Few showbiz skill-sets are as lucrative as the ability to make people laugh, and yet, for actors who break in as stand-up comics or as part of sitcom ensembles, there’s always the worry that they’ll spend the rest of their careers wearing clown shoes. That’s one of the reasons why popular comedians often make a special effort to take on the occasional drama: so that they’ll be taken more seriously as artists and won’t be stuck in one mode forever. Another big reason? To reassure their parents that they didn’t waste their money on a college theater program.
In 2015, funny folks traded laughs for tears at a furious clip, at times appearing in movies that took core elements of their comic personae and pumped them up to feel weightier. The likes of Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen, and Kristen Wiig have followed in the footsteps of Albert Brooks, Whoopi Goldberg, and Goldie Hawn in proving that they can do more onscreen than make us smirk. The 40 performances below run the gamut from heavy and tragic to some that are just a few shades darker than these comedians’ usual acts. But collectively, they show how fine the line often is between silliness and sadness.
40. Dan Aykroyd, The House of Mirth (2000)
Terence Davies’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s literary masterpiece stars Gillian Anderson as unmarried social butterfly Lily Bart, whose financial woes and romantic entanglements threaten her with ruin. Aykroyd gives a surprisingly sinister performance as the duplicitous broker Gus Trenor, who feigns assistance but then tries to use Lily’s debts to extort her into doing unspeakable favors for him. The character represents the hypocrisy and malice at the heart of the upper crust, and Aykroyd plays him with the same knowing sneer he used to bring to the sleazy hucksters he spoofed on Saturday Night Live.
39. Christopher Guest, Girlfriends (1978)
Although Guest had worked with “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” in the early 1970s, most of his comedy career was still a long way off when he appeared in Claudia Weill’s underseen 1978 character sketch Girlfriends. Here he plays the boyfriend of Susan, a professional photographer who loses a key component of her support group when her best pal and roommate gets married. Guest represents the domesticity that Susan covets but can’t quite commit to. The dogged normalcy of his performance is wildly different from what he’d do a few years later in Spinal Tap, but Guest also makes such a convincing drip that no one would want the heroine to end up with him.
38. Chris Tucker, Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Tucker’s followed an uncommon career path, working his way through the stand-up-comedy throng to become one of the biggest stars in the world with the Rush Hour series, and then just sort of … stopping. By 2012, Silver Linings Playbook was the first movie Tucker had made in five years, and a strange way to come back: in a supporting role, playing a mental patient visiting Bradley Cooper’s troubled hero, a friend from the institution. But Tucker’s part is pivotal, popping up every now and then to remind the audience that Silver Linings Playbook’s main character is a man with problems that can’t just be hoped away. The comedian fits his usual hyperactive style into a story where being so amped-up could be a sign of illness.
37. Dane Cook, Mr. Brooks (2007)
Among the many virtues of this underrated serial-killer thriller is that it finds a good use for the otherwise overbearing stand-up comic Dane Cook — by making him into the true villain of the piece. A profoundly strange film about the split personality and covert murder plots of an upstanding family man (Kevin Costner), Mr. Brooks casts Cook as a maniac-in-training who blackmails the movie’s “hero” into taking him on as an apprentice. The comedian’s disturbingly believable in the role, which at times seems designed to appeal to anyone who can’t stand Cook’s jokes and wouldn’t mind seeing him get an ironic comeuppance.
36. Sandra Bernhard, The King of Comedy (1983)
Bernhard was one of the earliest of the “alternative comedy” stand-ups, doing an act in the late 1970s and early 1980s that was more about performance art than punch lines. She carried much of her own fearless sensibility and pop-culture obsessiveness into her first major movie role, playing an unhinged stalker named Masha in Martin Scorsese’s edgy showbiz dramedy The King of Comedy. Bernhard is only in a few scenes, with her character mostly meant to represent the madness surrounding the movie’s lead (Robert De Niro). But the actress does get one big showcase sequence, when Masha entertains an abducted late-night talk-show host, played by Jerry Lewis. Bernhard attacks the moment, giving off such a dark and dangerous energy that Lewis himself looks genuinely alarmed.
35. Seth Rogen, Steve Jobs (2015)
While his Freaks and Geeks cohorts James Franco and Linda Cardellini made the jump into drama early, Rogen’s mostly stuck with what he does best: playing bearish stoners in Apatow comedies. He stepped out of his comfort zone this year to give his take on real-life supergenius Steve Wozniak in Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s offbeat biopic Steve Jobs. The trick to Rogen’s performance is that he’s still basically staying within his type. He’s affable and chuckling — everybody’s best buddy. That makes it all the more effective when Rogen lets Wozniak’s disappointment and anger bubble up, aimed at his old friend and Apple co-founder Jobs. He puts his screen persona to good use, showing how even a smart, savvy guy can be friendly to a fault.
