Seriously Funny- The Rise of the Comedic Actors in Dramatic Roles (Editorial)

Today saw the release of the first trailer for the highly anticipated Sundance hit The End of the Tour starring Jesse Eisenberg, the Oscar-nominated star of The Social Network, and How I Met Your Mother star Jason Segel, in a transformative role as the late author David Foster Wallace. This marks Segel’s first real attempt at drama and it had me thinking of the comedic actors that have taken the leap into dramatic films, some more successfully than others, but most creating awards buzz of some kind. Segel has been getting some Oscar buzz himself, and from the trailer, it looks deserving, as Wallace is the kind of role that suits him to a T, tragic but honest and funny yet holding a deep air of discontent, with not only his life but also with his career, even though, as Eisenberg’s David Lipsky points out in the trailer, this is the career he is aiming towards. If you want to see the trailer, it’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqUa5sYHC9s.

With a summer release in the U.S. for the film, it is unlikely that Segel is going to be nominated, but it is, for the time being, nice to hear him in the conversation and with him being in a film where he is able to stretch his acting muscles. The same is to be said of Segel’s Freaks and Geeks co-star Seth Rogen, who is also gaining some Oscar buzz for his role in the upcoming Danny Boyle biographical drama Steve Jobs. I personally think that Rogen has a very good chance of being nominated in what is seeming to be a surprisingly weak Best Supporting Actor field for his role as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. If one of these actors were to be Oscar-nominated, they would become the second Freaks and Geeks star to receive an Oscar nod, after James Franco’s nomination for his incredible performance in another Danny Boyle biographical drama, 127 Hours.

But, why so many great roles for comedic actors? Why are they trusted with such heavy material, needing such developed acting chops that they haven’t previously showcased in their careers thus far? I always refer back to a quote from director Bennett Miller, who said that comedians are often the darkest. He was of course saying that of Steve Carell and his Oscar-nominated turn in Foxcatcher, a career redefining performance that was my personal favourite of the year last year. With more dramatic actors such as Bill Nighy and Gary Oldman also in contention for the role of wrestling coach John du Pont, it was an interesting choice for Miller to choose Carell for the part. Ultimately, it payed off, as it is telling that Carell treated the role the same way as the other roles that he has played, implementing the awkwardness and loneliness that is often played for comedic effect into a more dramatic and tragic context, creating a with multiple dimensions. Darkened characters have also been played by comedic actors, such as Robin Williams in One Hour Photo, but he had played dramatic characters before, so Carell’s Oscar nomination is all the more impressive, especially as he is the first of the Frat Pack to receiving an acting nomination (Owen Wilson has also been Oscar-nominated, but it was for Best Original Screenplay with Wes Anderson for The Royal Tenenbaums).

But why do comedians have to take on these dramatic, often transformative, roles in order to get Academy recognition? Surely, as comedy is one of the most difficult genres to do, more comedic roles should be Oscar nominated. The only fully comedic performances in recent years that I can recall receiving an Oscar nomination are Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, a terrific, scene-stealing role in which she has little screen time but makes the most of it, and Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, a hilarious parody on method actors in which he channels Russell Crowe as a ‘dude playing a dude disguised as another dude’. Yet, the difference is that McCarthy was only just starting her takeover of comedy that she is on and Downey Jr. is a critically acclaimed dramatic actor, previously nominated for Chaplin. Comedy heavyweights never get the credit they deserve for their consistently strong work. That’s why Jim Carrey has never been nominated, despite giving incredible performances in Comedy-Dramas (The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, I Love You Phillip Morris) and sci-fi comedy dramas (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). They always saw him as the rubber faced Ace Ventura. Actors like Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd had to tone down their comedy shtick to receive their nominations for Lost in Translation and Driving Miss Daisy, respectively.

It’s not a case of the Academy hating comedy, it is just that they have different view on what should be considered as good comedy. The Academy consider well made films that have comedic elements to be better comedy than films that actually make you laugh, as shown by their love last year for Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, winning 8 Oscars between them. It’s not that they aren’t terrific films, it’s just as if they can’t clear the ways for a comedy to receive a Best Picture nomination until they star dramatic actors, as shown by TGBH being the first Wes Anderson film to receive a Best Picture nod, with it starring the double Oscar nominee Ralph Fiennes. This topic becomes all the more relevant as Emmy season begins, as actual comedies, such as Louie and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt take on comedy-dramas like Transparent and Jane The Virgin for Best Comedy Series.

The End of the Tour is released in limited release on July 31 2015.

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