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10 top comedians who can actually pull off dramatic roles

Writer: Casey Chong


Comedians gone serious.

Not every actor is stuck to playing dramatic roles for the rest of their lives. The same can be said with Hollywood comedians as well, where you might be surprised that some of them are actually able to pull off excellent dramatic performances.

One of them is Melissa McCarthy, who first made her mark playing Sookie St. James in TV's "Gilmore Girls" before establishing herself as one of the most sought-after comedians in movies via "Bridesmaids" (2011), "The Heat" (2013) and "Spy" (2015).

Last year, she took a brief career detour in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?", where she plays a rare serious role as the real-life author Lee Israel and it subsequently landed her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

To coincide with the upcoming release of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" this February 28th, here are the 10 top comedians who are actually able to carry dramatic roles upon their shoulders.

1) Whoopi Goldberg in "The Color Purple" (1985)

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in "The Color Purple".

Whoopi Goldberg may be better known for her comedic roles in popular hits like "Sister Act" (1992) and to a lesser extent, "Sister Act 2: Back In The Habit" the following year after, but even if her Oscar-winning supporting performance as the oddball psychic, Oda Mae Brown in "Ghost" (1990) was more of a comic relief, believe it or not, her first breakthrough role as Celie in Steven Spielberg's Deep South period drama "The Color Purple" back in 1985 was a surprisingly dramatic performance that earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Although she unfortunately lost to Geraldine Page in "The Trip To Bountiful" (does anyone actually remember that movie?), it became a memorable performance for the then-30 year-old young actress. "The Color Purple" was a big hit back then and despite receiving numerous accolades with a whopping 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, the movie famously went home empty-handed. Maybe if the movie was released in today's Hollywood era of racial diversity, the results might prove otherwise.

2) Meg Ryan in "Courage Under Fire" (1996)

Meg Ryan and Matt Damon in "Courage Under Fire".

She was once a Hollywood darling who could do no wrong when comes to romantic comedies. Case in point; "When Harry Met Sally..." (1989), "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) and "You've Got Mail" (1998). While most of us have grown accustomed to her radiant girl-next-door roles, Meg Ryan did showcase the other side of her. She has proven her dramatic range in movies like "Flesh And Bone" (1993), "City Of Angels" (1998) and "In The Cut" (2003), but she particularly did better in Edward Zwick's "Rashomon"-style Gulf War military drama, "Courage Under Fire". It was one of her best dramatic performances ever seen, where she acquits herself well enough along with her superb co-stars that included Denzel Washington, Lou Diamond Phillips and Matt Damon.

3) Adam Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love" (2002)

Adam Sandler as Barry Egan in "Punch-Drunk Love".

Before he collaborated with acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson (1997's "Boogie Nights", 1999's "Magnolia") in "Punch-Drunk Love", Adam Sandler was often synonymous with his then-winning brand of mean-spirited comedies from 1995's "Billy Madison" to 1996's "Happy Gilmore" and 1999's "Big Daddy". Then along came "Punch-Drunk Love", in which he plays a struggling salesman, Barry Egan, that is unlike any role he's ever tackled. The movie did feature some romantic-comedy tropes but not the kind you would expect in a mainstream Hollywood fare that featured Adam Sandler in the title role. Thanks to Anderson's assured direction, he successfully transformed Sandler's typically overwrought man-child persona into a troubled born loser whose role is a lot darker than usual. It was an unexpected, yet unconventional career move for Sandler - a rarity that proved the former SNL alumni can actually act after all. Of course, like most Hollywood comedians of his generation, most fans and audiences remain accustomed to his comedy schtick (never mind the fact he's no longer a huge box-office draw that he once was).

4) Robin Williams in "Insomnia" (2002)

Al Pacino and Robin Williams in "Insomnia".

The late Robin Williams was no doubt one of the funniest Hollywood comedians of our generation. This has been proven in some of his famous comedy hits such as "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993), "Jumanji" (1995) and "Patch Adams" (1998). But he also happened to be an amazingly talented actor who was able to pull off dramatic roles in critically-acclaimed movies like "Dead Poets Society" (1989) and of course, his Oscar-winning supporting performance in "Good Will Hunting" (1997). Then, there's "Insomnia", in which he unexpectedly carries a convincing psycho-killer role as Walter Finch. Although the movie itself was considered a lesser-known directorial effort from Christopher Nolan, "Insomnia" manages to showcase some of the best works not only from Williams but also Al Pacino and Hilary Swank. Released in 2002, it was the same year where Williams famously took a bold career risk and could be seen playing other darker turns in "Death To Smoochy" and "One Hour Photo".

