The comedy actor in Hollywood is often under-valued. People tend to forget that the ability to make one laugh is one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed upon a human being and yet, many comedic talents focus much of their time into breaking barriers into more serious and dramatic territory.
Perhaps it’s the perception that by attempting to star in more dramatic films, they’ll be taken more seriously in their craft. However, although the results have been mixed at times, some primarily funny actors have nailed their dramatic performances, proving to critics and audiences alike that their range extends beyond merely the timing and deliver of a joke.
Here are the 15 greatest dramatic performances from comedy actors.
15. Adam Sandler – Punch Drunk Love (2002)
It’s difficult not to look at Adam Sandler’s IMDb page and sigh. His recent efforts include correctly derided flops like Pixels, The Cobbler, Grown Ups 2 and That’s My Boy. Oh yeah, and how can we forget perhaps the biggest turkey in Sandler’s filmography, 2011’s Jack and Jill. However, once upon a time, the man who formerly made people chuckle moderately with his outburst of fury at golf holes and Bob Barker in the 90s tried his hand at ‘serious’ acting and actually pulled it off. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 Punch Drunk Love, Sandler played Barry Egan, a lonely guy who falls for Emily Watson’s Lena. It was a more thoughtful and considerate performance from Sandler, who also went on to dip his toes in more serious waters with Spanglish and the intentionally unfunny Funny People in 2009. Since then however, he’s been rightly ravaged by critics.
14. Seth Rogen – Steve Jobs (2015)
I’ve always really liked Seth Rogen, but there’s only so much you can take of him ‘smoking a bowl’ with James Franco and the rest of that group of actors who make a seemingly endless string of forgettable comedies with the odd exception. Rogen admirably stepped out of his comfort zone to take on the role of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak opposite Michael Fassbender in Danny Boyle’s under-rated triptych-style biopic of Jobs. Rogen is at his best when he’s expressing disappointment and frustration at Jobs over broken promises in their friendship and it’s surprisingly effective. We hope to see more of this type of acting from Rogen in the future.
13. Mo’Nique – Precious (2009)
The sitcom star and former stand-up comic deservedly scooped an Oscar for her heart-wrenching performance as a mentally ill, abusive mother in Lee Daniels’s unforgettable adaptation of Sapphire’s literary blockbuster. Mo’Nique steals every scene she’s in, launching foul-mouthed tirades at her daughter (the also excellent Gabourey Sidibe). It’s a terrifyingly real and poignant performance that demands multiple viewings. Superlative dramatic acting from an actress who has sadly been rarely seen since.
12. Albert Brooks – Drive (2011)
Brooks has starred in several dramatic supporting roles in the latter stages of his career that the younger viewer may be forgiven for thinking he is a primarily serious actor. Well, that’s not the case. Brooks happens to be one of the funniest men to ever walk this earth, known particularly earlier in his career for his Saturday Night Live sketches. However, he’s so convincing as the psychopathic gangster in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, stealing the show from Ryan Gosling’s brooding unnamed driver. It was surprising that Brooks didn’t earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars that year, especially considering he topped several critics lists. He can also be found playing fairly heavy roles in Taxi Driver, A Most Violent Year and Concussion.
11. Steve Coogan – Philomena (2013)
Yes, he’ll always be Alan Partridge, but Coogan’s acting talents extend far beyond the confines of his cosy Norfolk radio station. In 2013, he starred alongside the always-delightful Dame Judi Dench in Philomena as BBC reporter Martin Sixsmith. Coogan finds a seamless chemistry with his distinguished co-star, giving his most realised and motion picture performance since 24 Hour Party People, where he was memorable as Factor Records founder Tony Wilson.
10. Brie Larson – Room (2015)
Larson has just won the Oscar for Best Leading Actress and nobody was ever going to take it away from her. The 26-year-old is simply breathtaking as Joy, creating the perfect onscreen mother-son relationship with Jacob Tremblay. It’s an undeniably harrowing journey of a film, but Larson’s outstanding work is what makes it so engrossing, showing the mental scars of a mother in a seemingly impossible situation. Larson won every award going for a performance that was a refreshing departure from comedies like Trainwreck and 21 Jump Street.
9. Eddie Murphy – Dreamgirls (2006)
Murphy is regarded as one of the most exhilarating and consistently hilarious stand-up comedians of his generation, but his sporadic forays into dramatics have been executed with aplomb. Here, he scored an Oscar nomination for playing volatile R&B star Jimmy Early and it’s a fast-paced but resonant performance that Murphy should attempt to try again. Perhaps he will score similar plaudits in the upcoming Richard Pryor biopic, ‘Is it Something I Said?’
