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This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The sad clown is a blight on movies. Roberto Benigni won an Oscar for romping through a concentration camp in Life Is Beautiful, an award that seems regrettable now. A legend has grown around Jerry Lewis’ never-released Holocaust film, The Day the Clown Cried, but how could it possibly be better than its unbearably mawkish title?
Comics who can truly act, though, those who leave their sitcom and stand-up personas behind to create profound dramatic characters, that is one of the most refreshing, promising narratives of this awards season.
Freaks and Geeks alone has given us Jason Segel (also of How I Met Your Mother), brilliant as the writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, and Seth Rogen, as Steve Wozniak, holding his own opposite Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Kristen Wiig, who has had some wobbly experiences with drama, is touching and fully in command as a conflicted 1970s mother in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Sarah Silverman carries the indie I Smile Back as a drug-addicted suburban mom, and Louis C.K. moves smoothly into the 1940s and ‘50s as Dalton Trumbo’s angry, more radical friend in Trumbo.
And those are just the relative newcomers to drama. Some of the season’s most acclaimed performances are from actors who made that leap long ago. In Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks puts his trademark upright all-American type to good use (not that Bosom Buddies wasn’t all-American in its own wacky way). Spotlight gives Michael Keaton back-to-back “awards-bait” movies, coming a year after Birdman. Will Smith, far from his Fresh Prince days, is a heroic doctor who takes on the NFL in Concussion, with support from another comedian gone serious, Albert Brooks. And in one of the year’s most successful and audacious turns, John Cusack plays the older version of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy.
The dramatic newbies can look to history to see what makes this kind of transition work. It often begins with a director spotting the right spark in an actor and knowing how to use it. Bill Murray made a disastrous dramatic start in the earnest The Razor’s Edge in 1984. It wasn’t until Sofia Coppola drew out his endearingly droll manner in Lost in Translation nearly 20 years later that his understated flair for the realistic and serious emerged in movies.
Similarly, Rogen’s and Segel’s potential was waiting to be discovered. Rogen’s teddy-bearish look gives him a close physical resemblance to Wozniak. But it’s his ability to hold your attention onscreen — a kind of charisma evident in his broader comedies, along with the emotional truth he tapped into in Knocked Up — that allows him to turn a small, slightly written part into something stirring in Steve Jobs.
The way Segel captures the quick-wittedness, insecurity and tenderness of Wallace in The End of the Tour is both startling and yet, in hindsight, perhaps not all that surprising. Beneath the hilarious surface of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel’s screenplay and acting were full of shrewdly observed details and intelligence.
Indeed, it isn’t just the bandana and weight gain speaking when Segel becomes Wallace, though history has proved that a physical change always helps viewers forget whom they’re watching. When Steve Carell left The Office and became a psychotic killer in last year’s Foxcatcher, he reminded us of the Nicole Kidman principle (illustrated by her turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours): Never underestimate the power of a giant fake nose. Of course, that only works if, like Carell, the actor creates a fully realized character behind the prosthetic.
If true dramatic talent is minimal, directors have been known to use an actor’s persona to good effect, maybe once. Lewis’ visceral depiction of a self-absorbed talk-show host in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is a triumph of savvy casting and direction. Paul Thomas Anderson made effective use of Adam Sandler’s single-expression, sad-sack affect in Punch Drunk Love, but overall, Sandler’s career in somber films is a cautionary tale. Movies like Reign Over Me, in which he plays a man who has lost his wife and children in the 9/11 attacks, and, more recently, Jason Reitman’s unwatchable Men, Women & Children, only prove that looking mournful isn’t the same as acting.
But the real test of a comedian’s ability to play drama is to leave the lunacy behind, and do it twice. Robin Williams was so moving in Good Will Hunting and so hauntingly creepy in One Hour Photo precisely because his characters didn’t share Williams’ own comic genius. (His supposedly heart-tugging Patch Adams, curing illness with laughter, is a cliched waste and too close to the Williams persona we already knew.) Jim Carrey created two very different, enduring roles in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, without a hint of his wild-man comedies. Not reminding the audience that A Comic Is Acting is crucial in avoiding the crying-clown syndrome.
This year’s crop has solid prospects for the future. Louis C.K.’s close-to-home characters, Louis onstage and Louie on television, make the acerbic, bitter screenwriter Arlen Hird in Trumbo an easy fit. But those paying attention already knew he could stretch: Look at his romantic role as an apparently nice but secretly married guy who puts the moves on Sally Hawkins in Blue Jasmine.
Wiig finds the layers of her character in Teenage Girl, possibly because she had a better script than she did in recent misfires like Hateship Loveship or Welcome to Me. She had already started exercising her dramatic chops alongside former Saturday Night Live cohort Bill Hader, both terrific in last year’s The Skeleton Twins. That film leavened the intense themes of suicide and depression with sibling in-jokes that drew on the actors’ sketch-comedy strengths.
Blending drama and humor can indeed be a rich combination. Lily Tomlin’s light-handed yet deeply felt portrayal adds an emotional charge to the comic Grandma, her best performance since Robert Altman plucked her from comedy for drama in Nashville back in 1975.
There is, intentionally, not a glimmer of humor in I Smile Back, and Silverman is uncompromising in the role. But she suffers from the same problem Jennifer Aniston did last year with Cake: The performance is stronger than the too-obvious movie. A comic actor can go the minimum-makeup indie route, but unless the film itself makes a solid case for its own existence, the whole enterprise feels like an audition for the next, better thing. For the record, Silverman already has proven herself in a serious role, as half of a witty lesbian couple on Showtime’s Masters of Sex.
Some comic actors have become one-hit dramatic wonders in roles we wouldn’t want to have missed: Mary Tyler Moore’s chilly WASP in Ordinary People is a supreme example. But careers more often are built on the ability to toggle back and forth. Hanks can drop into something lighthearted whenever he wants; he’s still the voice of Woody in every Toy Story that comes along.
And if newly minted serious actors hit snags, Hanks can inspire them there, too. He won a richly deserved Oscar for Philadelphia, but that wasn’t his first crack at drama. Three years before, he starred in that notorious debacle, The Bonfire of the Vanities. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
James is a film and television critic and the author of the novel What Caroline Knew.
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