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
As Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, Donald Sutherland was the kind of walking contradiction that you’d only find in the confusion following the drug-addled 1960s and the approach of the drug-addled 1970s. He was a rebel, an anti-establishment type who played by nobody’s rules (not even his own). He was also an army stooge, if only for a higher purpose of saving lives. He was casually racist, yet showed an attitude to the native Koreans that combined empathy with a queasy variant of the White Man’s Burden. He was a womanizer, a boozer, and, above all, the kind of rascal that you can’t help forgiving for his indiscretions, because dammit, he’s just that charming. Though Alan Alda would bring the character to wider popularity via a watered down, more sympathetic take on Hawkeye, Sutherland’s first run on the army surgeon is the finest and funniest for all his flaws and edge. He may be a jerk, but he’s our lifesaving, sarcastic jerk. – Nathan Kamal
Bud Cort has continued acting, at least somewhat steadily, in the 40 years since Harold and Maude, but the death-obsessed, fatalistic Harold will always remain his definitive role. This basically one-shot success may suggest more of a casting coup than an acting one, but it’s worth considering how bad of a movie this could have been without equivalently strong leads. A love story conducted around a nearly 60 year age gap, the film required Cort to shift from bored angst to wild-eyed passion, a tricky transition that only works because of how effortlessly natural he is in the role. Paired with brassy veteran Ruth Gordon, he ably holds up his side of this two-hander, carrying off a process of de-sensationalism that turns what could have been a tawdry mess of a movie into a poignant, bittersweet experience. – Jesse Cataldo
Charles Grodin had one of the toughest acting jobs in 1972: To be charming, even lovable, while uttering the most repulsively self-serving dialogue imaginable. Grodin’s newly-married Lenny is the titular child of Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, a man so stunted that he’s already in his mid-20s before he embarks on the coming-of-age shenanigans he should have gotten out of his system a decade earlier. He falls for the first blonde girl he sees on the beach the first day of his honeymoon, tells shameless lies to his wife like a teenager trying to fool his parents and eventually stalks his crush like a campus creeper, yet through it all manages, inexplicably, to be likeable. That is no mean feat, and Grodin’s smart, confident performance creates a brilliant balance between all the main actors that results in a strong ensemble performance. That may sound like a contradiction to say one actor’s performance resulted in an ensemble piece, but that’s not exactly true. As easy as it would have been for him, Grodin didn’t run away with the film, because he understood the ego of Lenny combined with the ego of an overbearing actor would have ruined any chance of charming the audience. And if there is one thing Lenny absolutely must do, it’s charm the audience, who otherwise couldn’t stomach a full hour and 40 minutes of Lenny’s salesman-esque bullshit used to justify his morally repellant behavior. Despite the copious discomfort and inevitable cringing, Grodin also makes with the funny, his sharp timing imbuing Lenny with so much comedic pathos you can’t help but laugh. Grodin gives a warm and somewhat concerning humanity to a repulsive, selfish little man in this brave and hilarious performance. – Stacia Kissick Jones
Elliott Gould imbues the Philip Marlowe character with a deftly sardonic touch in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s eponymous novel. The film’s technically a drama, though in Altman’s hands Marlowe gains the upper hand in most interrogations by simply not being an L.A. asshole – be it a hoodlum or washout. Gould’s squinty, unimpressed expressions are the perfect match for his digressive one-liners. These are not strategic punchlines but tacit remarks that seem to flow out of Gould’s gob like exhaled air, naturally intercutting with other characters’ lines (a trademark of Altman’s fast-paced dialogue). Marlowe frequently uses the vehemence and stupidity of other characters against them as if he’s performing cerebral aikido. His just-barely-amused approach to the world applies to his own cat as much as it does to the gangsters that hound him. Gould’s nonchalant approach to the investigation gives the impression he has no stakes – and yet, the suicide/possible murder to set off the narrative is that of Marlowe’s friend, making it a personal matter. In reality, Gould’s impassivity is simply a new form of cynicism in the post-noir era. His improvisatory abilities help shape The Long Goodbye into a beautiful, if lackadaisical character study. – Tina Hassannia
Cleavon Little’s turn as Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ rollicking pastiche of the Hollywood Western, is, if you will forgive the pun, saddled with baggage it does not deserve. Cleavon is rarely even discussed in the context of the film, and if he is mentioned, his performance is quickly dismissed as being an unfortunate concession to a studio too scared to cast Richard Pryor in the part. But if there is one thing we should all be thanking the cinematic gods for, it is for preventing Blazing Saddles from becoming what in hindsight would have been just another Pryor-Wilder teaming. Though Bart is obviously a comedic character, he’s more than a series of sight gags and humorous anachronisms. He’s complicated, part antidote for the casual racism of Hollywood films, part handsome lead of an Oscar-nominated film, part Blaxploitation hero and part broad physical comedian. The glamour and sophistication Little lends to the role is key; without it, the link between the irreverent comedy of Blazing Saddles and classic Hollywood would collapse into a pile of Hedy Lamarr puns. It’s that outsized superstar presence that makes Cleavon Little the perfect choice for Sheriff Bart. And beyond that, Little’s pacing is impeccable and his physical comedy sublime, as is his willingness to be very, very silly in the service of incisive satire. The best comedic performances are those that are not just witty but intelligent, and Cleavon delivers on all counts in what is an often underappreciated turn. – Stacia Kissick Jones