8. Marlon Wayans – Requiem for a Dream (2000)
In Wayans’s wasted career of dope-out comedies and horror spoofs, Requiem for a Dream was the solitary anomaly. It seems absurd that Wayans starred as a heroin-addict in Darren Aronofsky’s fiercely intense adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel of the same name in the same year he debuted as uber-stoner Shorty in Scary Movie. Wayans is excellent here alongside Jared Leto and Jennifer Connolly, going from cocky-as-hell to emotionally shattered and helpless by the end of the film. It’s a shame Wayans has never really attempted to kick on in the same vein. As I said, a wasted career.
7. Richard Pryor – Blue Collar (1978)
Richard Pryor was, is and always will be the greatest, most captivating stand-up comedian of all time. However, behind the laughter was an intensely serious man and Pryor’s acting took him into Paul Schrader’s 1978 thriller Blue Collar. In this forgotten film, Pryor plays a stressed out auto shop worker who learns some shocking truths about his union and convinces throughout. The stories of Pryor during production are frightening however; he reportedly threatened Schrader with a loaded gun that led to a mental breakdown. Pryor was at the height of his alcohol/drug addiction in 1978, but he still produced his finest dramatic performance.
6. Steve Carell – Foxcatcher (2014)
An actor known to most as the incredibly idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Carell managed to perfectly capture one of the most chilling and creepy cinematic characters in recent memory in John DuPont, the deranged billionaire who attempts to make an Olympic wrestling champion out of Channing Tatum’s Mark Schulz. As DuPont, Carell is transformative and a genuine revelation, stretching his acting range to the very maximum to deliver a truly unforgettable turn and paving the way for further hard-hitting roles like in the Oscar-nominated drama The Big Short, starring alongside Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt.
5. Jamie Foxx – Ray (2004)
Foxx is an established dramatic actor now but back in 2004 he was largely known as a rapper and sitcom star, making his Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles all the more astounding. Foxx completely immersed himself in the creative spirit of Charles, depicting his personal demons with addiction expertly too. Although he’s starred in several drama films in the proceeding decade, nothing has come quite as close to this masterclass.
4. Bill Murray – Lost in Translation (2003)
Bill Murray broke out as a star with National Lampoon’s gross-out comedies of the late 70s and early 80s but he’s never won more praise than as Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola’s extraordinary Lost in Translation. Murray’s performance as a lonely and confused actor, far away from home in Tokyo, perfectly captured an atmosphere of friendship with Scarlett Johansson and delivered a performance that bordered on a self-parodic brilliance, mirroring his own persona and fusing frustration with profound sadness.
3. Jim Carrey – Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004)
It’s no coincidence that Carrey’s excursions into drama have been more successful than his comedic efforts; he’s simply just a really, really fine actor. He was tremendous in The Truman Show but it was here, in Michel Gondry’s celebrated work, that Carrey truly transcended the public perception of him as a zany funnyman. Carrey is relatable and soulful as Joel Barish, opposite Kate Winslet, and shines thanks to Charlie Kaufman’s flawless screenplay. He’s instantly likeable as a luckless sad sack desperately trying to figure out what’s going on around him.
2. Whoopi Goldberg – The Color Purple (1985)
It’s astonishing to think that this was Goldberg’s first major film role. She’s breathtaking as Celie, an abused woman in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel. We journey through the film as Celie grows from intimidated to confident, enrapturing the audience with every flinch, smile, tear and uttering of dialogue. She’s a real tour de force and it’s a more nuanced, intricate performance than Ghost, the one that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
1. Robin Williams – Good Will Hunting (1997)
Welcome to Obviousville. It wasn’t the most unpredictable or rebellious choice, but it was the right one. The greatest dramatic performance by a late comedy actor who also happened to be one of the finest dramatic actors too. By the time Good Will Hunting came around in 1997, Williams was primarily known for his comedic turns in Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam and Jumanji, which only served to make his portrayal of Dr. Maguire all the more striking. Williams’ mentor to Matt Damon’s wayward janitor-cum-genius is a perfectly rounded mixture of sharpness and tenderness, delivering a couple of grandstanding, show-stopping monologues de boot. There are countless other potential drama picks from this dear departed titan of the craft, but Good Will Hunting was, to us, the apex of Robin Williams’s career.