OSCARS: From Comedy To Drama – The Challenge For The Crossover Artist

In the 1970s, Columbia Pictures then-president Peter Guber was given a script for a film starring  Woody Allen. “I called my boss David Begelman and said, ‘There has to be a mistake,’ ” Guber recalls. “There’s not a laugh in it!” The film was The Front (1977), and it was a stark departure from Allen’s comedy writing and standup days, preceding Annie Hall by a year. In the film, directed by Martin Ritt, Allen stars as a New York deli clerk who ghost writes for blacklisted scribes. The poster featured Allen throwing up his hands in a “What me, worry?” pose with the tag line, “America’s Most Unlikely Hero.”

the-front-movie-poster-1976-1020220464“After seven minutes, the preview audience wasn’t laughing anymore,” Guber recalls. “The film didn’t associate with Woody Allen’s brand of comedy. The audience had an expectation going into the theater.” Critics were divided over The Front, and the film’s box office didn’t hit the $20 million to $30 million take of Allen’s other films, considered big by ’70s standards.

Fast-forward several years, when Bill Murray followed up his role in the 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters with a dramatic turn in The Razor’s Edge, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel about a World War I vet who goes off the grid to India. The film was slaughtered at the box office and also by critics, such as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, who blamed Murray for the movie’s dullness.

However, the tide is slowly changing. For every Woody Allen and Bill Murray, there’s a Tom Hanks and Mo’Nique, who have shown that actors who got their start in comedy can branch out into darker territory successfully. Unlike in the ’70s and ’80s, comedic actors these days aren’t gambling their reputations on big studio dramas and instead are taking their chances with lower-budget fare, dramedies in particular. This year the testing pool includes newcomers such as Will Forte and Jonah Hill alongside more seasoned comic stars like Ben Stiller, Steve Coogan and Louis C.K., all of whom are showing depth and range in the films Nebraska, The Wolf Of Wall Street, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Philomena and American Hustle, respectively.

carrey_truman01Yet while audiences have warmed up to the idea, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters haven’t been so quick to honor the risky crossover some actors have made from comedy to drama, Hanks’ and Mo’Nique’s past wins notwithstanding. How it is that Jim Carrey was completely overlooked in the late ’90s for his dramatic turns in The Truman Show or Man On The Moon? Or, more recently, Patton Oswalt in Jason Reitman’s Young Adult in 2011, or Albert Brooks for his vicious gangster in Drive, for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Movie Award and a Spirit award in 2012? It all boils down to the actor’s branding and onscreen image.

“You’re starting off with a hurdle,” explains Guber, who executive-produced Hanks in his 1990 dramatic misfire, The Bonfire Of The Vanities. “The audience is familiar with a comedian in a specific role, and as you craft the film, you want to fulfill their expectations. Being careful with advertising is key—you don’t want to hide the bacon.” He points to Murray’s Oscar-nominated breakthrough in 2003’s Lost In Translation, which had scenes with comedic undertones.

“If the studio and filmmakers are smart, the comedian won’t be humorless in the movie,” adds producer Barry Mendel, who oversaw 2011’s Bridesmaids, which resulted in two rare Oscar nominations for the comedy (best supporting actress for Melissa McCarthy and original screenplay for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo). “Their charm will be part of the character in the drama.”

It’s that type of likability and accessibility that propelled Hanks, a former sitcom star, to a best actor big-tom-hanksOscar nomination for 1988’s Big—a comedy—and set him on a path toward back-to-back wins for Philadelphia (1994) and Forrest Gump (1995). The formula also worked for Robin Williams, who, after showing his comedic stylings in such films as 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam (for which he was Oscar nominated), relied on his Juilliard training to pull off nominated dramatic turns in Awakenings (1990), The Fisher King (1991) and Good Will Hunting, which earned him a golden guy in 1998.

