What Happens When Comic Actors Decide to Get Serious

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There are an abundance of reasons to put “see Moneyball” on your weekend to-do list: First film since Capote from director Bennett Miller; Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan adapting a Michael Lewis book; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, and Chris Pratt (aka Andy Dwyer) in supporting roles; the baby blues of one William Bradley Pitt. And then there is our old friend Jonah Hill, who has taken the opportunity here to make the leap we’ve come to expect from any comedic performer of note: the transition to “serious acting.”

Now from the looks of the trailer, it doesn’t appear that Hill is exactly doing Hamlet — Moneyball is a fast, witty, seriocomic drama, allowing Hill some comedic opportunities within a larger and more serious context. That is one way to go; there are others. After the jump, join us for a look at the strategies that Hill’s predecessors adopted in making their move towards drama, and how they fared.

Strategy 1: If you’re getting serious, get dead serious. Example: Bill Murray in The Razor’s Edge ; Robin Williams in Seize the Day

Murray used his participation in Ghostbusters as a bargaining chip to get Columbia Pictures to finance his dream project, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel (previously filmed in 1946, with Tyrone Power in the lead). Though Murray interjected some of his dry wit into the script (which he co-wrote with director John Byrum), he mostly played the role absolutely straight-faced—to its detriment. “Murray,” wrote Roger Ebert, “who is usually such a superb actor, has taken the wrong path in this performance, giving us moments when everybody in the film and in the audience is moved, except Murray. There are times when he seems downright obstinate in his performance, giving us a ramrod posture, a poker face, and eyes that will not let us inside. Perhaps, in his desire to make a break with the comic roles we know him for, he was overreacting.”

Robin Williams — who had done dramatic work at Julliard and appeared in the mostly-serious The World According to Garp — took a similarly solemn approach to his first full-on dramatic role, playing salesman Tommy Wilhelm in a made-for-PBS adaptation of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (a phrase associated with a later, better-known Williams film). He fared better than Murray; “Williams throws himself entirely into his character,” wrote Variety, “and his desperation is palpable.”

Strategy 2: Do what you do—just change your surroundings. Examples: Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam ; Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love

The danger of the comic actor’s impulse to change an image and stretch the ol’ acting chops is the risk of circumventing the qualities that made them a star in the first place — one ends up with a dour turn like Murray’s, or an under-seen one like Williams’ in Seize the Day. The following year, Williams made a more successful crossover into serious acting, but he did it by playing a role that was very much rooted in his stage persona. Because his character in Good Morning, Vietnam was a funny disc jokey, he had plenty of opportunities to do the comic riffs that had made him a star — and director Barry Levinson (Diner) gave him the freedom to improvise in those scenes. But around those scenes, Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz constructed a thoughtful Vietnam war drama; it was funny, but it also forced the Williams character (and, by extension, Williams himself) into intense and emotional situations that he could not joke his way out of.

Similarly, when Adam Sandler teamed up with Paul Thomas Anderson — then coming off his epic, operatic Magnolia — for 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, the director didn’t want to plug the actor into a PTA picture. A fan of Sandler’s slapstick comedies, he wanted to make an “Adam Sandler movie” — and to some degree, he did. Barry Egan is not far removed from other Sandler protagonists: childlike, socially constricted, prone to fits of rage. But when the character is filtered through Anderson’s unique sensibility, he is suddenly a more human, frightening, yet tragic and strangely heroic person.

Strategy 3: Embrace your dark side. Examples: Albert Brooks in Drive; Dane Cook in Mr. Brooks; Jackie Gleason in em>The Hustler; Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy

We’re returning to some territory we covered last week here, but it bears repeating in this context: nothing impresses people more than when a goofy, lovable comic shows an unexpected skill at villainy (Brooks and Cook) or, at the very least, smug antagonism (Gleason and Lewis). Plenty of critics — and plenty of well-paid psychiatrists — have theorized that much of the comic impulse comes from a very dark place, hence all that talk of “slaying” and “killing” an audience, and so forth. And there are stories galore of very funny guys who turned out, in their private lives, to be mean, insufferable assholes. So why not latch on to that half of the split personality, and put him on screen?