34. Jason Segel, The End of the Tour (2015)
Another Freaks and Geeks alum, Segel has spent most of his career as a lovable sad-sack, amusingly morose in the likes of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Sex Tape. But as the late David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, Segel shades his usual melancholy into something deeper. The movie’s mostly about needy Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), who comes to interview Wallace, but Segel gives the story its soulful center. He’s not trying to do an imitation of the writer, instead playing him as a bruised semi-celebrity who always looks like he’s on the fence between hugging and punching his interrogator.
33. Maya Rudolph, Away We Go (2009)
It’s surprising that Rudolph hasn’t had more opportunities to play dramatic or comedic leads, given that the former SNL cast member runs with the same crowd of cinematic artists as her husband, Paul Thomas Anderson. Her most substantial film role to date has been in this Sam Mendes dramedy, written by Dave Eggers with Vendela Vida. Rudolph stars as a pregnant woman traveling across the country with her spouse (John Krasinski), trying to decide where they should settle down and raise their kid. The eccentric friends and family they meet along the way handle the zany side of Away We Go, while Rudolph gives a moving performance as a reasonable person who’s slowly being worn to a frazzle by all the well-meaning advice she’s received.
32. Marlon Wayans, Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Some of the most compelling “funny person gets serious” moments are almost completely anomalous. Prior to Requiem for a Dream, Wayans hadn’t appeared in any film or TV show as intense as Darren Aronofsky’s fierce, fragmented adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel — and he hasn’t really repeated the move since. But he’s certainly stunning here, as a heroin addict who gradually shifts from cocky to broken. In his comic roles, Wayans tends to play exaggeratedly harried types, and in Requiem, he filters that knack into a character who makes one bad choice after another, carried along by fate and his own weaknesses.
31. Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show (1971)
Leachman has gone in the opposite direction from most of the other actors on this list: becoming known for her comic turns in the likes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Young Frankenstein, and Raising Hope only after starting out as a sensitive Actors Studio student. It’s all the more remarkable to see how funny Leachman has been in the wake of her Oscar-winning performance in The Last Picture Show, where she plays a neglected small-town Texas housewife having an affair with one of her husband’s students. The despair and hunger in the character’s eyes lingers long after the film ends.
30. John Leguizamo, Summer of Sam (1999)
Leguizamo has carved out a good career for himself as a motion-picture character actor, but he got his start as a stand-up, and his most important creative outlet has been as a monologuist, telling funny stories about his own life. One of his most substantial film roles came in Spike Lee’s kaleidoscopic look at the craziness of New York City circa 1977, in which Leguizamo plays a disco-loving hairdresser whose philandering gets him into trouble. The character is like something out of one of the actor’s own plays — which explains how he so easily conveys the sleaziness and sincerity of a young man on the make.
29. Steve Carell, The Big Short (2015)
Carell gave an outstanding performance last year in Foxcatcher, playing billionaire John du Pont as a creepy, aloof, transparently desperate man. But the former Daily Show and The Office star is even better this year in The Big Short as Mark Baum, an irascible Wall Street hedge-fund manager who profited off the collapse of the subprime mortgage market in 2008. Although Carell’s again wearing a wig and doing an accent, he’s not playing his character as broadly as he did in Foxcatcher. Instead, Baum becomes the angry conscience of the film, who starts out planning to teach an entire corrupt financial system a lesson and ends up feeling soul-sick over the millions of ordinary Americans affected by fiscal shenanigans that shouldn’t have anything to do with them.
28. Takeshi Kitano, Fireworks (1997)
It’s a measure of Kitano’s success at transitioning to drama that in the United States, he’s primarily known as a straightforward actor and filmmaker, even though he got his start as a shock comic and game-show host on Tokyo television. He really made his mark in American art houses with the brutal and tender crime melodrama Fireworks (sometimes called by its original Japanese title, Hana-bi), in which he plays a retired cop who’s having a hard time retreating to a quiet life with his ailing wife. As the writer, director, and star, Kitano creates a beautifully abstract meditation on personal obligation and the nature of violence in a film that’s structured like one of the wooden puzzles the hero idly fiddles with during his downtime.
