While watching season two of Breaking Bad, I was knocked out by comedian Bob Odenkirk’s terrific guest appearance as Saul Goodman, a sleazy, street-smart criminal defense lawyer. Fans of obscure comedy will remember Odenkirk’s earlier success as a writer in Mr. Show or SNL (Chris Farley’s Matt Foley who lives “in a van down by the river”), but his performance got me thinking about talented comedians who’ve pulled off memorable dramatic performances. So I’m devoting today’s post to comics gone straight.
Considering his manic stand-up routines in the 1980s, audiences must have been shocked by Robin Williams’s immediate success as a dramatic actor. In the late 1980s and early 90s, he appeared in a series of well-made dramas in which he played lovesick eccentrics – Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, The Fisher King (his best performance, in my opinion), and Good Will Hunting, which won him an Oscar. Since then, he’s played villainous characters, most notably in Insomnia and Law and Order: SVU. While many actors have a talent for either drama or comedy, Williams has the ability to shine in demanding roles like Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire, which require both. His most recent films have been underwhelming (Old Dogs, really?), so I’m anxious to see him return to more challenging roles.
Jim Carrey’s success as an actor is just as inconsistent as Williams. Earlier films like The Mask and Liar, Liar gave Carrey the chance to show off an ability to balance zany, physical comedy while playing likable, sympathetic characters. Then he amazed audiences with his performances in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, both of these films caused many to wonder why he failed to receive Oscar nominations. In the last ten years, Carrey’s record has varied from terrific (Eternal Sunshine), good (The Grinch), and unwatchable (Me, Myself, and Irene).
I find it difficult to connect today’s Whoopi Goldberg on The View to the Comic Relief comedienne of the 1990s to 1985’s The Color Purple, her first feature film. Not many comics (or dramatic actors for that matter) can claim a rookie performance of that caliber. Goldberg went on to star in Ghost, a role that demanded both comedic and dramatic skill and won her an Oscar. Since then, she’s played impressive bit parts in Girl, Interrupted and the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, as well as her fair share of clunkers. Her dynamic personality may make her a good fit as moderator on the talk show, but it’s Hollywood’s loss that her talent has not been utilized in film.
Many stand-up comics haven’t achieved success on the stage let alone the screen, which makes the accomplishments of these entertainers all the more impressive. While dramatic actors might claim drama is harder than comedy and comedic actors claim the opposite, as a viewer, I don’t really care. I just want something to connect with me the The Fisher King, Liar, Liar, and Ghost did.
Let me know some of your favorite dramatic performances from comedians.