Strategy 4: Take it down a notch. Examples: Jim Carrey in The Truman Show ; Will Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction

Neither Carrey’s 1998 transition film The Truman Show nor Ferrell’s 2006 mindbender Stranger Than Fiction are “dramas” in the traditional sense; both pictures sport a light touch and an often breezy sensibility. But both men made their names as such broad, over-the-top caricatures that by merely toning it down and playing actual human “characters” (as opposed to pet detectives and anchormen), they showed that they had a little more subtlety in their color palettes.

Strategy 5: Make your arc the character’s. Examples: Tom Hanks in Nothing In Common ; Billy Crystal in Memories of Me

Tom Hanks is always the go-to example of the comic actor who successfully “crossed over” to dramatic acting, but we tend to think of Hanks as either the cross-dressing star of Bosom Buddies/leading man in Bachelor Party, or the devastatingly effective dramatic actor of Philadelphia and Private Ryan. There were transitional films, though: his Oscar-nominated turn in Big, his crumbling stand-up in Punchline, and (before either of those) his nuanced and entertaining work in Garry Marshall’s 1986 comedy/drama Nothing in Common. Playing a free-wheeling, bed-hopping advertising man whose party is brought to a crashing halt by his parents’ divorce and his dad’s sickness, Hanks gave a masterful two-part performance: the first half of the film gives us the fast-talking, quick-witted Hanks we know and love, while the character’s shifts in the second half give him the opportunity to try out his dramatic instrument. The results not only worked for Hanks, but sparked a mini-trend of comic actors getting serious in “sick dad” movies (including Crystal’s 1988 effort Memories of Me and the 1989 Ted Danson/Jack Lemmon two-hander Dad).

Strategy 6: Get edgy. (Preferably by playing an addict.) Examples: Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses ; Michael Keaton in Clean and Sober ; Ben Stiller in Permanent Midnight ; Bette Midler in The Rose

When light comedy king Jack Lemmon went dark in 1962, he did so by playing a bottoming-out alcoholic in Blake Edwards’ adaptation of the TV play Days of Wine and Roses. Lemmon nabbed an Oscar nomination for his powerful performance, and other comic actors took note: Bette Midler stretched beyond her live comedy-and-music shows to play a Janis Joplin-inspired rock star in 1979’s The Rose, while Ben Stiller followed 1998’s There’s Something About Mary with Permanent Midnight, based on Jerry Stahl’s harrowing memoir. Perhaps the most memorable of those performances, though, is Michael Keaton’s underrated work in Glenn Gordon Caron’s recovery drama Clean and Sober. As a hotshot real estate agent going into a 30-day program merely as a confidential escape from his many crises, Keaton brings to the role all of the live-wire intensity and fidgety energy of his comic turns in pictures like Night Shift and Beetlejuice, but with a scary edge that eventually turns to real sadness and desperation. It’s a bottomless piece of work, and one that remains undervalued to this day.

Strategy 7: Get real. (As in, play a real person.) Examples: Jamie Foxx in Ray ; Will Smith in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness

One sure-fire way to bury your own persona is to be locked into someone else’s, particularly someone well-known to the general public. In addition to that, it has not escaped the notice of few actors chomping at the bit for an Oscar (or at least the increased credibility of a nomination) that doing a real-life figure’s “life story” is a surefire path to Oscar gold; of the past ten years, six of the Best Actor trophies (and the same number of Best Actress prize) have gone to actors playing real people. One of those was Jamie Foxx; best known at the time for films like Booty Call and for playing “Wanda” on In Living Color, he simply became Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic. Same goes for rapper-turned-sitcom-star-turned-action-hero Will Smith, who netted nominations for playing Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s Ali and entrepreneur Chris Gardner in Pursuit.

And thus concludes our informational seminar for comics going serious; which strategies would you add? And do you think Hill’s got the potential to be another success story?