Comedians with a serious film career | Paul Laight's rundown of the best dramatic performances

Comedians with a serious film career

Paul Laight's rundown of the best dramatic performances

Getting on stage and making a room full of strangers laugh spontaneously is arguably one of the mightiest challenges facing a performer. But for many successful stand-up comedians the thrill of reducing a room to shakes of laughter is not enough; hence why so many have attempted to transfer their undoubted comic and acting artistry to the silver screen. Plus there’s more dough involved in making movies.

As a massive fan of both cinema and stand-up comedy I thought it interesting to look at some of the best dramatic performances committed to celluloid by stand-up comics.

Eddie Murphy: 48 Hours (1982)

Before Eddie Murphy single-handedly set about making his very own list of the worst movies ever made he took his raw, rap, crack and pop stand-up persona and committed to screen great performances in Trading Places (1983) Beverley Hills Cop (1984) and Walter Hill’s rock hard-boiled 48 Hours (1982).

Buddied-up with Nick Nolte’s life-frazzled cop, Murphy was perfectly cast as cool convict Reggie Hammond. Murphy is tough, uncompromising and funny: spitting out classic dialogue such as ‘I've been in prison for three years. My dick gets hard if the wind blows’ – with a verve that is sorely missing from virtually all his film output of the last 15 years.

Woody Allen: Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)

Arguably, Allen’s recent movies have not been up to the quality of his earlier ‘funnier’ films but I like them nonetheless as he has consistently produced work rich with great lines, ideas and characters. In the 1980s Allen’s films matured and more often than not centred around familial, human and sexual relationships.

As well as writing and directing Allen also acted in most of his films using his Jewish, neurotic, angsty persona to comic and dramatic effect. In Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) he delivers another fine performance drawing out pathos, empathy and pain as a documentary filmmaker who is trying to make sense of life and why we are on this planet.

Whoopi Goldberg: The Color Purple (1985)

Multi-talented Emmy, Oscar, Tony winner Goldberg is one of the most versatile comedian/actors to grace the stage and screen. She developed her abilities at the Blake Street Hawkeyes Comedy troupe where her work and would then be cast in Spielberg’s adaptation of Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1985).

Goldberg would earn an Oscar for her over-the-top turn in potter’s-wheel-ten-hankie-weepie Ghost (1990), but it is her first ever screen appearance which will stay in the memory. Goldberg’s Celie Johnson is a character battered and beaten by life but whom amidst the misery and abuse retains a strength and desire to not let life destroy her. Goldberg brings a tremendous innocence, fortitude and compassion to the part; and considering it is her first ever movie role it is an amazing achievement.

Will Ferrell: Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

Ferrell cut his comedy fangs in The Groundlings, an LA improv group, and gained cinematic fame as Ron Burgundy – the king of unreconstructed male chauvinist stupidity – in Anchorman (2004). Famous for daft haircuts, overcharged yelling and screen-mugging Ferrell toned it down as tax inspector Harold Crick in Marc Forster’s moving dramedy, Stranger Than Fiction (2006).

Ferrell’s Crick is a lonely individual, a man of routine and commonplace whose life is turned topside-down when he hears his every move being narrated by Emma Thompson’s meta-omnipotent author. As he struggles to find ‘the voice’ Crick begins to question his whole existence and this gives Ferrell the opportunity to live a character with depth and emotion hitherto unseen in his previous screen caricatures.

Jamie Foxx: Ray (2004)

Foxx starred In Living Color but it was playing Ray Charles in Ray (2004) that his movie career really hit the road. Of course it won him the Oscar but it was more than just an impression of Charles as Foxx gave this musical genius a flawed humanity and pain that moved both the audience and the Academy.

Foxx threw himself into the role with abandon musically and dramatically, showing Charles’ darker addictive side as well as his magnetism, humour and incredible drive. Unsurprisingly, the same year, Foxx was also nominated for his sterling work in Mann’s urban noir Collateral losing out in that category to the king-of-expositional-voiceover Morgan Freeman.

Steve Martin: The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Steve Martin’s film career is quite similar to Eddie Murphy’s inasmuch as his early films matched the brilliance and energy of his stand-up career only to find him moving later to more sub-par-Hollywood-generic-remakes like Bilko.

But Martin is one of the great Renaissance Men and also wrote of one of the greatest books I’ve read about comedy: Born Standing Up.

As an actor he’s always really funny playing downtrodden man-children or idiots gaining laughs from loopy anger while remaining totally unthreatening; e.g. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987). In David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner he played against type with a sinister turn in this cold, twisting thriller.

Martin underplays throughout with intelligence and handles Mamet’s crisp dialogue with aplomb. It’s a fine film and performance utilising his linguistic skills expertly and I haven’t got a Clouseau why he didn’t go darker more often.

Robin Williams: One Hour Photo (2002)

A running trope in this list finds many of the acts turning their manic comedic persona on its head and internalising the psychosis with understated performances.

Indeed, I have read articles which link certain mental states with the comedic mind and in Robin Williams you could not get a more manic, fevered, out-of-this-world performer. After a slow start cinematic success in films such as: Good Will Hunting (1997), Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poet’s Society (1989). But in 2002 he took a couple of darker turns in Christopher Nolan’s pre-Batman thriller Insomnia and the lower-budget One Hour Photo.

The latter found Williams playing a solitary photo technician who takes an unhealthy interest in one particular family. Yet Williams’ character is no ordinary psycho but rather a pained individual longing to be part of a family unit. The actor terrifies the audience with his obsessive nature but at the end the performance humanises the character rather than making him a one-dimensional lunatic he could so easily of been.

