Dynamic actors are hard to come by. More often than not, actors will play the same roll over and over again, thus defining themselves as either comedic or dramatic. Typically, there isn’t much room for the in-between. But in very rare cases, actors will dip into both realms, taking on various roles with more dynamic implications. When they’re successful, these are the actors that steal our hearts and that we deem some of the best.
But when typically comedic actors break free from their slapstick and satirical roots, it’s hit or miss. But in the rare case an actor successfully transforms from comedic to dramatic in their acting abilities, we’re left with pure cinematic gold. While this list does include some of the best of the best from some of the most well-known comedic actors, it is in no way, shape or form exhaustive.
Here are the 12 Best Dramatic Performances by Comedy Actors.
Adam Sandler – Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Better known for his slapstick humor in films such as Billy Madison (1995), Happy Gilmore (1996) and Mr. Deeds (2002), Adam Sandler has earned his spot in the comedy realm. He began as a stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live cast member (1990 through 1995) and has since created his own production company, Happy Madison Productions. Still, these accomplishments are all related to his popularity as a funnyman.
But in 2002, Sandler starred alongside Emily Watson in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Punch-Drunk Love, his comedic spell was broken, and audiences finally saw him as the brilliant actor that he is. As Barry Egan, a depressed novelty supplier that falls in love with an English woman in the midst of being extorted, Sandler shows off his acting abilities, making the so-called “romantic comedy” far more than just that.
Bill Murray – Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray is one of Hollywood’s favorite funny men, and it’s hard to see him as anything but. With films such as Ghostbusters (1984), Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981) and even comedic cameos like in Zombieland (2009), he’s more than demonstrated his ability to make even the direst of situations funny. So what happens when he’s transported from his sarcastically funny roots to the world of drama?
The film may be titled Lost in Translation, but his acting ability is anything but. Murray is fantastic as Bob Harris, a burnt out movie star that travels to Tokyo to film commercials, hoping to reignite his career. Instead, he finds Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and they bond over their mutual “lost in the world” status and their inability to understand those around them. The film has some humor as well, but is an overarching story of love, life and finding one’s place in the world: far-fetched for a comedic actor, but Murray succeeds effortlessly.
Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls (2006)
The former stand-up comedian best known for Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and 48 Hrs. (1982), as well as his plethora of voice work including Shrek’s Donkey and Mulan’s Mushu, has mostly stuck to the world of comedy, and his more dramatic roles are few and far between. But his dramatic work in 2006’s Dreamgirls was a whole different ball game, and he hit this one out of the park.
With an all-star cast, including Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson and a singer you may have heard of named Beyonce, standing out is a task, but Murphy does it so well, you’d think he’d been acting in the dramatic realm his entire career. He plays singer James “Thunder” Early, the talent in front of the Dreamettes, a trio of soul-singing women. But when the Dreamettes begin to overshadow him, a whole new line of problems begin.
Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
Often seen as the comedic secondary character in films such as Horrible Bosses (2011), Due Date (2010) and Valentine’s Day (2010), Jamie Foxx also has his fair share of more serious roles, such as Django in Django Unchained (2012), President Sawyer in White House Down (2013) and Will Stacks in Annie (2014). Still, it’s Foxx’s performance in Ray that kept the public talking. Prior to that, he was best known for movies like Booty Call (1997)
The story of the life and career of Ray Charles, the legendary rhythm and blues musician that went blind at seven, helped Foxx gain a reputation for being more than just a comedian. Foxx took on the role above and was almost unrecognizable on screen. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you he isn’t just acting as Ray Charles, he is Ray Charles.
Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey is everyone’s favorite funny man. He takes goofball humor to an all-new level in his films, i.e. Yes Man (2008), Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and Dumb and Dumber (1994). In fact, his track record consists mostly of comedic performances, leaving very little room for dramatics. But in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we see Carrey unlike we’ve ever seen him before.
Carrey plays Joel Barish, a brokenhearted man in a sour relationship. When he learns his girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet) has erased him from her memory, he does the same, realizing too late it might just be his biggest mistake ever. The story is haunting and heartbreaking, two qualities typically absent from Carrey’s films.
Jonah Hill – Moneyball (2011)
Typically seen alongside Seth Rogen or Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill broke out on his own, ditching his comedic partnerships and aiming for something a little higher alongside Brad Pitt in Moneyball. While fans might be more familiar with his work in 21 Jump Street (2012), This is the End (2013) and Superbad (2007), Hill’s dramatic abilities are shockingly good.
In Moneyball, Hill plays Peter Brand, a character loosely based on Paul DePodesta, Billy Beane’s (Pitt) assistant who helps successfully reinvent the Oakland A’s on a tight budget by recruiting undervalued players. Hill is brilliant in the supporting role, leaving the humor behind him and taking on a much more difficult role of a much higher caliber.
