Besides female-led stories and biopics, 2018 also proved to be a year featuring the dramatic talent of traditionally comedic actors and directors.
Before winning audiences over with his critically acclaimed performance in the crime drama cult-hit Breaking Bad (2008-13) Bryan Cranston found fame in the early 2000s with his portrayal of the unpredictable dad in Malcolm in the Middle.
But in 2016’s biographical drama All the Way, Cranston also received critical acclaim for his portrayal of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, even receiving a 2017 Screen Actors Guild Award. Then he earned his first Oscar nod in 2016 for 2015’s Trumbo, where he played Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were blacklisted for their political beliefs in 1947.
This year, Cranston makes a strong showing as a paralysed billionaire who develops an unlikely friendship with a recently paroled convict played by Kevin Hart in Director Neil Burger’s The Upside.
Burger credited Cranston’s performance as a quadriplegic as incredibly committed, citing a scene where his character nearly tumbles out of a wheel chair, as someone with a disability actually would have. “He was all in that way,” Burger told the entertainment publication The Wrap.
About the transition from comedic to dramatic roles, Cranston, who wasn’t an obvious choice for the character of a high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer turned crystal-meth maker, has admitted he tried to wash his Malcom character away so as not to live in its shadow. After all, he spent seven years developing and strengthening the quirky character.
“Fortunately, the audience attracted to the material on Breaking Bad weren’t necessarily the same viewers who are fans of situation comedy,” he said.
In terms of his The Upside co-star Kevin Hart, also traditionally known for his stand-up comedy and funny roles, Burger said he was apprehensive at first when casting the comedian who had to explore more dramatic and emotional territory than he was used to. While Hart’s character retained the mischievous demeanor from former roles, he did have to switch gears to take a more dramatic turn, that his fan-base might not have known he was capable of.
He described it as “a glimpse of what audiences could expect from him in the future.” But Hart said he’s not necessarily gunning for an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category any time soon.
“It adds a boost to the career,” Hart told metro USA earlier this month. “I have another door that I can go through and it has opened up … I am constantly thinking, ‘How can I gain success here? How can I make the resume more impressive.’”
Likewise, traditionally comic actress Melissa McCarthy’s latest dramatic role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? as writer Lee Israel has been called her best performance to date, garnering her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
McCarthy told Deadline she took the role because of her “sheer love of the character,” a respected biographer struggling to pay the bills who turns to forging letter from famous writers for money.
She also said her preparation for the role was the same as for previous more comedic turns in lighter fare such as Bridesmaids, Tammy and Identity Thief, while she noted her interest in the defence mechanism of flawed characters.
“I’m a character actress,” explained McCarthy. “You get so wrapped up in the character. And you do that for a comedy, or a drama. It doesn’t change. I think in a good comedy there are always moments of heartbreak when you watch the character fall down. You’ve always got to let your characters fall, so you can watch them get back up.”
In the case of Steve Carell, whose dramatic turns this year include Vice and Beautiful Boy, the actor told The Guardian that most of his career he has simply taken roles that have been offered. “I always feel most comfortable as part of an ensemble,” said Carell, who has previously starred in comedies The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, but is perhaps best known for his deadpan humor in the U.S. version of The Office. “Whether it’s a comedy or a drama, I like to fit in. It’s best not to stick out,” he added. “I’ve never cared about being taken seriously — I just see myself as an actor.”
That approach has proven fruitful for Carell in his recent more nuanced roles. Prior to his role in the award-winning The Big Short, Carell also won a best actor Oscar nomination as eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont in 2014’s Foxcatcher.
In 2018’s Beautiful Boy, Carell’s performance as a father dealing with his son’s drug addiction has been called “haunting” by IndieWire. That’s while he’s been described by critics as “unrecognisable” in his portrayal of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in director Adam McKay’s Vice.
It was in the Dick Cheney power-saga that the usually hijinks-driven genre director McKay (Talladega Nights, Anchorman) also took a more serious turn to direct. The film has now garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, a Best Director nod for McKay and Best Actor for Christian Bale.
McKay, who also directed Carell in The Big Short – a film that garnered him a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar – has made the crossover into more dramatic fare, which he described as “a reaction to the specific chaos of the 21st century.”
“I’ve never dealt with a tone like this, and I don’t think it’s by accident,” he told The New York Times Magazine in late 2018, speaking about directing Vice.
The same is true for fellow genre filmmaker Peter Farrelly, who has also successfully shifted from off-colour comedies to director/co-writer of this year’s Oscar hopeful Green Book.
The road trip film about the real-life bond between classical jazz pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver Tony Lip, takes audiences on a potentially controversial journey. Its well-matched leads of Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali combined with Farrelly’s passion for the story, resulting in five Oscar nominations.
And yet both McKay and Farrelly have attributed cutting their teeth in comedy as what acclimatised them to audience expectations and reactions to their turns at directing dramatic story lines.
But then in a sense, tracing the switch of Hollywood filmmakers shifting from comedy to more high-brow content goes all the way back to the days of Charlie Chaplin. While the silent actor had success as The Tramp, he was later recognised by the Oscars for 1940’s The Great Dictator.