Actors often say that comedy is harder than drama. It might be fun for dramatic actors to take a stroll on the funny side, but the real challenge is a comic actor trying to get audiences to take them seriously.
In honor of some acclaimed performances by comics in dramatic roles in the past few months, here are the 15 greatest dramatic performances by comedic actors.
15. Seth Rogen in Steve Jobs
Danny Boyle’s biopic of Apple founder and tech giant Steve Jobs, aptly titled Steve Jobs, was highly underrated. It received ridiculous levels of critical acclaim – with some some calling it a refreshing change of pace for Boyle, who they said “drops his usual whirlwind editing style and instead develops an engrossing chamber piece.”
Yet, the film failed to make a splash at the box office. Still, it’s great. Michael Fassbender’s troubled turn as the turtleneck-wearing genius was the one that got all the attention, but Seth Rogen’s role as Jobs’ neglected right hand man Steve Wozniak was the heart of the movie.
Ironically, like Wozniak himself, Rogen’s terrific performance was kind of swept under the rug and forgotten about by critics, lost in the sea of praise given to Fassbender and Kate Winslet. The way Rogen dropped his usual pot-smoking man-child persona deserved a lot more credit.
14. Jonah Hill in Moneyball
Jonah Hill is known for his performances in comedy movies like Superbad, Knocked Up, and the Jump Street movies, but he is also a brilliant dramatic performer. Hill has been nominated twice for an Academy Award, once for his performance in Moneyball and once for his performance in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
While The Wolf of Wall Street is a dramatic movie based on a true story, it is primarily a black comedy, and Hill was in his element in what was described by critics as “Goodfellas meets The Hangover.” His performance in Moneyball, though, was a serious departure into gentle dramatic fare.
It’s a movie about the financial struggles of baseball executives for the Oakland A’s, which would’ve been dry as hell if it wasn’t for the engaging performances of Hill and his co-stars Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
13. Jason Bateman in Ozark
Jason Bateman is one of the biggest movie stars in comedy, starring in huge blockbuster hits like Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief, The Switch, Couples Retreat, Paul, Office Christmas Party – like them or not, you can’t deny that they were hits and that Bateman is a talented performer.
But this summer, he showed us a side of him that we’ve never seen before, a very dark side. He played a money-laundering accountant named Marty Byrde in Netflix’s crime drama Ozark, which critics compared favorably to Breaking Bad. Bateman was so committed to Ozark that he even directed a handful of episodes and acts as an executive producer for the overall series.
He really brings his A-game to the role of Marty, which is essentially his Walter White. Marty is more of a straight-out-of-the-gate asshole than Walt, and he has a short temper, but Bateman’s charm brings a likability and, more importantly, a watchability to the character.
Netflix jumped the gun on renewing the show for a second season, anticipating that audiences would connect with the amiable Bateman in a dark role, and so we can look forward to more episodes coming next year.
12. Albert Brooks in Drive
As a kind of West Coast Woody Allen, Albert Brooks has spent his career making brilliant comedy movies with an insightful look into society and always with a dramatic edge. However, Brooks has always been primarily a comedy actor, and a darn good one at that.
When it came to the casting of Nicolas Winding Refn’s slick neo-noir thriller Drive — marketed as the next Fast & Furious, but was really a contemplative and gritty crime drama — the director made the unconventional decision to cast the typically comic performer Brooks in the role of violent, foul-mouthed gangster Bernie Rose.
Brooks relished the chance to play against type, explaining, “There are six people you could always get to play this kind of part, and I like that the director was thinking outside of the box. For me, it was an opportunity to act outside the box.”
“I liked that this mobster had real style. Also, he doesn’t get up in the morning thinking about killing people. He’s sad about it. Upset about it. It’s a case of, ‘Look what you made me do.’” Sinister.
11. Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls
Eddie Murphy began his movie career in the 1980s as one of the biggest stars of all time. His critically acclaimed box office smash hits like Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, Coming to America, and 48 Hrs. revealed a bankable star with endless talent.
But then, with critically panned financial bombs like The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Norbit, Meet Dave, The Haunted Mansion, and Showtime, he proved himself to be box office poison past his prime. So, naturally, it was time to shake things up and he came back in full force with a powerful performance in the musical Dreamgirls.
Murphy channeled musicians like James Brown and Marvin Gaye into his performance as soul singer James “Thunder” Early. Murphy was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film. Who saw that coming in the early noughties?
10. Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting
Robin Williams has become legendary since his tragic suicide in 2014. He left behind a hell of a legacy, with a catalogue of classic standup comedy albums. He starred in some of the world’s greatest comedy movies like Jumanji — which is getting a remake soon — and Good Morning, Vietnam.
However, his greatest achievement was his dramatic turn as psychiatrist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, which won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His movies like The Birdcage and Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubtfire do contain elements of drama, but it’s melodrama in the background of a broad comedy.
Those movies, like most of his filmography, rely on Williams’ iconic brand of shtick. But in Good Will Hunting, Williams simply bears his soul on screen, and it’s glorious. He’s single-handedly responsible for some of the film’s most iconic moments.
He hits you in the feels every time he repeats the line, “It’s not your fault,” and the scene where Sean tells Will everything he used to love about his deceased wife is really raw and emotional. What’s even more astounding is that he improvised the whole thing!
9. Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple
Whoopi Goldberg is a megastar. According to The Muppets, she is God. She has also made audiences laugh riotously in movies like Sister Act and Broadway shows like her self-titled one-woman show.
As a black woman who has strived to make strides for black women in the entertainment industry (ever since she saw Uhura in Star Trek and said to herself, “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”), it was only right that her first dramatic turn should be in a masterful movie that drew attention to these issues.
Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple is a period drama about the struggles of African American women in the Southern United States, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker.