Jim Carrey: Man On The Moon (1998)

Carrey is an absolute force of nature as a stage and sketch performer and brought that dynamic physicality, silly voices and zany gurning to great effect in films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994). As he gained further success he would stretch his acting muscles with more dramatic and riskier roles.

He was ideally cast as comedian/Intergender Wrestling Champion of the world Andy Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton. Kaufmann was arguably the very first anti-comedian; gaining laughs or audience abuse from being deliberately unfunny and antagonistic.

Carrey takes on all the incarnations with much skill and humour and zones his usual mania, creating a complex character whose life was tragically cut short. The film was criticised by some for taking liberties with Kaufmann’s life and it was a relative failure at the box office but Carrey deservedly won many awards and nominations for his diverse performance.

Billy Connolly: The Debt Collector (1999)

Connolly’s performance in Mrs Brown would be the most obvious choice for Scotland’s imperious stand-up comedy legend, however, I’m not a fan of films about the Royal Family and the brutal Debt Collector is more to my taste.

The Big Yin is compelling in this grim, gritty thriller inspired by career criminal turned artist/novelist, Jimmy Boyle. Connolly’s working class and artistic background also resonates in the Nicky Dryden character trying to go straight; only to be pursued relentlessly by Ken Stott’s obsessive cop.

Connolly’s raconteurial, larger-than-life stand-up style is in complete contrast to the serious character of Dryden who having escaped the mean streets of snooker halls of Glasgow is now a feted figure on the art scene. Stott’s vindictive cop cannot abide Dryden’s success and sets about bringing Dryden down.

The scenes between Connolly and Stott are the stand-out in this dark, violent tale which is unflinching in tone and certainly darker than anything Connolly has been in before or since.

Richard Pryor: Blue Collar (1980)

Paul Schrader wrote existential urban Western Taxi Driver (1976) but also directed some compelling dramas. Blue Collar is probably his best film and it is my favourite Richard Pryor performance.

Pryor had reinvented himself as a stand-up comedian shifting his persona from likeable TV friendly gag-man to a snarling, coked-up, angry social satirist. He would roughen out the edges of this act to become the slick, effervescent and honest performer who turned the dramas and stories of his life into comedy gold. Pryor would be a natural comic force on silver screen and formed a fine comedy double act with Gene Wilder.

However, Blue Collar combines the humour, drama and social commentary that Pryor himself included in his act. Set in Detroit it highlights the hypocritical machinations of union practices at a car plant. Pryor’s character shows an anger, humour and energy throughout which may or may not have been fuelled by his Olympic coke-taking. Egos clashed among cast (including Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel) and crew and it shows on screen in a fiery examination of the working class man and his lot.

Jerry Lewis: The King Of Comedy (1983)

Robert De Niro is funny, embarrassing and tragic as the bottom-runged comedian but Jerry Lewis’s performance as hangdog, lonely and jaded chat-show host Jerry Langford stole the show. Langford, a successful TV presenter, remains at the height of his career but lives a seemingly lonely life with just his work for company. On the surface a decent guy but underneath he’s a jaded workaholic to whom Pupkin’s enthusiastic, aspirational, hero-worshipping comic is his worst nightmare.

There are so many painful scenes of toe-curling embarrassment in this movie notably when deluded Pupkin invites himself to Langford’s country retreat. When Langford is left at the mercy of Sandra Bernhard’s unhinged harpy Lewis’ performance is one of raging deadpan as he simmers with rage until he bursts like a pustule on escape and leaps down the road with tape around his ankles like bicycle clips. A truly under-rated gem of a performance and film.

Eric Bana: Chopper (2000)

Australian actor Bana started off in stand-up and TV sketch shows and was a novice dramatically speaking when cast as violent-criminal-turned-best-selling-novelist Marc Brandon Read. Bana’s rendition is very funny but ultimately there is a dark drama and bloody violence too in the representations of this powerhouse of the Melbourne underworld.

His creation is a paranoid, angsty, neurotic monster capable of terrific rage one moment then over-powering guilt the next. It’s a rounded version of a split-personality both interested in robbing drug dealers but also with his own myth, persona and media representation. There’s some terrific dialogue and Aussie banter between Chopper and the various low-life’s he encounters throughout; and some visceral violence, notably when Chopper gets his ears cut off to navigate a route out of jail.

The film holds a mirror up to a twisted society which creates celebrities out of killers and those who act outside of the law and it is to Bana’s credit that he makes this monster human and likeable despite Chopper’s actions deserving the contrary.

Mo’Nique: Precious (2009)

I wasn’t aware of Mo’Nique’s background as a stand-up comedian when I first saw this heart wrenching drama, but after witnessing her incredible performance I did some research and found she worked her way up from the open-mic circuit of Baltimore to the lofty heights of Best Supporting Actress. Her character Mary Lee Johnson is an emotionally-damaged-dysfunctional-car-crash-human-bully who puts her daughter Precious (equally brilliant Gabourey Sidibe) through all manner of abuse and neglect.

As horror after horror befalls the story’s heroine her mother sits on the sofa barking, castigating, and demanding; making her life a living hell. It’s a monstrous creation but one which is not without compassion as shown in one of the final scenes in the film where Mary Lee Johnson, in tears, asks, ‘Who was gonna love me?’ And the strength of the performance is that we almost feel bad for this woman. Almost.

Paul Laight is a screenwriter, filmmaker, blogger, semi-amateur comedian and wage-slave. He will be appearing in comedy shows on the Brighton and Camden Fringe Festivals this year. This article first appeared on his blog.

Published: 12 May 2014

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