Comedy  |  Lists

10 Great Performances by Comedians in Dramatic Roles

September 5, 2012  |  11:00am

Over the years we’ve been pleasantly surprised to see several of our favorite comedians branch out into the depths of drama, exposing us to sides of actors and actresses we have never seen before. Whether it be the appeal of witnessing a performer operating outside of their comfort zone or simply allowing talents that have been present all along to finally shine through, we have compiled 10 of the best efforts put forth by comedians in dramatic roles.

For the purpose of this list, we define comedians as those who either perform stand-up or sketch comedy—not merely comic actors.

10. Albert Brooks – Drive
This neo-noir dripping with 1980s nostalgia features fantastic performances from a mysterious Ryan Gosling, a lovingly naïve Bryan Cranston and innocent Carey Mulligan, all caught up in a debt toward the mob that has taken a horrible turn. Most surprising perhaps, though, was Albert Brooks’ turn as the unforgiving mob boss Bernie Rose. Most notable known for a successful stand-up and comedy-film career (and for providing the voice behind Finding Nemo’s lovable Marlin), Brooks is both believable and terrifying as a man torn between business and friends, who ends up having to make a choice that will viciously alter the lives of those around him.


9. Jaime Foxx – Collateral
Tackling Michael Mann’s tense thriller opposite action icon Tom Cruise, Jaime Foxx rose to the dramatic challenge in order to play Max, a personable taxi driver who gets hijacked by the mysterious Vincent (Cruise) as he drives throughout Los Angeles killing people as he has been hired to do. Foxx is entirely believable as the overwhelmed driver turned accomplice as he struggles to manage his situation without having Max turn him into the last target on his list. That same year saw his Oscar-winning performance in Ray.


8. Adam Sandler – Punch-Drunk Love
Following a string of immature comedic turns in the late ‘90s at the peak of his SNL popularity, a brand new Adam Sandler seemingly appeared out of the blue for 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love, a role which saw him garner a Golden Globe nomination. Playing the helplessly depressed and lonely Barry Egan, constantly held down by his overbearing sisters, Sandler channeled emotions never yet seen from him as his character blossomed to the idea of love despite being unable to avoid trouble along the way.


7. Danny DeVito – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Seen mainly as a vehicle for Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning leading performance, 1975’s Best Picture Winner also featured a fine and unexpected showcase by Danny DeVito, not known for his dramatic work until this point. A careful examination of the institutionalization of human beings, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest offers several intriguing points to the harmful effects this has on the mind, with DeVito’s character Martini playing an integral role.


6. Steve Martin – The Spanish Prisoner
Starring as the enigmatic Jimmy Dell in David Mamet’s noteworthy mystery The Spanish Prisoner, Steve Martin made a huge leap outside of his comedic boundaries. Perfectly creating a mysterious man who doesn’t reveal enough about his character to ever fully gain the trust of the audience, Martin delivers a subtly satisfying performance that keeps viewers continually questioning both his motivation and his morality throughout.


5. Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple
In 1985 came the release of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, with Whoopi Goldberg occupying the role of Celie, the story’s centerpiece. Beautifully conveying the turmoil of a woman desperate to be appreciated in early 1900s America, Goldberg turns in a fine performance that breaks away from her traditional entertainment appeal.


4. Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
With 2004 came the arrival of perhaps the most accessible of writer Charlie Kaufman’s films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a drama surrounding the age-old advice ‘tis better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.’ At the center of the film’s plot lies funnyman Jim Carrey, playing Joel Barish, a man desperate to erase all traces of a past love from his memory. Through this imaginative approach, Carrey’s character comes to realize the true benefits of a lost love and how they can shape our current selves. Absent from this role is the usual over-the-top antics of Carrey, and what’s left are truly emotional and heartfelt insights leading to a more grown and mature character.


3. Mo’Nique – Precious
2009’s Precious introduced the world to newcomer Gabourney Sidibe in the leading role and revealed a side to Mo’Nique no one had ever seen before. Playing Mary, the abusive mother to a 16-year-old pregnant with her second child, Mo’Nique offers a shockingly brutal and honest portrayal of familial cruelty, a side previously hidden by the comedic actress. Mo’Nique won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role.


2. Jerry Lewis – The King of Comedy
In perhaps the most drastic departure from comedic territory and into unknown waters, long-time comedian Jerry Lewis joined Robert DeNiro on screen in 1983’s The King of Comedy to portray a frustrated late-night television host who becomes victim of a kidnapping at the hands of an overly obsessive fan living more in fantasy than in reality. A perfect accompaniment to yet another collaboration between iconic director Martin Scorsese and star DeNiro, Lewis offers a remarkable departure from the works of his past and managed to elevate his depth as an actor at the same time.


1. Bill Murray – Lost in Translation
At the center of Sofia Coppola’s beautiful Lost in Translation lie two American souls adrift both literally and figuratively in the crowded population of Tokyo. One, a new wife traveling for her husband’s job (Scarlett Johansson), happens upon a fading movie star (Bill Murray) in town to shoot an advertisement. Murray is almost perfect as a melancholic man at a mid-life crisis who’s rejuvenated upon this chance meeting. The two form an unlikely bond that appears to leave them with a newfound appreciation for the exciting quality of not knowing exactly where their lives are headed.


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