8. Steve Coogan in Philomena
Steve Coogan is one of the funniest Brits in comedy. He created Alan Partridge, arguably Britain’s most iconic comedy character, and he’s also starred in The Trip, 24 Hour Party People, Tropic Thunder, and The Other Guys.
While he was shooting a movie, he happened upon a true story that was so extraordinary that he felt compelled to adapt it into a screenplay. Philomena tells the story of a journalist who joins forces with a Catholic woman whose baby was taken from her by nuns when she was a young sinner. Together they track down her estranged son.
The result was an Oscar-nominated masterpiece that The New York Times said was “so quietly moving that it feels lit from within.” Coogan’s fierce performance as the religion-bashing journalist who helps Philomena was phenomenal, and kudos to the guy for being able to hold his own in a dramatic role next to the brilliant Judi Dench in her role of a lifetime.
7. Michael Keaton in Birdman
Michael Keaton started off as a standup comic performing alongside Larry David. He then starred in hit comedy movies throughout the ‘80s with the likes of Mr. Mom and Multiplicity and Beetlejuice. Then he progressed into big budget action movies like Batman and One Good Cop, along with stunt casting in movies like Toy Story 3 and The Other Guys.
It wasn’t until 2014, a few decades into his film career, that he graced the big screen with his crowning achievement: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s a black comedy that satirizes Hollywood. It tells the story of a downtrodden actor who used to be a big star and is now fighting not to be forgotten.
Keaton elevates what could’ve been a silly, clown-like role by bringing a very real and human pathos to the character. Variety’s review called Keaton’s beautiful performance the “comeback of the century.”
6. Lily Tomlin in Nashville
By the time Robert Altman was making Nashville, his epic satirical drama about the country music business, Lily Tomlin had already made a name for herself as one of the greatest comedians on the standup circuit. It’s hard for women to make it into comedy now, let alone back in the 1970s when Tomlin was starting out.
But still, she managed it, winning Emmy Awards for her groundbreaking TV special Lily and winning a Grammy for her standup album This is a Recording. And then Altman cast her in a dramatic role in her film debut in Nashville.
At the time, she was confused by the casting and was envious of a more comedic role in the script, but she really came into her element. Tomlin ended up being one of just two cast members nominated for an Oscar in an ensemble of 24 actors, including heavyweight talents like Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Scott Glenn, and Jeff Goldblum.
5. Richard Pryor in Blue Collar
Blue Collar, the directorial debut of Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader, is both a scathing attack on corrupt unions and a study of working class life. It’s a dark, gritty drama that is criminally underrated, despite its endearing critical acclaim.
Notably, Schrader cast Richard Pryor, arguably the greatest standup comic of all time, in the lead role as Zeke Brown, a struggling African-American auto worker in Detroit. On the set of the movie, there was artistic tension between Schrader and Pryor, whose drug abuse was at its peak.
At one point, Pryor pulled a loaded gun on Schrader and gave him a nervous breakdown that made him reconsider his entire career. Nevertheless, Pryor gives a fantastic performance. The movie has a rare perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Spike Lee included it in his List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See.
4. Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Bill Murray’s performance style, whether it’s in comedy or in drama, defies categorization. Whenever he is on screen, he is constantly walking on a tragicomic tightrope that is mesmerizing to watch. When he’s playing a comedic role like Phil Connors, he’ll sift through the comedic material to find the underlying tragedy.
In a dramatic role, Murray goes for the opposite. He digs into the tragedy of the character to find the humor in his heart and goes from there, and the results are frankly amazing. Murray’s low-key turn as Bob Harris in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is the best example.
Murray was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, but lost to Sean Penn for Mystic River. Still, the critics loved it. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics voted Bill Murray best actor of the year.
3. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston cut his teeth as a comedy actor with guest appearances in shows like Seinfeld, where he played Dr. Tim Whatley, the dentist who molested Jerry while he was under anesthesia and converted to Judaism purely to make Jewish jokes.
He was widely known as the silly dad from Malcolm in the Middle when he was cast in the lead role of AMC’s new crime drama Breaking Bad. The network was desperate to cast someone else instead. But Cranston very quickly proved his chops.
He won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times in his role as chemistry teacher turned drug baron Walter White. Anthony Hopkins wrote Cranston a letter after binge watching Breaking Bad, telling him it was the finest acting he’d ever seen.
2. Jim Carrey in Man on the Moon
After a long string of massive box office hits – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber – Jim Carrey finally got the chance to appear as his hero Andy Kaufman in a biopic called Man on the Moon. It was a passion project of sorts for Carrey, who threw himself into the role of the legendary Kaufman.
There’s a new documentary coming out soon called Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond that sifts through a hundred hours of footage from behind the scenes of Man on the Moon to give viewers an insight into how deeply Carrey got into character as Kaufman.
Man on the Moon, while acclaimed, was a huge box office flop, with Universal making a loss in the tens of millions. Still, Carrey’s brilliant performance lives on.
1. Adam Sandler in The Meyerowitz Stories
Netflix’s new film acquisition, Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, is being touted as the streaming service’s first real chance at success at the Academy Awards. And there’s a very good reason for that: it’s a phenomenal movie.
There are comedic elements, but the film is first and foremost a drama about how a family comes to terms with their patriarch slipping into dementia. Dustin Hoffman and Ben Stiller star alongside Adam Sandler, whose performance as the unappreciated son, Danny Meyerowitz, has received praise from critics.
Sandler’s recent comedies have caught a lot of flak for their juvenile humor and a seemingly growing laziness on Sandler’s part. But The Meyerowitz Stories is a startling return to form for the funnyman. Variety’s review read, “With no shtick to fall back on, Sandler is forced to act, and it’s a glorious thing to watch.”