27. Billy Crystal, Mr. Saturday Night (1992)
The success of When Harry Met Sally … and City Slickers gave Crystal the clout he needed to write, direct, and star in his dream project: an ambitious, era-spanning look at the rise and fall of a Borscht Belt comedian named Buddy Young Jr. Crystal aimed to show how showbiz can force people to be ruthless, souring family relationships for the sake of a few years at the top. What stands out about the movie now is how much nuance the star brings both to the young, aggressive Buddy and to his older, more pathetic self. Both versions of the character maintain their dignity because Crystal makes sure the audience sees the real feeling and the keen mind behind every cutting remark.
26. Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful (1997)
Benigni won a Best Actor Oscar for this film, which seems to have slipped some in critical standing in recent years, perhaps because of the shakiness of everything its star has done since. Life Is Beautiful is an admirably bold movie, about one man’s attempt to keep his family safe in a Nazi concentration camp through craftiness and improvisation. Benigni gives a touchingly self-aware performance in the film — which he also wrote and directed — acting both as a father distracting his son from the horrors of genocide and as a potential victim facing his future head-on.
25. Kristen Wiig, Welcome to Me (2014)
Before she left Saturday Night Live, Wiig starred in the massively profitable comedy Bridesmaids; but either by choice or by circumstance, in the years since, she’s mostly stuck to bit parts in larger movies like The Martian, and leads in quirky indies like Hateship, Loveship and The Skeleton Twins. Her most complex dramatic performance to date has been in the odd, sad Welcome to Me, where she plays an emotionally disturbed lottery-winner who uses her jackpot to bankroll a TV show about her obsessions and pet peeves. Wiig’s characters have always come across as a little removed from the real world (even in the relatively normal Bridesmaids), but here there’s an unsettling suggestion that alienation and psychosis run closely together.
24. Tracey Ullman, Household Saints (1993)
Though Household Saints was an art-house favorite back in 1993, it’s sort of disappeared into the ether in the decades since; with it has gone Tracey Ullman’s terrific turn as Catherine Falconetti Santangelo, a fully assimilated Italian-American who’s stymied by her teen daughter Teresa’s obsession with Catholicism. Writer-director Nancy Savoca’s follow-up to her acclaimed True Love and Dogfight, Household Saints was an ambitious project meant to cover the changing lives of three generations of women in New York’s Little Italy. As the lady in the middle — daughter of a devout immigrant, mother to pious adolescent — Ullman serves as the audience surrogate, capturing how a person can be cognizant of the wonders of her faith while wishing they were a little less obtrusive.
23. Patton Oswalt, Big Fan (2009)
In Robert Siegel’s grim Big Fan, Oswalt plays a minimum-wage mope named Paul who lives with his mom and enjoys a small measure of fame as a regular caller to a local sports talk-radio show. The story revolves around a fluke incident that puts Paul on the wrong side of his favorite team, the New York Giants. But it’s really about the life of a man whose entire identity is bound up in his passions, rather than in anything happening in his personal or professional lives. As a comedian who’s spent much of his career riffing on geek obsessions, Oswalt persuasively made the jump to revealing the humanity of a football fanatic.
22. Lucille Ball, Lured (1947)
Long before I Love Lucy, Ball was a fashion model, a Broadway chorus girl, and an RKO contract player, filling out the casts of prestige pictures while getting the occasional B-movie lead. One of her most substantial pre-sitcom roles came in this quirky film noir from director Douglas Sirk, in which she plays an American dancer who’s recruited by London’s Scotland Yard to help trap a serial killer. In the process, she falls in love with a possibly shady theatrical producer (George Sanders), all while encountering a string of creeps. Lured is extravagantly pulpy, but Ball helps keep it grounded by playing her character as just an ordinary, plucky gal, beset by one lousy man after another.
21. Albert Brooks, Drive (2011)
In recent years, Brooks’s big-screen appearances have come almost exclusively in supporting dramatic roles, to the extent that folks born in the 21st century may not even realize that he’s actually one of the funniest men alive. Brooks is partly to blame for this. If he wasn’t so good in films like Drive, he wouldn’t keep getting hired to play similarly heavy parts in the likes of A Most Violent Year and Concussion. Frankly, it’s surprising that Brooks didn’t get a Supporting Actor nomination for Drive, given that he won about a dozen critics’ polls back in 2011. But he’ll have to settle for having helped create one of the most memorable villains of the 2010s: a cunning mobster with a soft exterior and the heart of a killer.
20. Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People (1980)
There were departures aplenty in this multi-Oscar-winning domestic drama, with Robert Redford stepping behind the camera for the first time, and Moore veering far away from her lovably spunky Dick Van Dyke Show–Mary Tyler Moore personae to play a chilly matriarch refusing to reckon with the death of her son. Even playing her best-known characters, Moore was always capable of veering from sunny to slightly unhinged; but in Ordinary People, she’s scarily dark. The performance is uncompromising. Moore doesn’t try to make the audience like her; instead, she allows her anger and disappointment to keep piling up as a buffer against the rest of her family.
19. Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls (2006)
The rare superstar comedian who hasn’t done drama much, Murphy made an exception for Bill Condon’s adaptation of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Murphy won a Golden Globe and scored an Oscar nomination for playing Jimmy Early, a volatile R&B star whose fortunes fade as his more mainstream-sounding label mates (based loosely on the Supremes) notch hit after hit. (Appropriately enough, the loosest analogues to what Murphy does in this film are the scenes in his Nutty Professor remake where he becomes the obnoxious Buddy Love.) As Jimmy, the actor plays a man with talent and passion to burn, but also reveals a layer of obstinance that he’s rarely shown in quite this way. It’s an impressive piece of work, and one that Murphy should try to replicate someday.
18. Adam Sandler, Funny People (2009)
Sandler has made some terrible, terrible comedies, and his occasional detours into drama haven’t gone all that well either. That said, he was terrific in Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal Punch-Drunk Love and good in James Brooks’s underrated Spanglish, but he gave the best performance of his career in his old buddy Judd Apatow’s semiautobiographical Funny People. As a not-that-abstracted version of himself — a millionaire comedian known for crappy blockbusters — Sandler shows more facets to his personality than he ever has before or since. Apatow never really lets his friend be lovable, but instead pushes him to play the character as petty and even mean at times, while remaining smart and self-conscious, too. Funny People was a box-office disappointment and wasn’t exactly universally praised — which is too bad, because it proved once and for all that Sandler can act when he must.
17. Goldie Hawn, The Sugarland Express (1974)
Hawn built her early career playing a giggly pixie who’s half–beach bunny, half–flower child. It’s this girlish energy that Spielberg tapped into for his big-screen debut, The Sugarland Express, in which Hawn plays one half of a fugitive couple that kidnaps a Texas patrolman and races across the state to retrieve their baby from foster care. The film is action-packed, but with an undercurrent of realism — similar to Spielberg’s follow-up, Jaws — Hawn’s performance takes the naïveté of her Laugh-In persona in a heartbreaking new direction. The viewer knows she’s in over her head, but still roots for her to be reunited with her kid.
16. Peter Sellers, Being There (1979)
Always chameleonic, Sellers disappeared into a role more than usual when he played the simple-minded gardener Chance, whose repetitious opinions about weather patterns get mistaken for punditry when he wanders into Washington, D.C., society. Director Hal Ashby and screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski take a fairly direct satirical point and use it to explore the malaise of the Carter era (Jimmy Carter himself being someone who charmed Washington with homespun homilies). Sellers plays Chance as curious and quasi-mythical, like one of the characters he created for Stanley Kubrick in the 1960s. His notes of sweetness and weirdness give a sometimes-chilly movie a sturdy frame.
15. Jerry Lewis, The King of Comedy (1983)
There was always something of an angry undercurrent to a lot of Lewis’s wackier roles in the 1950s and 1960s. In a way, the smarmy TV comedian he played for Martin Scorsese in The King of Comedy is an extension of the monstrous lounge singer Buddy Love whom Lewis created for The Nutty Professor: an entertainer who oozes insincerity and misanthropy. In The King of Comedy, Lewis embodies what the movie’s antihero wants, representing the level of success and fame that allows a person to avoid normal human interactions. The genius of this film — and of Lewis’s performance — is that it skewers a particular kind of showbiz phony without really exaggerating the character much.
14. Art Carney, Harry & Tonto (1974)
Perhaps because so many great American films came out of Hollywood in the early 1970s, Carney’s Oscar-winning turn in writer-director Paul Mazurky’s Harry & Tonto doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. Carney spent decades as a radio, TV, and Broadway comedy star before taking the lead in Harry & Tonto, as an elderly man who’s evicted from his New York apartment and hits the road with his cat. Slight and episodic, the movie is really just an excuse to have the wry Carney react to America in all its pre-bicentennial glory, encountering hippies, hookers, and squares all just trying to get by. This is a warm film, anchored by an actor who’d never really gotten a chance before to show this much range.
