Who are your favorite comedic actors? Think throughout the history of film. Chaplin? Keaton? Hepburn? What about more recent performers? Will Adam Sandler, Jack Black and Tina Fey live on and be remembered with the greats? Only time will tell.
Comedy is a slippery thing. What one person finds comic, another will not even crack a smile. Only a few comic performances are considered ubiquitous, telegraphing through space and time to make people laugh, people whose parents weren’t even born when the performance was committed to celluloid. These are the greatest roles and they still mean something, no matter your preferences.
We here at Spectrum Culture have decided to revive our Year by Year feature with the best comedic performances ever in mind. We pored through every screwball comedy and crappy SNL-inspired flick to create a list of the comedic performances from 1930-2010. The only rule? We could pick only one selection per year. Some years were easy, others nearly impossible to find one worthy suitor. Most difficult of all were the ones were numerous actors could have been the victor. Seriously? Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby? How does one choose? But what we did learn is that year after year, there are some great actors and actresses that will live on forever. I hope you enjoy the first part of this feature – David Harris
C.C. Baxter is lonely. He’s given up on both love and his privacy, lending out his apartment to company executives who use it for their flings, all with the obligatory promises of promotions. Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter thinks he’s found a shortcut to success, but the arrangement turns him into a huge ball of manic vulnerability. He’s a nice boy, though sometimes aggressive and occasionally dull, characteristics Lemmon is not afraid of in his portrayal. He imbues Baxter with just enough self-deprecation to make his wry one-liners both funny and horribly, terribly painful. As he proved the year before in Some Like It Hot, Lemmon had unimpeachable comic timing, coupled with a barely-restrained tendency to overact that worked to his advantage. As the jaded young company man willing to give up his own personal needs in exchange for corporate success, Lemmon indulges in a requisite bitter sarcasm. So well did he convey this simmering resentment and affable ruthlessness that he went on to spend most of the 1960s playing a series of cads who were also lovable, at least allegedly. But Lemmon’s best work during this era was at the beginning of the decade, when characters like C.C. Baxter gave him the opportunity to mix both tragedy and farce into a compelling, realistic role. – Stacia Kissick Jones
In the midst of a three-year run of films (La Dolce Vita, La Notte, 8 ½) that established him as Italy’s preeminent leading man, Marcello Mastroianni took a break to goof around in Pietro Germi’s ribald, incisive farce, embodying a character that represents all of his country’s faults. His role as Fernando Cefalù in Divorce, Italian Style flips the dynamic he was exploring in those other films, abandoning the brooding, sensitive depressive for a mustachioed clown whose only asset is his family’s noble title. Mastroianni makes the most of this opportunity, first with Fernando’s fantasies of killing his wife, then the actual planning of the act, through a complicated plot involving a priest, some politicians, and the Italian precept that murder in response to female infidelity can lead to a lighter sentence. Giving a remarkably fluid performance, the actor proves that his expressive face could be used for more than just conveying good-looking ennui. – Jesse Cataldo
Following his smashing commercial success and frustrating artistic experience with Spartacus, the top-grossing film of 1960, Stanley Kubrick took on a film project so nattily daring that even the eventual movie poster had an ad line that marveled at the seeming impossibility of it. In adapting Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a college professor who becomes troublesomely enthralled with a pre-teen girl, Kubrick made plenty of changes—some of out understandable necessity—but none paid off quite as memorably as expanding the character of Clare Quilty and handing it to Peter Sellers. Originally assuring Sellers he’d have no more than five minutes of screen time, Kubrick instead collaborated freely with the actor, developing improvisations that became full-fledged scenes in the finished product. This included a penchant for devious masquerades ascribed to the role, allowing Sellers to play to his ability to play a broad array of comic characters, a skill he’d cultivated, among other places, on the famed BBC radio show “The Goon Show.” Besides providing comic highs in a brilliantly cynical movie, Sellers’ skill at deception added another layer of danger to a project that already teetered on the highest of cinematic wires. – Dan Seeger
While the public persona of Jerry Lewis has been rendered to the nebbishy klutz he played so well, there’s much more to his range than appears. Appropriately, his 1963 masterpiece The Nutty Professor is a riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one that allows him to mug and employ his point-perfect physical comedy as well as send up the hipsters of the day. While it’s often been rumored that his portrayal of urbane ladies man Buddy Love was a jab at his former comedy partner Dean Martin, it’s not often enough pointed out that Lewis was as skilled at being the coolest guy in the room as the nincompoop falling over a chair. In addition to starring in the film, Lewis also directed, produced and wrote the screenplay for The Nutty Professor, probably making him the busiest and most talented comedian of 1963. – Nathan Kamal
