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Going Straight: Comedic Actors in Dramatic Roles…

New pictures from I, Alex Cross were introduced over the weekend. If you aren’t familiar with it, don’t worry – it’s an upcoming adaptation of an Alex Cross novel, the same series that gave us Morgan Freeman in Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. While Along Came Spider wasn’t anything special, Kiss the Girls was a fairly decent nineties serial killer film, if not quite on the level of it obvious influences in The Silence of the Lambs and se7en. There were two surprises in these shots. The first was how incredibly freaky Matthew Fox looked – he looks pretty damn scary, so respect to Fox for pulling off that transformation. The second surprise was just how convincing Tyler Perry looked in the lead role. Perry is the latest in a long line of comedic actors looking to expand their range, and I can’t help but wonder why so many comedic performers tend to branch out so far.

Not a man you want to Cross…

Irish audiences might not be familiar with Tyler Perry. I’ll confess that my only experience with the actor was his small appearance in Star Trek. However, the actor has built a sizable success in the United States for his “Madea” comedies, where the actor dresses in drag as an old woman. Perry has build up quite a successful empire for himself. He writes, produces and directs the films as well. There’s no denying that he is massively influential comedic talent.

However, that still makes him feel like a bit of a left-field choice for the role in question. There were early rumours that the studio was looking at Idris Elba to play the lead role, and I would have loved to have seen that. I genuinely think Elba is one of the best emerging  talents working in the business, and I suspect that an Alex Cross film might have worked as a better launchpad for his career than Takers did. Perry, on the other hand, seems like a bit of a safer financial bet, even if his last effort, the Madea-less Good Deeds didn’t do especially impressively at the box office.

Has he been out-Foxed?

While I can understand why the studio would want a name like Perry attached to the project, he still seems like a bit of a strange choice. He is an actor known for his work in comedy. Even his most recent attempt to distance himself from Madea, the aforementioned Good Deeds, was still a romantic comedy. In fairness, it seems to be expected of comedians these days to branch out and diversify, especially to prove that they have what it takes as serious dramatic actors.

Perry joins a long line of comedians who have transitioned out of the genre. Robin Williams is perhaps the most notable example of that. His career launched by the Happy Days spin-off Mork & Mindy, the comedian eventually branched into film, where he balanced the farce of Mrs. Doubtfire with the more serious drama of Good Morning Vietnam. He even dabbled in religious fantasy with What Dreams May Come and even an ill-advised holocaust film with Jacob the Liar. Lately, the actor has managed to combine some wonderfully challenging roles (Insomnia and Memento) with some very tired comedy (R.V. – Runaway Vacation and License to Wed).

Wrestling with typecasting…

It seems to have become a trend since then. Some actors transition fully and never look back. It is hard, for example, to believe that Bruce Willis began on Moonlighting. Others tend to bounce back and force, with Jim Carrey proving one of the best dramatic performers of his generation in The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind between several entertaining (if not exceptional) comedies.

It’s interesting that the transition rarely works the opposite direction. There aren’t too many dramatic actors who will typically extend themselves to straight-out comedy, save a cameo or small role like Tom Cruise’s work in Tropic Thunder or Al Pacino’s in Jack & Jill. (Of course, it’s more likely you’ll coax dramatic actors into a romantic comedy.) That said, there is the odd reverse example, like Robert DeNiro, who seems to have decided to reinvent himself as a comedian over the last decade or so.

Don’t want to feel trapped in a genre…

I suspect the transition from comedy towards more “serious” genres might have something to do with a sense of legitimacy. There is, after all, a tendency to look down on comedies as films undeserving of attention and recognition. Much like genre work in science fiction and fantasy, comedy seems to have its own “ghetto” effect. As a result, many of the actors in these films need to branch out into more accepted genres in order to find acceptance. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that Jim Carrey will ever earn an Oscar nomination for his work in comedy. While a cynic might argue he’s just as unlikely to receive it for a lead role in a drama, he’s at least more likely to generate discussion as a potential candidate.

