September 9, 2010
Great comedic roles by dramatic actors
It's fairly common for comedically inclined actors to take dramatic roles, particularly if they can sense awards buzz. Audiences tend to love when actors do this, gasping with shock and delight at the previously unseen depths of Jim Carrey or Robin Williams (and rightfully so). But a less ubiquitous and less-discussed jump is that of dramatic actors to comedic roles. It's a very risky move from their perspective - where funny guys and gals have everything to gain from making the leap, their more serious counterparts could lose major credibility. Another factor making these cases rare is that for better or worse, most actors from past to present have more than a few comedies on their resume, usually at the beginning. I started digging into the filmographies of stoic types like Gary Cooper and Fredric March - figuring that their gigs in the comedy Design for Living (1933) were anomalies - only to discover that they both got their start in a string of frothy yukfests. So I took up the task of finding great comedic roles from stars that did very little comedy in their careers (excluding voice work). Here are my picks, in chronological order:
Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939)
"Garbo Laughs!" proclaimed the tagline for this classic Lubitsch film. A modern reaction to that might be "so what?", but you have to understand that prior to this point, Garbo had been as serious as a heart attack. She starred exclusively in costume dramas and epic romances, always playing an enigmatic and devastating woman. For the first half or so of the film, she continues being deadly serious (in a role of a no-nonsense Russian official) but to the point of absurdity - my boyfriend and I were doubled over from laughing. After Garbo laughs, the humor slows down to make way for romance, but she's still charming and delightful in a way that audiences hadn't seen from her before.
Gene Tierney in The Mating Season (1951)
Known primarily as a femme fatale or seductress in films like Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Tierney gets to show her lighter side in this sprightly comedy that also features Thelma Ritter. Tierney plays Maggie, a girl from a rich family who tries to keep everything together after marrying a man she's known for a day. She's bouncing all over the place, particularly in an early scene where she makes the old gag of several simultaneous cooking disasters seem fresh. Perhaps it's unfair to single out this movie since it's unavailable on DVD and I only happened on it via TCM, so I'll also add that she has fun, saucy chemistry with Don Ameche in Heaven Can Wait (1943).
James Cagney in One, Two, Three (1961)
It was hard to pick just one for Cagney, who despite playing mostly tough guys also excelled in his relatively limited funny roles (see also The Strawberry Blonde and The Bride Came C.O.D.). Cagney's comedy is that of a man endlessly frustrated by the ludicrous circumstances he finds himself in, and he usually fights back by scheming, bellowing, or punching. In this criminally underrated Billy Wilder flick, he's a smarmy capitalist who has to keep his boss' daughter away from Communists in Berlin. He talks ten miles a minute leading up to the breathless third act, where he pulls out all the stops to rectify his situation. How lucky for audiences that he found another outlet for the rapid-fire delivery he cultivated in gangster pictures.
Edmond O'Brien in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The town drunk in a western might be the oldest cliché in the book, so it's a testament to O'Brien's skills that the character of Dutton Peabody is not only bearable, but lovable. Known mostly for noirs, O'Brien doesn't do anything particularly unusual in his depiction here, although it surely helps that Peabody publishes the town newspaper instead of just lounging around. The film is not really a comedy, but for once the obligatory comic character doesn't feel like an awkwardly inserted drag.
Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Here's a film that needs no introduction, but I feel that Hayden's contributions have often been overlooked in appraising it. Hayden starred almost exclusively in serious films (typically crime or noir) both before and after Strangelove, but his foray into comedy here is unforgettable. As Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (subtle, eh?), he brings the perfect mix of swagger and demented insanity to a character who can deliver lines about the Commies' intent to "sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids" in a hysterically genuine way. He might just be my favorite character in the movie. I'll also give a shoutout to George C. Scott's work as Buck Turgidson, but his resume is surprisingly filled with quite a few comedies.
Natalie Wood in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Wood was rarely a purveyor of laughs, but somehow she was a perfect fit for this sex satire. Maybe it's just me, but I've always found it hilariously incongruous when wide-eyed, innocent-looking ingenues speak bluntly and authoritatively about sex (see also: Maggie McNamara in The Moon Is Blue). Having absorbed perhaps the wrong message from a totally 60s spiritual retreat, she faces her husband's extramarital affairs with overwhelmingly zen acceptance. The "suburban housewife who has veered slightly off the path" role can be tricky, but Wood pulls it off with aplomb.
Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now (1979)
No, I am not under the impression that this film is a comedy. But I love how in the midst of all the unfathomable warfare, we have the utterly irreverent Lt. Kilgore, who loves surfing, Wagner, and napalm. Someow in the chaos of the Vietnam War he's completely in his element - as casual as if he were sprawled on the couch at home. Just as the rest of the film dials it to 11 in terms of the horrors the men witness, Coppola lets Duvall go way over the top. And yet I don't doubt that Vietnam saw men just like Kilgore...
Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
I'm hardly the first person to comment on Penn's unbelievable Spicoli-to-solemn evolution. But...damn! Nowadays he seems like the most humorless person alive, but his breakout role was as everybody's favorite stoner. With pothead characters a dime a dozen, it's telling that Spicoli has endured in our collective memory. And let's not forget his second comedic outing (and hopefully not his last - let's hope his on-again off-again relationship with the Three Stooges film in development turns permanent!) as jazz musician Emmet Ray in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown. He dons a sort of manic persona - not entirely unlike Allen himself - and works up a frenzy opposite Samantha Morton's completely mute character.
Nicole Kidman in To Die For (1995)
Kidman has starred in a handful of...um...attempted comedies, but by far her most successful outing is as Suzanne Stone Maretto in this deranged Gus Van Sant film. She plays a sociopathic career woman to perfection, with perky renditions of lines like "you aren't really anybody in America if you're not on TV." Her strangely gleeful manner while plotting the murder of her husband is almost reminiscent of Alex DeLarge, and she won a well-deserved Golden Globe for her performance.
Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski (1998)
Bridges hadn't done much comedy before Lebowski, but something magical happened the minute he put on that robe. The result was one of the funniest and flat-out best characters of our time. To quote the film's mystic narrator: "Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there." Over a decade and dozens if not hundreds of Lebowski Fests later, it's pretty clear that Bridges did something right to make The Dude such an icon. Offering backup is Julianne Moore, proving she should really do more comedies (The Kids Are All Right is a step in the right direction, but it's really more of a drama). The "weird feminist artist" archetype is a pretty tired one, but Moore gives it just the right deadpan sensibility.
Mark Wahlberg in The Other Guys (2010)
After seeing this film, my boyfriend made the interesting observation that Wahlberg acts exactly the same in both comedies and dramas. In every role he has an overwhelming sense of earnestness and honesty, which Andy Samberg nails in the "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals" sketch - "Wahlberg" truly wants the donkey to say hello to his mother for him. In The Other Guys he's doing angry man comedy, a style that's often grating (I'm looking at you, Adam Sandler) but that Wahlberg can pull off because he actually seems like the type who would be angry all the time (whereas it seems rather misplaced with Sandler - maybe his characters are just constipated?).
What other performances can you think of? (And before you chime in with "I CAN'T BELIVE YOU MISSED ______", please note that for all of these actors I went painstakingly through every single film on their IMDb page, and had to cut out several that I would have included otherwise due to a higher comedy presence than expected.)