For all the sour headlines about comedy never getting the respect it deserves from the Academy, whenever a comedic actor gets serious on screen, and pulls it off with the greatest degree of nuance – voters love it. Seriously, they do.
Typically, you’ll see a comedian type slipping their way into the best actor Oscar category – for either playing comedy or drama. But this year there’s an anomaly as two actors ,who originally cut their teeth in the laugh genre, are competing against each other: Foxcatcher’s Steve Carell and Birdman’s Michael Keaton starring in the most serious roles of their careers. Carell plays sociopath millionaire John du Pont while Keaton portrays a former super hero film star turned suicidal Broadway actor trying to peg the last hit of his career. From the get-go, critics have been giddy about Keaton in Birdman, recognizing how he’s winking at his former self; the title star of Warner Bros.’ first two Batman films (in interviews, Keaton says that is the only connection between himself and the tortured soul Riggan Thompson, that the Birdman character is more reflective of director Alejandro Inarritu). You couldn’t ask for more gravitas out of both actors this season (Fox Searchlight has campaigned Keaton in the comedy category of the Golden Globes where he won best actor on Sunday. Tonight, he won both best actor and best comedy actor at the 2015 Critics Choice Movie Awards).
Even though it’s been a while since a comedy actor put on a serious face in the best actor category, read 2004 when In Living Color alum Jamie Foxx won best actor for his turn as blind R&B singer Ray Charles in Universal’s Ray, for the most part voters have embraced comedy actors in serious roles throughout Oscar’s history. And not just in terms of noms, but wins. After earning a 1988 best actor nom for playing a child-trapped-in-an-adult’s body in Big, Tom Hanks received back-to-back love for his turn as a dying AIDS patient in 1993’s Philadelphia and a dim-witted epic soul in 1994’s Forrest Gump. From that point on, broad comedy was a genre no longer associated with Hanks. His Oscar wins completely catapulted him to drama. Since 1960, the only other comedic thesp who won for a serious role was Art Carney in Paul Mazursky’s road movie Harry and Tonto in which he played an elderly widower embarking on a cross-country trip to LA after his Manhattan apartment building is condemned. Roberto Benigni’s 1998 win for Life Is Beautiful is neither fish or fowl: He demonstrated his physical charm in a World War II romantic comedy set in a Nazi concentration camp.
In between Carney and Foxx, a number of comedians have been nominated in the best actor category for their dramatic work, read Robin Williams’ noms for 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam, 1989’s Dead Poets Society and 1991’s Fisher King (he finally won an Oscar in the best supporting actor category for his portrayal of an empathetic therapist to a boy genius in 1997’s Good Will Hunting). Bill Murray was nominated for playing an American businessman stuck in midlife and Tokyo, Japan in 2003’s Lost in Translation while Robert Downey Jr. showed the crooked side of Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s Chaplin.
Dudley Moore’s portrayal of a drunk millionaire in 1981’s Arthur, Woody Allen’s sympathetic, nebbish persona in 1977’s Annie Hall and Peter Sellers’ multi-personalities in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove – these were situations arguably where comedic actors played funny.
During their Oscar reaction calls with Deadline today, both Carell and Keaton said that they haven’t tired from playing somber.
“I have no idea if I’ll have another opportunity to play a character like John du Pont, but I wouldn’t shy away from it,” said Carell who put on a prosthetic face, lowered his voice to a spooky hum and showed an uneasy attraction toward Olympic wrestlers as the eccentric, patriotic millionaire.
At Carell’s disposal was a wealth of archived du Pont materials which he absorbed. “What grabbed me about him was that he was a sad, conflicted character and I think a tragic character,” said the former Daily Show correspondent on how the role resonated with him.
Did Carell know anyone like du Pont in his life? “You pick small facets of characters you meet through life. I don’t know if they were conscious connections to the character I was playing, but I’m sure there are elements of people I knew in du Pont.”
Carell previously showed his serious side in such dramedies as Disney’s Dan in Real Life. Ever since he took the role in Foxcatcher, the town has marveled about his ability to play dark. A year ago, Carell was given an offer to play a serial killer. “I passed on that role,” deadpanned Carell.
Mark Ruffalo, who plays Olympic wrestler David Schultz, said, “Steve had the longest way to go (out of all us) in transforming himself. He completely threw himself into the role. He was in character the whole time (on set); very much to himself. I think he’s the greatest surprise of the piece.”
Keaton, who made his mark during the ’80s in sitcoms and broad features comedies like Night Shift and Mr. Mom, showed his serious side prior to Birdman as a coke addict in 1988’s Clean and Sober. The National Society of Film Critics took note, lauding him with a best actor kudo. Keaton has also earned recognition for his dramatic TV work, i.e. a 2008 SAG TV miniseries actor nom for TNT’s The Company and a 2003 Golden Globe TV movie actor nod for HBO’s Live From Baghdad.
Similar to Whiplash, which captures the acerbity of music conservatory professors, Birdman eloquently dramatizes an actor’s internal process; the internal voices inside his head, his conflicted ego, and how that damages those within his sphere.
“I love my scenes with Amy Ryan,” said Keaton about the actress who plays his character’s ex-frustrated Hollywood wife; a woman who has weathered Riggan Thompson’s bi-polar personality. “There was a simplicity and a pure, raw honesty. From time to time when I read it, I didn’t know how I was going to pull it off. There were so many transitions from one second to the next.”
Much has been written about Birdman director Alejandro Inarritu’s precisely blocked, lengthy takes (which were on average about 16 minutes in length) — sequences that were so pinpointed that any technical mishap or actor hiccup would require the production to reboot a a take in its entirety. Keaton said that he never got in the habit of looking at the monitor when he came to studying his previous takes. “I need to be in the reality of the scene because if I watch the monitor, I will become very self conscious,” said the actor.
The takeaway for Keaton working on Birdman was the grand experiment of it all; Inarritu’s single long tracking shot of a film. Added Keaton, “There was a scene with a makeshift cable hanging from the ceiling of the theater. Production literally built a contraption on these cables so that Alejandro could capture a beautiful shot and run the camera all the way down from the ceiling to the (action on) stage. It was so thrilling to be around. It was these handmade, little moments which reminded me of those handmade moments on Beetlejuice.”
Neither Keaton or Carell are putting away their Melpomene masks in a drawer in the near future. Carell says his next role is playing real-life money manager Steve Eisman, who was a responsible for the 2007-08 mortgage collapse in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis book. Keaton recently finished a role in Thomas McCarthy’s drama Spotlight as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Boston Globe editor who led coverage of the paper’s crackdown on the Massachusetts’ Catholic sex abuse scandal. The film also stars Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Billy Crudup and Oscar supporting nominee Ruffalo. Keaton is also in talks to join Whiplash best supporting actor Oscar-nominee J.K. Simmons and Tom Hiddleston in Universal’s adventure pic Kong: Skull Island.
However, sometimes, the thought crosses Keaton’s mind to just get up on stage and do stand-up. Maybe even a play in a black box theater. “I get goosebumps on my neck whenever I think about that,” says Keaton, “I remember it’s such a pure experience.”