Comedians who attempt the shift from stage to screen are not always funny.
Often, these laugh-free performances are unintentional - I'm sure Bill Cosby thought Ghost Dad was a riot - but occasionally the inner actor, the part of that stand-up star that believes they have some depth and untapped talent, will emerge. Suddenly, the comic who mined the human condition for live laughs now wants to go back to that well for a few cinematic tears. The results are often mixed. Sometimes an audience just can't accept a comedian in a serious role, and sometimes the comedian doesn't quite have the chops to pull off heavy drama. But there have been exceptions, fine dramatic performances by entertainers known for their comic skills. Here are a few favorites:
THE KING OF COMEDY (1983): Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard skewed their popular personas in this Martin Scorsese film about the price and perception of fame. Mr. Lewis plays a popular late-night television host who is kidnapped by a manic fan (Ms. Bernhard) and her accomplice, a would-be stand-up played by Robert De Niro. Mr. Lewis is impressive, playing a jaded star with subtle restraint.
CASINO (1995): Another Scorsese film, this crime drama features dramatic performances by both Dick Smothers, who plays a corrupt senator, and Don Rickles, who all but steals the film as the tough, loyal and surprisingly moral Billy Sherbert, the right-hand man to Mr. De Niro's Sam Rothstein. It's a film that resists the temptation to play off these comedian's well-established personas, instead letting them develop complex, and ultimately satisfying, portrayals.
LIMELIGHT (1952): Although not completely devoid of comic charm, this story of an aging clown (Charlie Chaplin) who befriends a young dancer (Claire Bloom) who is struggling psychologically succeeds not because of Mr. Chaplin's legendary comic acumen, but rather because of his ability to rein it in and offer a very personal look at the rigors of a performer's life. Look for fellow silent star Buster Keaton in a small role as Chaplin's performing partner.
THE FISHER KING (1991): Terry Gilliam's hallucinatory film about grasping redemption from the mouth of insanity wasn't Robin Williams' first dramatic role, but it is the point in his evolution as an actor where he was able to completely shed his persona and completely inhabit a character. A fine film and, arguably, Mr. Williams' finest screen performance.
BLUE COLLAR (1978): Neither an indictment nor a love letter to organized labor, this nearly forgotten film about a disappointing heist of a union safe and the crime's surprising aftermath features winning performances by Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel and, most notably, Richard Pryor. Though there are hints of Mr. Pryor's anarchic humor - he refers to the auto plants the trio work in as "short for plantation" - it is still a very carefully crafted piece of dramatic acting.
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