Peter Sellers’ tour-de-force performance(s) are justly considered high points in comedic cinema, but it is George C. Scott’s gum-chewing, lunkheaded general who steals the show. He bounces around the War Room like a child fed nothing but Pixie Sticks and meth, as much an embodiment of the infantile myth of the American cowboy tough guy as Slim Pickens’ bomb-riding pilot. Scott plays his virile energy against itself, making his id-driven, spastic arguments with the Soviet ambassador not only hilarious but a disturbing insight into the sort of people tasked with the gravest responsibility over millions of lives. Scott so effortlessly captures this bumbling fool’s instincts for literal and figurative self-preservation that when he tripped and fell during a take and instantly sprang up and went on as if nothing had happened, Kubrick thought it was part of the act and left it in the final cut. – Jake Cole
The Beatles’ second film, Help! takes the madcap antics of the band a step further than A Hard Day’s Night and really ramps up the weirdness. In the center of Eastern murder cults, musical interludes and a really passive aggressive scientist (Victor Spinetti), drummer Ringo Starr manages to play the straight man with typical deadpan wit. Though the film doesn’t require Starr to do much more than be himself (or at least his public persona) on camera while people try to kill him, his bemused reactions to death threats and car chases make the movie. Always the most emotive of the four as actors, Starr serving as the lead of their films was an inspired choice in a movie full of surrealistic brilliance and casually dropped Beatles-isms like Ringo’s sweetly inquired “What was it that first attracted you to me?” to John Lennon. And the response? “Well, you’re very polite, aren’t you?” True, John. He is. – Nathan Kamal
In The Fortune Cookie, Walter Matthau deviates from the screen persona we’ve become accustomed to, equal parts curmudgeonly and lovable. Here, as a morally bankrupt lawyer by the name of “Whiplash Willie,” Matthau is just a plain ol’ son of a bitch, convincing his brother-in-law Harry (Jack Lemmon), the film’s protagonist, to pretend he is paralyzed after an accident at work in order to reap the maximum profits from a lawsuit. Matthau’s supporting performance is key: he has the chops to portray such a corrupt and dishonest asshole without tipping it too far into the purely despicable, preserving the delicate balance that makes Billy Wilder’s acidic black comedy transcend its latent cynicism. Matthau’s “Whiplash Willie” is too pathetic, too desperate, to seem like a threat to the moral order of the universe. He’s just a schlub trying to get by, almost endearing in his simple commitment to greed. Matthau gives the film much energy and tension, but he also comically drains the “evil” out of this otherwise villainous character, making his failings comprehensible and serving as the perfect foil for Lemmon’s Harry to be a mensch and do the right thing. – Trevor Link
In Jacques Tati’s Playtime, modern society is a bedlam ready to break down at the slightest provocation: cushy armchairs prove flatulent, neon signs emit spastic electrical spurts, glass doors are made for walking into, and so on. It could be argued that the real comedian in Playtime is the city itself—or rather, Tati’s monolithic, artificial sets of Paris that embed the film’s countless gags. But a comedian always needs his straight man, and Tati’s M. Hulot—the hapless chap who keeps finding himself in the middle of the clamor—proves to be one of comedy’s finest, if not quietest, straight men. M. Hulot’s gentle disposition, along with his shabby appearance, makes him all the more vulnerable to Paris’ modern trappings, his humble gait not only a mismatch for the city’s hustle and bustle but the primary reason why he keeps falling down one rabbit hole after another, wandering from an inescapable steel and concrete building into an invasive condominium unit and then again drawn into a new restaurant that is already falling apart. M. Hulot is our wide-eyed observer into the chaotic frenzy of modernism and through his eyes we obtain a true understanding of the city’s underlying cracks and fissures. – Tina Hassannia
When I was younger, I considered Zero Mostel the weak link in The Producers, his sarcasm secondary to the pleasures of Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars and Dick Shawn. When I revisit it, though, it is Mostel who most draws my eyes. He may give the angriest performance in any Mel Brooks film, and that is taking into account the outrage that regularly boils to the surface in Blazing Saddles. Infamously blacklisted during the HUAC period and left nearly maimed by a bus accident, Mostel did not have to dig deep to play the marginalized and forgotten producer. Even at his most delicate, Mostel communicates a great rage and a hunger for what has been denied him, even if he has to resort to a con to get it. When he raises his voice in mock-pleasantry to calm down a hysterical Wilder, Mostel puts such an edge into every inflection that I almost worry that, on this viewing, the outcome of the scene will change and Max will throttle Leo. The film quickly spirals into the usual Mel Brooks zaniness, but it all hinges on the erosive greed of a sad man, who somehow manages to be funny in all his intensity. – Jake Cole
The comedies of the swinging 60s typically relied on ultra-Mod styling and a lack of substance, the humor coming less from characterization than quick edits, sexual antics and unlikely hijinks. Nothing was more swinging or more 60s than the British Eurocrime caper The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine as a recently-released Cockney career criminal Charlie Croker, with a brilliant plan to nab a large gold shipment. The Italian Job embodies the 1960s tendency to turn anything funny into farce, creating a chaos that Caine is the perfect man to control. His portrayal is so apt that it feels as though he isn’t acting at all, he simply is Charlie Croker, the smooth, exasperated antihero with just enough smartass to deliver some of the most memorable one-liners in cinematic history. Caine’s good-natured humor was welcome at the end of the 1960s, an era where more cynical antiheroes like Flint or Matt Helm complained their way through the burdens of beautiful dames and stylish cinematic violence. Caine’s Croker was just as stylized, but far more real, a working man whose job just happened to be criminal. The role ultimately wasn’t a stretch for Caine, but it is still a delightful, hilarious and iconic turn. – Stacia Kissick Jones