5) Bill Murray in "Lost In Translation" (2003)

Bill Murray as Bob Harris in "Lost In Translation".

Bill Murray is no stranger to comedies, having appeared in genre classics like "Caddyshack" (1980), "Ghostbusters" (1984) and "Groundhog Day" (1993). But who could have thought the former SNL alumni was actually able to pull off a rare dramatic turn in Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation"? While he still gets to showcase his trademark deadpan delivery, this is unlike anything that Bill Murray has ever done back then. It was a career resurgence for Murray, whose quietly affecting performance as Bob Harris happened to be one of his finest works ever committed in his longtime acting career. As a result, he received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actor but unfortunately lost to Sean Penn in "Mystic River".

6) Jim Carrey in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind" (2004)

Jim Carrey as Joel Barish in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind".

Like Adam Sandler and Bill Murray, Jim Carrey got his start appearing in sketch comedies. But instead of SNL, he was famously known as one of the prominent cast members in Keenen Ivory Wayans-created "In Living Color" (1990). Carrey was, of course, known for his wacky rubber-faced expressions - a result that later catapulted him into superstardom with 1990s hits like "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective", "The Mask", "Dumb And Dumber" (all three movies were released in 1994) and "Liar Liar" (1997). But beginning from the late '90s onwards, Carrey began to take risks by diversifying his usual comedic roles with some dramatic turns, as seen in movies like "The Truman Show" (1998) and "Man On The Moon" (1999). Then came Michel Gondry's mind-bending romance of "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind", in which he pulls off a surprisingly affecting turn as Joel Barish - a role where he got robbed of an Oscar nomination, even though his co-star Kate Winslet did manage to secure a Best Actress nomination.

7) Jamie Foxx in "Ray" (2004)

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in "Ray".

The former co-star of the sketch comedy "In Living Color" has certainly worked his way up from a successful comedian to a multi-talented actor and singer. His acting resume may have been erratic but there's no denying that Jamie Foxx did showcase some of his finest dramatic chops in movies like "Collateral" (2004), "The Kingdom" (2007) and "Django Unchained" (2012). But his best role to date is "Ray", in which he plays the late legendary R&B musician Ray Charles. He famously won a Best Actor Oscar for his remarkable performance, beating other acting heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio in "Aviator" and Clint Eastwood in "Million Dollar Baby".

8) Mo'Nique in "Precious" (2009)

Mo'Nique as Mary in "Precious".

One word: "shocking". That's the very word that best describes Mo'Nique, who was primarily known for her sitcom works in "Moesha" and "The Parkers". Nobody could have imagined that the comedian would actually be able to pull off an abusive-mother role in Lee Daniels' acclaimed drama "Precious". It was the kind of an unlikely career transformation that rocked the Hollywood industry - a result that subsequently gave her a triple win for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars.

9) Jennifer Aniston in "Cake" (2014)

Jennifer Aniston as Claire Bennett in "Cake".

Over the course of her decades-long career, it looks as if Jennifer Aniston prefers to stick to her comfort zone in romantic comedies or comedies in general. Those who live in the '90s would remember her the most as the bubbly Rachel Green in TV's "Friends", which ran for an incredibly successful 10 seasons. Even in movies, she expanded her comedic range in "Bruce Almighty" (2003), "Along Came Polly" (2004) and "Horrible Bosses" (2011). Then, somewhere in between, she appeared in a little indie drama about chronic pain called "Cake". It was the role that gave Aniston a rare opportunity to showcase her dramatic range, in which she did it successfully. It's a shame that her performance was sadly denied an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, even though she did manage to land a nomination at the Golden Globes.

10) Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher" (2014)

Steve Carell as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher".

Steve Carell was famously known for his comedic works in TV's "The Office" as well as movies like "Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy" (2004), "The 40 Year Old Virgin" (2005) and "Get Smart" (2008), while lending his voice as Gru in the "Despicable Me" animation franchise. However, the seasoned comedian also managed to make his mark in the more serious dramas, as evidently seen in movies like "The Big Short" (2015) and last year's "Vice" where he plays the role of Donald Rumsfeld. Still, his finest dramatic performance to date remains his genuinely creepy turn as John du Pont in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher". Although some people might argue that he landed a Best Actor Oscar nomination due to his prosthetic nose, it's hard to deny the level of commitment that he gave in this movie.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" opens in cinemas nationwide on 28 February 2019.

Cinema Online, 27 February 2019

Related Movies:
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (28 Feb 2019)


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