And though he didn’t take home any wins, his performance didn’t go unnoticed by the award-giving community. Hill was nominated for a Golden Globe, Academy Award, BAFTA and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance in a supporting role.
Mo’Nique – Precious (2009)
Perhaps one of the most shocking performances on this list, Mo’Nique’s performance as abusive mother, Mary, is groundbreaking, and in stark contrast to her other roles. Mo’Nique was a stand-up comedian before the film, and though she’d voiced a few TV show characters, most of her career was in the stand-up realm. It wasn’t until Precious that Mo’Nique truly caught her big break, and for good reason.
Precious is a dark, emotional film about an overweight teen pregnant with her second baby by her biological father, living with an emotionally and physically abusive mother and trying to accomplish more with her life. And Mo’Nique’s performance matches the tone, blowing away audiences, and also perhaps scarring them in the process.
The film is critically acclaimed, and Mo’Nique brought home countless awards for Best Supporting Actress, including an Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild Award and BET Award, just to name a few. And if that doesn’t speak to her performance, I don’t know what will.
Robin Williams – Good Will Hunting (1997)
An incredible actor in every respect, with a knack for the comedic element, Robin Williams was a true star. And with his ability to move between the comedic and dramatic realms seamlessly, he was one of the greatest actors Hollywood will ever know. Some fan favorites include his voice work as Genie from Aladdin (1992) and his role as Armand Goldman from The Birdcage (1996), but he’s also well known for Jumanji (1995), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Hook (1991).
But Good Will Hunting is undoubtedly one of his most recognizable roles. The story follows Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a janitor at M.I.T., who unwittingly taps into his overwhelming mathematical abilities, and then visits a psychologist to help him achieve greatness. Though it was a breakout performance for both Damon and Ben Affleck, also writers of the film, Robin Williams’ performance as psychologist Sean Maguire was hauntingly beautiful.
Robin Williams – One Hour Photo (2002)
Yes, Williams made the list twice. His dramatic roles are so out of character, as Williams was most well-known for his fast-paced, unmatchable stand-up talent, often played upon in his comedic films, that they stand out from the rest, making the process of choosing his best dramatic film nearly impossible. Of course, fans of his will also argue that Dead Poets Society (1989) and Insomnia (2002) are worthy of the list, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But limiting myself to only two Williams films, One Hour Photo couldn’t be left out.
Williams plays Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a technician at a one-hour photo shop that becomes increasingly obsessed with a young family. He develops their photos, making copies for himself, and fantasizes about being a part of it. The mental state of the character is brilliantly played out by Williams on screen, and is often considered one of his best, though more obscure, dramatic works.
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (2014)
Steve Carell, best known for his portrayal of Michael Scott on The Office (2005 to 2013), has been working in comedy for years, typically as an unintelligent, awkward or flat-out weird character. Some of his more popular comedic works include The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, Dinner for Schmucks and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Really, Carell hadn’t taken on any big-scale, dramatic roles until 2014’s Foxcatcher, where he is unrecognizable.
Foxcatcher, a film that’s been referred to on multiple occasions as Carell’s best work ever, is a shocking story, based on the real thing, about multi-millionaire John du Pont and Olympic championship wrestlers (and brothers) Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively). The film is reportedly ominous and oftentimes disturbing, and Carell’s performance is unlike anything you’ve ever seen him do before.
Steve Martin – The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
A classic comedian, best known for his collaborations with Chevy Chase and Martin Short, Steve Martin knows exactly what it means to be funny. With an oeuvre that including Three Amigos (1986), Cheaper by the Dozen (2003) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Martin has kept audiences laughing for years. So what of his dramatic roles?
Yet his stand-up roots and comedic background don’t inhibit his dramatic abilities, as he stands out with his great portrayal of Julian “Jimmy” Dell in The Spanish Prisoner. Dell is a wealthy man, though more accurately described as a con artist, something Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) learns the hard way. Though not nominated for any awards, Martin’s switch-up from a comedic to dramatic role is easily one of the best.
Tom Hanks – Philadelphia (1993)
Tom Hanks is a fan favorite, without a doubt. Though Hanks is considered comedic, he has a relatively equal balance of comedic and dramatic roles, making him one of the more versatile actors in Hollywood. Best known for his voice work as Woody in Toy Story, Hanks is also known for a few of his comedic roles, including Forrest Gump (1994), A League of their Own (1992) and Big (1988).
But in the dramatic realm, Philadelphia is easily one of Hanks’ best. He plays Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer with AIDS who is fired from his law firm due to his condition who decides to sue the law firm for wrongful dismissal. Hanks’ performance is powerful, to say the least, and as we’ve come to expect from the actor, he gives nothing but his best in a chilling and beautiful performance.
Were you shocked by a comedic actor’s dramatic capabilities? Let us know in the comments below!
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