13. Robin Williams, The Fisher King (1991)
The Juilliard-trained Williams frequently went dramatic throughout his career but was only rewarded with one Oscar for his efforts, for Good Will Hunting. The best use of Williams’s dramatic talents came in director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese’s hardened New York fable The Fisher King, where the freewheeling comedian plays a mentally ill homeless person who helps a cynical DJ see the magic and virtue in the everyday. Too often in his acting career, Williams felt obliged to be either manic or somber, but in The Fisher King, the character’s psychological damage allows the actor to be spontaneous and funny onscreen while helping the audience understand the pain beneath the puns.
12. Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Writer-director David Mamet’s intricate mystery-drama may seem slight on first pass — the kind of movie that’s all about plot twists and dot-connecting and little else. But it’s actually the rare puzzle-box film that works well on repeated viewings because the plotting is so intricate that the performances can be read on multiple levels. Steve Martin is wonderfully inscrutable as a mysterious stranger who offers to help a brilliant inventor (played by Campbell Scott), but he may actually have secret allegiances and ulterior motives. Martin brings sophistication to the part, and a musician’s feel to Mamet’s rhythmic patter. For a movie that’s ultimately about masculine conflict — as so many Mamet films are — The Spanish Prisoner is surprisingly restrained, which makes Martin’s even keel all the more mesmerizing.
11. Richard Pryor, Blue Collar (1978)
Hollywood had a hard time figuring out best to use Pryor, a superstar who had undeniable charisma but was at his best onstage, performing material he wrote for himself. Writer-director Paul Schrader cracked the case in Blue Collar, by putting Pryor into an ensemble flanked by Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto, and asking him to slightly dial back his energy to fit into an intimate movie frame rather than a concert hall. As an auto worker who learns some shocking truths about his labor union, Pryor’s a plausible everyman: stressed out but congenial. This is all part of Schrader’s larger plan to get viewers to identify with Pryor’s character and then to show how — when pushed — he can be as greedy and untrustworthy as any fat-cat.
10. Jenny Slate, Obvious Child (2014)
Even though Slate plays a stand-up comic in writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s raw, modern slice of life, her character’s really only funny onstage, doing her confessional jokes about sex and slackerdom. The rest of the time, she’s a woman under a lot of stress: dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, economic hardship, and a complicated romantic life. There’s a rare honesty to Obvious Child, which deals with abortion and uncertainty in a way that sets it apart from the umpteen other indie movies about immature city-dwellers. A big reason why it works so well is Slate, who’s believably frayed as a young person worried that stupid biology is going to mess up the rest of her life.
9. Jim Carrey, The Truman Show (1998)
Like a lot of megasuccessful funnymen, Jim Carrey has made periodic attempts to straighten up. But in an unusual twist of circumstance, the artier Carrey projects, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Love You Phillip Morris, and Man on the Moon have been better received than most of his comedies. The key for the actor has been his understanding that he’s at his best when he’s retaining some weirdness and broadness. Case in point: The Truman Show, an existential dramedy with Carrey playing a chipper guy who starts to lose his grip on sanity as he suspects that his entire life has been broadcast as a reality show, with his “neighbors” and “family” played by actors. Moviegoers made this one of Carrey’s biggest hits, and for good reason: It’s a bizarre idea, but imbued with a lot of soul by its star.
8. Mo’Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009)
The former stand-up comic and sitcom star won an Oscar for her performance as an abusive, mentally ill mother in director Lee Daniels’s adaptation of a literary sensation. But really, she won the award for one powerful monologue. Throughout Precious, Mo’Nique pops up occasionally to level profane, terrifying tirades at her daughter (Gabourey Sidibe). Then, toward the end of the film, the mother pleads with a social worker to let her have her daughter back, trying to explain her own awfulness in a speech that seems to be catching its own speaker by surprise, as it becomes more and more of a confession. The moment feels uncomfortably real, like it’s coming from Mo’Nique’s own memories and not Sapphire’s book.
7. Jamie Foxx, Ray (2004)
The man born Eric Marlon Bishop has been active as a dramatic actor and R&B singer for so long that sometimes people forget where he got his start: as a stand-up comedian, then an In Living Color sketch comic, and then a sitcom star. That’s what made his performance as Ray Charles in this 2004 biopic such a revelation. Even given his more substantive roles in Any Given Sunday and Collateral, nothing Jamie Foxx had done up until then had showed these kind of chops. He doesn’t just do a great impersonation of Charles — right down the head-wags and raspy voice — but he also hits notes of addiction, lust, pain, and inspiration. Foxx wears the skin of an artist, with all the confidence and unease that entails.
