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.”
“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.
Yet 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 Oscar 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.
It’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.”