misery, which netted her a best actress Oscar, Kathy Bates became one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood, with roles in a wide range of films such as Fried Green Tomatoes, Dolores Claiborne, The Late Shift and Titanic, specializing heavily in deeply layered character studies. So it surprised more than a few people back in 1998 when Bates was cast as Adam Sandler’s mother Mama Boucher in the cult comedy The Waterboy.
Given a fairly generic, one-dimensional trait of “be overprotective” with the script, Bates still found a way to have fun with the role, with her charm and distinctive volatile personality adding a lot of intangible depth, much needed gravitas and heart to a character who would be completely forgettable if played by a lesser actor. Bates is one of Hollywood’s rare stars who can do literally everything well and she has continued to deliver wonderful roles, both comedic and serious in the years since.
4. Meryl Streep – Death Becomes Her (1992)
Without question, Meryl Streep is one of, if not the most, respected actor of her generation. Compiling a mind boggling THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY EIGHT combined award nominations over her nearly 50 year career. Bow down, all hail, Queen Streep. She has certainly earned the right to choose any role she is interested in taking, but it was definitely unexpected when she starred alongside Goldie Hawn in the 1992 comedy fantasy Death Becomes Her. It’s a comical tale about dueling rivals who both end up drinking a magical potion that promises to give them eternal youth but instead finds them turning into the walking dead.
Despite it being a technical marvel of a film, DBH relies heavily on the characterization between Hawn and Streep to make their feud feel important enough to escalate to the wild and violent state it deteriorates into. Streep brings everything she has to the role and delivers a clever, catty play on the general fear of aging and narcissism as a whole. Streep’s fury and fire really help sell the idea and her comedic timing matches up with Hawn’s perfectly. It’s also just a fun novelty to see the world’s greatest living actor starring in an over the top, violent, screwball comedy.
5. Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Consistently good in consistently good films, Leonardo DiCaprio is often regarded as one of the most under-rated actors of all time. In a career that spans historical dramas, political war thrillers, neo-noir psychological thrillers and science fiction action epics, just to name a few, DiCaprio turned in a truly inspired comedic performance for the ages back in 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Proving that reality is much stranger than fiction, it is the true story of wall street magnate Jordan Belfort, who lied and schemed his way to fame and fortune throughout the 1990s.
The film takes the approach of showing you how toxic excessive living can be and DiCaprio plays the oblivious Belfort perfectly as he falls down rung after rung of the commercial and emotional ladder. With his character truly believing he can drive perfectly fine when he’s blackout drunk or that ludes give him strength such as spinach does for Popeye. WOWS is ultimately a sad story of manipulation and greed in hindsight, but DiCaprio is truly hysterical in his blissfully ignorant performance.