6. Ben Stiller, Greenberg (2010)
Perhaps because even Stiller’s comic characters tend to be intense and surly, he’s often done well in dramatic roles, either in actual dramas like Permanent Midnight or quasi-comedies like The Royal Tenenbaums. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is sort of unclassifiable as either drama or comedy. It’s funny, but also deeply misanthropic, and it’s about a character who’s practically paralyzed by his dislike and distrust of other human beings. Baumbach hands Stiller a script full of zingers, but the actor plays the title character as an emotionless grump, giving even the zippiest lines an acidic tinge. Some viewers have found him so sour that they can’t abide the film as a whole, but it’s undeniably a memorable performance — at once fiercely committed and ultimatey poignant.
5. Bill Murray, Lost in Translation (2003)
Nearly everything that Murray has ever said in movies or on TV has been in quotation marks, but he’s dropped the ironic act from time to time, in films like Broken Flowers and Rushmore. He had his biggest dramatic hit in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, playing a character a lot like himself: a famous actor feeling lonely and confused while on an assignment overseas. The movie’s main character is the young woman whom Murray’s Bob Harris meets (played by Scarlett Johansson), who gives him someone to commiserate with in Tokyo. But it’s Murray whom Coppola’s camera keeps finding, as the comedian stares out at the color and lights of a foreign city and wonders how he ended up so far from home.
4. Bette Midler, The Rose (1979)
Midler was still best known as a campy cabaret star and frequent Johnny Carson guest when she agreed to take her talent to the big screen in this lightly fictionalized version of Janis Joplin’s life story. The real Midler was never as raw or out of control as The Rose’s faux Janis, but she certainly had the vocal chops to play a rock star, and she undoubtedly understood how media presumptions and industry sexism conspire to squeeze the life out of women in pop. Midler gives an uncommonly vulnerable performance as the drunken, foulmouthed heroine who can shift in a second from laughing too loud at a smutty remark to collapsing into tears out of sheer exhaustion.
3. Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back (2015)
Usually the word brave is reserved (somewhat patronizingly) for movie actresses who eschew vanity. But while Sarah Silverman’s turn as a depressed, upper-class drug and alcohol abuser named Laney Brooks in I Smile Back is pretty ugly at times, what’s more impressive is how committed the comedian is to exploring her character’s multiple downward spirals. She plays the sense of hope whenever Laney appears to be on the mend, but when the suburban housewife and mother starts to crash again, Silverman doesn’t even try to hide the gleam in her eye. The scariest thing about I Smile Back is that Laney can’t resist retreating into self-destructive behavior because part of her feels more comfortable as a screw-up. Silverman doesn’t shrink from the idea that sometimes being bad feels good.
2. Lily Tomlin, Nashville (1975)
Tomlin won a Grammy and an Emmy in the early 1970s for her one-woman comedy sketches, in which she took characters ranging from a snippy telephone operator to a precocious little girl. Then, the first time Tomlin played a dramatic role in a feature film, she was nominated for Oscar. In Robert Altman’s Nashville, she plays a meek upper-class housewife and charity worker who has a one-night stand with a visiting folk-rock star (played by Keith Carradine). It’s a sublime pretense, which has the comedian doing an accent and taking on the characteristics of a timid, gracious southern lady. But there’s nothing jokey about it. Tomlin gets into the head of this woman, playing her small joys and grand disappointments.
1. Whoopi Goldberg, The Color Purple (1985)
Goldberg became a sensation on Broadway in the early 1980s with a one-woman show that had her playing a variety of characters, in the process showing off both a comedic and dramatic range. But most of her stage and screen career has skewed toward comedy — and broad comedy, at that. Even her Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for the romantic drama Ghost came for a role where she was the comic relief. And that’s a shame, because in her first major motion picture, Goldberg showed she could be much more than brassy. In Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Goldberg gives a bracing performance as the beaten-down heroine Celie, digging deep into the soul of an abused woman who begins to understand her power and worth the longer she fights to survive. Watching Celie evolve from timid to confident is like watching Goldberg onstage, playing a handful of different people, loving all of their faults and hopes. One of the keys to comedy is observation: Noticing the minutiae in human behavior that we all recognize, even if we’re not able to articulate it. In The Color Purple, even when she doesn’t have anything to say, Goldberg conveys the meaning behind every flinch, and the relief behind every smile. She’s truly phenomenal.