There’s a fine line between comedy and drama. Drama requires actors to react in honest ways to fictional circumstances. Dramatists access and operate from what I call “the dark place,” those emotions that aren’t pleasant, their shadow sides. Often years of training produce masters of this craft, the ability to immerse themselves into the darkness for the sake of story and character.
On the surface, comedic actors operate from a place as far away from the darkness as possible. One doesn’t watch a comedy movie to grieve a parent’s death by proxy, or to reflect on the evils of the Holocaust. I’d argue, though, that many, if not most, comedians, live in “the dark place.” This, in my opinion, is why comedians can often, but not always, skip those years of training to become masters of dramatic acting craft.
I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make other people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless, and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that. – Robin Williams
Examples of this concept are legion. I’ve chosen a few of these masters who have really stuck with me, usually because they shocked me. It’s always startling to see someone get real when their prior clowning around incited such deep hilarity. It pains me greatly to exclude so many brilliant, often unsung dramatic performances from this list. I’ve asked my friends to list their favorites, and they’ve come up with some great ones. I’ve chosen what might not be the greatest all-time performances, but the ones that startled me with their quality. Rest assured I’m kicking myself about the ones I’ve left behind, and in a very cartoonish manner. Trust me, it’s hilarious.
Jim Carrey, The Truman Show
With a lesser performance by Jim Carrey, this film could have been shelved and panned as The Bamboozling of Ace Ventura. When I first saw Truman mugging and waving hello to his neighbors, I doubt I was alone in thinking, “Uh-oh. Is this guy going to talk out of his butt?”
The story of raising a baby in completely fictional circumstances for television ratings, then learning the truth as an adult, allowed Carrey to shed his comedic mask. Carrey subtly portrayed Truman’s slow realization that his entire world was a construct. With that rubber face, he showed us glimmers of anger, rage, betrayal, sadness, and joy of discovering life in truth, becoming a true man.
That charming subtlety, so uncharacteristic from anything Carrey played before, leapt off the screen precisely because it was, at its core, deeply sad. He drove home the point that performers, while larger than life on screen, and seemingly accessible while viewing their performances, are very real people who yearn for peace and happiness, even when they aren’t being watched.
Truman, ever in demand from a public who thought they knew him, suffered such heartbreak and longing for privacy, and Carrey played it perfectly.
Amy Sedaris, Snow Angels
Amy Sedaris, alumna of The Second City comedy troupe, has to be one of the funniest people alive. Currently starring in At Home With Amy Sedaris, Sedaris earned her stripes on television with Exit 57, hilarious appearances on multiple late-night interview shows, and the delightfully distasteful (and my personal favorite all-time comedy show and film) Strangers With Candy.
This is a woman who tapes her nose up and swears like a North Carolina fisherman. On one occasion, David Letterman laughed so hard, he asked her to “stop” her stream of consciousness improvising. He also adored her so much, his company produced the 2005 film version of Strangers With Candy. In the film, Sedaris reprises her role as Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old former “boozer, user, and a loser,” who goes back to high school to pick up exactly where she left off.
Accustomed to lines like, “I’m gonna make your pinky all stinky,” and, “Befriending new people can lead to having sex with your children, accidentally,” from Sedaris, her role in 2007’s Snow Angels shocked.
David Gordon Green’s film of the novel Snow Angels drips with drama. It explores shattered relationships, the trauma of murder, and is deeply depressing. Starring Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale, its grip on darkness barely relents. Sedaris plays the wife of a cheating man with such sadness, such grief, that she draws the viewer in with her command of the screen. No screaming, no fighting, just an image of a broken woman standing in the cold.
Sedaris has stated that she always tries to find the funny in any situation. This role didn’t allow for that, and it was thrilling to see her rise to, and above, what Green asked of her.
Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society
Julliard-trained actor Robin Williams is widely known for his stand-up comedy and relentless, brutal, and hilarious improvisation. He made a name for himself in television as Mork from Ork on Mork and Mindy. I grew up with the image of him in rainbow suspenders and long, crazy hair, spewing nonsensical one-liners and riffing in a way that strongly implied an active interest in cocaine.
Following the television series that featured Jonathan Winters hatching from an egg as the son of Mork and Mindy, the early and mid-’80s saw Robin Williams make several remarkable films. The first one of these that I saw was Dead Poets Society. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was absolutely not expecting the sincerity and intensity with which he tackled his role as the passionate teacher. He brought those creepy old sports photos to life by barely breathing the words, “Carpe diem, boys. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary.”
As “O Captain, My Captain,” Williams lightened the intense drama of the film with his trademark improvisation and impressions, giving one of the finest and most memorable performances of a compassionate teacher. *stands on desk in tribute*
Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple
From a woman who almost gave herself the stage name “Whoopi Kushon,” Goldberg’s performance in The Color Purple as Celie, an African-American woman at the turn of the 20th century, chronicles the pain a human can endure, and her journey toward peace.
I’d seen Goldberg in Sister Act, and Ghost, both comedies, before I saw the Spielberg adaptation of Alice Walker’s novelThe Color Purple. I knew she was an extremely funny, talented performer, but despite her winning a Golden Globe award for Best Actress in a Drama, it’s worth watching the film for her nuanced performance. It’s worth watching the film because of the themes it explores, like surviving trauma and abuse, transcending and healing, and tenderness in sexuality, which are universally relevant in any time or racial demographic.
Today, Goldberg is a film legend, and a staple of morning television. It’s a fascinating performance to study, and recharge one’s perspective on the depths she brings to a character.
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
“You’re not cool unless you pee your pants!” In the Adam Sandler ouevre of the 1990s and early 2000s, that’s about as deep a line as you’re likely to experience. A deeply funny comedian, Sandler made a name for himself playing slapstick and cartoonishly stupid characters like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, along with his Saturday Night Live characters like Opera Man and pretty much any teenage dolt needed for a sketch.
Sandler first caught my attention as a dramatic actor in 2002’s Punchdrunk Love. It wasn’t until 2018’s Uncut Gems, however, that I was gobsmacked with his ability to become a character that isn’t inherently likable, but still causes viewers great anxiety. You root for the guy, and he captures your attention every moment he’s on-screen.
Sandler and the film were nominated for just about every award available, bringing home quite a few, including an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead. Quite a coup for a guy who got so excited about Nudie Magazine Day!