We Lose When Comic Actors Chase Awards
You know that sensation when you go to the movies and a preview comes on for a new Tom Hanks drama, and all you can think is, “Please, Tom, please. Are you ever going to be funny again?”
This thought may only occur to Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. It’s less likely that Millennials have witnessed funny Tom Hanks outside of his voice work in the Toy Story series. Perhaps they’ve seen the much-loathed Forrest Gump or the horrible Polar Express, but have they seen Big? Splash? Or my personal favorite: The misunderstood Joe Versus the Volcano? Do they even know what was extinguished when Hanks went in search of an Oscar in Philadelphia and never really returned to the light side?
I understand the draw. Thirty years ago, television wasn’t taken seriously as an art form and comedians weren’t thought to be as talented as dramatic actors. They certainly never won any Oscars. Hanks, having launched his career with the TV sitcom Bosom Buddies and subsequently cast in a slew of comedies of varying quality, wanted to be taken seriously. So did Robin Williams. He too drifted away from his spastic comedy in the hope of being thought of as a “real actor” and ended up starring in What Dreams May Come–possibly the least funny film ever made. Thankfully Williams didn’t go cold turkey the way Hanks has. He even managed to find some projects that allowed him to be both funny and stretch his dramatic chops, such as Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King.
Today’s cultural climate reveres comedians and television is the more refined and nuanced art form, with films left to handle the period pieces and the superheroes. Yet we continue to see talented comedic actors venturing into dramatic roles. This fall, in particular, we’ve got Steve Carell playing a decidedly un-funny father of a meth addict in the brutal film Beautiful Boy, and Melissa McCarthy portraying the downward spiral of author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? To be fair, McCarthy manages to be funny in this drama, which is how I prefer my dramas: with a bit of humor to lighten the mood and make the heaviness more palatable. While I thought both of these films were well-made and Carell and McCarthy did admirable work, I left the theater hoping that we hadn’t lost two more gifted comedians to the Oscar Quest.
In our dark world, we need comedians right now. Sometimes I find myself wishing that everyone were a bit more like Jason Bateman. Wry, imperturbable Jason Bateman, with his perfect timing and his subtle facial expressions. He’s been cruising along doing almost nothing but comedies his entire career. Even as he ventures into dramas, he somehow turns them into comedies. This is Where I Leave You was a cast chock full of comic actors; the team was clearly aiming for a dark comic tone, and it suited the material. Of the films of Bateman’s that I’ve seen, Mark Loring in Juno may be his most dramatic turn, even though I’m not sure Juno qualifies as a drama. Not much was funny about the emotionally-stunted creeper who wooed a pregnant high school student with mix tapes.
But I’m most fascinated by Bateman as Marty Byrd in Ozark. There was a dissonance at first, watching someone who has always played comic roles on television, plunked into the middle of this dark world of drugs and murder. Ozark is heavy material and yet Bateman persists in being Bateman: funny, non-plussed, beleaguered, wry. It’s as if he’s shifted the tone of the series to adapt to him, bending it into something that is a drama and more. When I watch Ozark, I don’t feel like I’m losing Bateman the comic actor. I feel like drama is gaining something it desperately needs, a sense of fucking humor. Bob Odenkirk achieves something similar in Better Call Saul, though that show is about grifting, not drug wars. Grifting lends itself to comedy more than drug wars, making Bateman’s feat more impressive.
Of course some credit is due to the writers. The script of Can You Ever Forgive Me? left room for McCarthy to be biting and acerbic in her funny way. Better Call Saul gives Odenkirk ample material. But I bet if you put a different actor in Ozark, even a comedian, it wouldn’t be as funny and enjoyable as Bateman makes it. I want to say to these other actors: Look at Jason! You don’t have to shed your comic timing to be a great actor. Please stop depressing the hell out of us!
I don’t begrudge these actors the stretching of different muscles, but please oh please don’t forsake your comedic roots. We so desperately need humor, and there’s no need to feel less than if you’re not wrenching every last tear out of your audience. The truth is, comedy is harder. Many of those dramatic actors wish they could cross the divide and do a brilliant comic turn. But they don’t have it in them.