Being a fresh face to the Academy also helps, as voters aren’t as able to size up a comic actor’s talents. It perhaps explains how Mo’Nique broke through with her supporting actress win for portraying a vicious mother in 2009’s Precious. The comedienne’s Apollo Theater gigs and urban comedies, such as Phat Girlz and Soul Plane, weren’t necessarily on voters’ radars.

willforte1It’s that fresh-face factor that Saturday Night Live alum Will Forte brings to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, in which he plays Bruce Dern’s hapless son, David. The actor is the first to admit he feels a little like a fish out of water with the transition. “I didn’t think, “Oh, I need to start doing some dramas instead of comedies,’ ” Forte says. “I love doing comedies. I never ruled out doing a drama, I just didn’t know if anybody would ever let me do one. And for that someone to be Alexander Payne was really intimidating. Heck, I’m just barely getting used to acting in comedies.”

“The good thing about our movie is that it isn’t a heavy drama,” adds Nebraska producer Albert Berger. “Will brings a nice comic feeling to his lines, such as when he says to (Dern), ‘Tell me when you’re driving so I can stay off the road.’ Will does it in an understated way, but it gives texture to a person who is the eyes of the audience and who might otherwise be considered bland.”

Unlike Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler—two other SNL alums whose adventures in drama haven’t been so well-received—Forte hasn’t yet built the type of box office overexposure that Academy members might hold against him. His Nebraska costar, and fellow comedian, Bob Odenkirk benefits similarly and also has working in his favor the fact that audiences have seen him balance fierce and funny in AMC’s Breaking Bad. (Although Payne wasn’t familiar with his portrayal of a slippery criminal lawyer upon casting him.)

Other comedic stars who are transitioning smoothly into dramatic territory include Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a single mom in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said; R-rated standup comic Andrew Dice Clay going Brando Method as a blue-collar dreamer in Allen’s Blue Jasmine; and Wiig, who with Stiller, delivers one of the most poignant roles of her career in the whimsical epic The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.

There are the anomalies: The rare comedic actors who’ve been bestowed with Oscar nominations for their funny work—Peter Sellers in Being There, Dudley Moore in Arthur, and McCarthy in Bridesmaids, among them—but there still seems to be an uphill battle to get to an actual win. “The Academy does a terrible job at recognizing the art of comedy,” says Mendel. “They tend to go for performances that reduce audiences to tears or those where the character grapples with a physical challenge. Comedic actors handle what they’re given. They bring more charm and complications to their roles than those in a straight dramatic performance. There should be recognition for this.”

  1. Genuine question: Do you think it’s easier for actors known for comedies to to dramatic roles than the other way around?

    1. That is truly a complex question. Some film comedies work because everyone is committed fully and some work because no one is taking it too seriously. Actors in a comedy are somewhat hemmed in by the writing, directing, and editing. There’s also the way movie acting and casting is predicated on familiarity meaning an actor’s good work may not be accepted by an audience with different expectations. I was thinking about Hitchcock and actors the other day and it occurred to me that one wouldn’t use Jimmy Stewart in North by Northwest and one wouldn’t cast Cary Grant for Rear Window. I note both actors have excelled in both comic and dramatic movies.

      So, if one is a film actor who has done good work in comedies where commitment is key, I think they’ll do well in a dramatic role. A dramatic actor should do well in a comedy that requires commitment and is well written and directed. Since some humor comes from surprise, playing against expectations may enhance the comedy.

  2. Robin Williams wasn’t Oscar-nominated for Awakenings. That was his co-star, Robert De Niro.

    He was Oscar-nominated for Dead Poets Society in between his nominations for Good Morning Vietnam and The Fisher King.

  3. Is this why Eddie Murphy was overlooked for his performance in Dreamgirls? Don’t get me wrong — Alan Arkin was hilarious in Little Miss Sunshine, but Murphy’s dramatic turn was truly flawless and much more deserving of the Supporting Actor Oscar.