Similarly, I suspect that while the lead in I, Alex Cross might not garner Tyler Perry a large number of accolades,  I think a good performance would go a long way towards convincing people to talk about him as a serious actor, rather than a simple comedian. And, to be fair, I think that’s an entirely reasonable goal for a performer, especially one who has proven himself as a writer and director inside his chosen genre.

Blue sky thinking…

Of course, it could just be a desire to branch out, to expand their horizons. After all, I can imagine being stuck in particular niche for an extended period of time must be quite exhausting, no matter how successful it might be. The idea of branching out must seem quite appealing – allowing you to try something new and the prospect of returning to comedy energised by the experience of having been away. But, then again, I have no way of knowing.

Still, no matter what the motivations, I’ll confess that I am a little curious about I, Alex Cross and seeing what its leading actor has to offer.

9 Responses

  1. I applaud Tyler Perry in trying to stretch his acting chops. “Star Trek” was the only time, I believe, that he acted in a film that he didn’t direct (I’m assuming he’s not directing the Alex Cross one). He’s known for the broad comedy of Medea, but my understanding is that some of his films are also quite serious, or at least melodramatic (I have to admit that I’ve never seen any of them). He’s one of the most successful filmmakers due to the fact that his films are made with low budgets and make a tidy profit, even if they’re not huge blockbusters. He knows his audience, and now is apparently trying to break into the mainstream.

    I still think Jim Carrey was ripped off for not being nominated for “Man in the Moon.” His performance as Andy Kaufman was uncanny. I never liked Kaufman much, but I loved Carrey as Kaufman. It’s too bad that his recent films have been fairly lousy comedies.

    One other serious actor who found new life in comedies was John C. Reilly. He was a solid dramatic character actor for years and then suddenly he was one of the most sought-after comedic actors. It’s great that he can slide back and forth between the two genres without batting an eye.

  2. A long time ago in the mid 1950’s Mickey Shaughnessy, who early in his career played vaudeville in Atlantic City did the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman for Hedgerow Theatre (I think but am not sure) in Philadelphia. He was electrifying.

    Starting in 1952 he was a character actor who specialized in playing lovable, but not-too-bright lugs in films.

  3. Bryan Cranston would be an actor who made it via a comedy show but has serious drama chops. John Lithgow would be another. Mr Perry’s brief part in Star Trek is my only viewing of him. I hope to be impressed with his Alex Cross but I’ll always be thinking of what Elba would’ve brought to the character. Strange that Elba’s being viewed as an emerging star after 14 plus years in the biz. He impressed in the shortlived series Ultraviolet back in 98. But he is starting to breakthrough to becoming a major star.

    • I’ve never seen Ultraviolet. Worth seeking out apart from Elba? And I suppose that sort of thing does happen, with actors working a long hard slog to be recognised. Eventually a few break through. I mean, Helen Mirren has only really been truly recognised in the past decade or so, despite a long and incredible career. (With a few clunkers thrown in, I concede.)

      Lithgow’s great. I need to watch Dexter, if only to see his performance. Apparently it’s incredible.

  4. Some of the better films I have watched have comedic actors in serious roles. I often wonder whether it is to do with extremes. Someone like Jim Carrey or Ben Stiller, for two mainstream examples, have that extroverted comedic streak in their bones, so perhaps they also possess the polar opposite and that’s why they can easily shift to a much darker role, once given a good opportunity. Comedy in itself is a dark art. And sometimes the “usual” dramatic actors are just a little too stable to be believable!

    • I like that notion as comedy as a dark art. Reminds me of that scene from Criems and Misdemeanors where Alan Alda is spouting on about how comedy is “tragedy plus time.”

      • I hadn’t heard that, but like it.

        I think that’s why I like The Saddest Music in the World, for it’s somewhat disguised comedic value.
        It’s an odd little thing, all over the place but for some reason, as a whole, it’s strangely coherent. Sounds a bit like me actually. Haha. Ha. 😐

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