  4. There’s some truth to this, but it’s also true that many of our biggest comedy actors– Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller are very mediocre actors. They’re fine playing their broad, one-dimensional characters, but simply don’t have the chops to create great dramatic characters. Tom Hanks was magic in Big, likewise Robin Williams gave a stirring performance in Good Will Hunting. Jonah Hill is emerging as an important dramatic actor for his generation. But indeed it’s rare. Most actors think they can do anything, but the evidence suggests otherwise.

    1. I agree. Carrey is great in the first two acts of The Truman Show, before the character is fully aware of his real situation and has to act upon that knowledge. In the third act he’s the weak link. That spread of the film, the most dramatic, wins because Ed Harris is suddenly there picking up the slack.

  5. God, did I think Nebraska was a dud. It was like watching paint dry for 2 hours (felt like 7). I’m a fan of Alexander Payne’s, but I couldn’t for the life of me see what he was trying to do. And Bruce Dern was the least interesting character in the movie. So passive and one note. June Squibb was the only thing that gave some life to the movie. Will Forte was fine, but there really wasn’t much to play there. Payne hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since Sideways. The critics may rave, but Nebraska, The Descendants will not last.

  6. I think you forgot Sandra Bullock, who does both comedy and dramas, like this year with The Heat and Gravity, and both delivered perfectly in terms of box office gross, and whose comedic turns didn’t hurt her from getting an Oscar win

    1. Uh, the whole point of this article was to discuss comics / comedians who had a solid public persona as funny men / women before they attempted to try drama. Bullock was never a comic or comedian and pretty much started out in action films. She’ s a talented comic actress to be sure but again, that has nothing to do with this piece.

  7. Jonah Hill was a revelation of range and talent in Wolf of Wall Street. The film entertains in spite of yourself but needs AT LEAST 30 minutes cut and any average viewer can feel where.

  8. Walter Mitty is a simplistic bore. Stiller is dull in it. I started daydreaming during the movie, so the point was lost.

  9. It’s generally conceded that the major reason Eddie Murphy lost for DREAMGIRLS was because the voting period coincided with the promotion and release of NORBERT, a film that was pretty much the exact OPPOSITE of the material Oscar voters are looking for.

  10. I believe it comes down to acting ability. The true greats can go in either direction: Jack Lemmon, Jimmy Stewart, Meryl Streep, etc. JIm Carrey hasn’t gotten an Oscar because he’s not a particularly food actor, same thing with Adam Sandler. These guys think just because they don’t stink up the room completely with something like “Man on the Moon” that they should be given an Oscar. Doesn’t work that way. Then there’s the likeability factor–I’m sure Eddie Murphy didn’t win from Dreamgirls because nobody likes him. Personally I thought “Nebraska” was a gem of a little movie that captured the MIdwest sensibility spot on.

  11. Surprised on the lack of mention for Sandra Bullock. The lady surely knows how to work her magic between comedy and drama, without any qualms or side-eyes from the audience and the academy.

    1. Because the story is about COMEDIANS who have had trouble crossing over into dramatic roles. Sandra Bullock is NOT a comedian.
      It scares me that you can read the story and take away so little.Please tell me you don’t vote.

  12. And that’s why, Jerry, she’s Sandra Bullock. We believe her no matter what role she’s doing.
    This separation has always been a fallacy; Chaplin/City Lights; Borgnine/Marty. As was said in the intro to Steve Martin for his honorary Oscar, Steve is real. Great comedians are real, and reality is also the basis of good dramatic work. That’s why, as much as I loved Jim Carrey and would have given him an Oscar for the Grinch, because he made that SO real from our visions of the character, I hated him in The Truman Show. Here he was supposed to be the only ‘non-actor’ in the movie, and he was the biggest character in the movie. Jim’s not good at real and small; Kevin Kline or Tom Hanks probably would have been nominated had they done that role.

    1. “Jim’s not good at real and small”

      You’ve not seen ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, I take it?

      Carrey’s awesome with the right director. He just needs a bit of discipline. I still can’t work out how on earth Winslet got Academy recognition for … Sunshine … but he got nothing, other than that she’s The Right Sort Of Actor and he’s not.

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