John Cleese is a master of comic fury, all violent bluster spewed from a tall but gangly frame that communicates impotent weakness above all else. Ergo, Holy Grail’s medieval setting of ludicrous chivalry and shit-stained misery suits him perfectly. As with all the Pythons, he plays numerous roles in the film, and he gets many of the best, from Lancelot as a man so driven to help a fair “lady” that he murders innocent wedding guests by the scores to the Black Knight as a comically unstoppable warrior. More so than Basil Fawlty, the sight of the Black Knight, separated from his limbs but still hurling insults and jonesing for a fight, may be the purest distillation of Cleese’s comic energy. Indeed, all of his parts here could almost be a fever vision of Basil Fawlty, fond wishes of carrying out the carnage that is no longer socially acceptable but so close to the surface of his clenched-jaw interactions with perfectly pleasant people. – Jake Cole
Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is rarely laugh-out-loud funny in Network. The tempestuous rants that make him a household name are ones of sad, bewildered desperation, amusing primarily for their train wreck qualities and for the titillating discomfort of seeing a man say the exact wrong thing on corporate television, only to be embraced by that entity as he makes what they hate into a profitable sensation. Finch’s hubris rises and falls over the course of the film as his ratings fluctuate, and as his righteous fury is sapped by an introduction into the nature of things far darker than he ever realized. Finch also, crucially, conveys the half-conscious, maybe even unconscious joy Beale takes from his celebrity, and how his most passionate rants curiously coincide with his lowest ratings. The actor makes it clear that Beale has as much a hand as the corporate overseers who control him in tying his noose. – Jake Cole
Given Woody Allen’s well-known workmanlike approach to filmmaking – grab the next script, make the movie with an efficiency designed to get home in time to watch the Knicks game, move on without a second thought – it’s telling that there were so many permutations of his 1977 follow-up to Love and Death. It was going to be about the myriad romantic trials of Alvy Singer (Allen) and for a time even had a whodunit side plot (which would later be recycled for Manhattan Murder Mystery). Eventually, Allen had to concede that the film’s axis was so clearly one figure that the only title he could give it was Annie Hall.
Diane Keaton gives an iconic performance in the title role, a character so clearly drawn from her own idiosyncrasies that she carries the actress’ real name. Fluttering out “La di da” to carry her over awkward moments, Annie is tangle of false starts and peppery neuroses that Keaton infuses with boundless charm. She plays Annie’s daffiness, but also an underlying shrewdness that hints at the character’s growing self-assurance. Her acting provides wise warmth that pushes back against Allen’s instinctual cynicism, adding an edge of surprise to an already stealthily daring film. – Dan Seeger
I’m not sure anyone considers Heaven Can Wait, the comedy Warren Beatty co-directed with Buck Henry in 1978, to be a classic of the era, but it certainly was a smash in its time, ending up as one of the top-grossing films of the years and collecting nine Oscar nods, tied with eventual Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter as the night’s most nominated film. It remains a fascinating work, with a broad comic concept filtered through Beatty’s paradoxical mix of confidence and mildly abashed understatement.
It also contains a wildfire of a comedic performance by Dyan Cannon, playing Julia Farnsworth, the virulently unhappy, scheming wife of the millionaire whose recently deceased body is occupied by the spirit of football hero Joe Pendleton (Beatty). Cannon’s turn is a spirited bristle of dagger-eyed fury marked with moments of tense panic as she tried to wrap her head around the reappearance of this husband who she thought she and her lover had offed. Especially surrounded by softer-spoken actors (besides Beatty, Charles Grodin and Jack Warden have key roles), Cannon’s capacity for volume helps her take command of every scene she’s in. – Dan Seeger
During the original epic run of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” the role of the stiff upper lipped authority figure often went to Graham Chapman, and rightly so. The legendary comedian had an effortless aura of stern, distinctly British gravitas that acted as both a complement and an antidote to the chaos around him, but his role as the titular character in Life of Brian showed an entirely different, entirely funny side of him.
As Brian, a young man mistaken for the Messiah by multiple factions of the tumultuous 1st century Judea, Chapman is awkward, perpetually in a panic and despite being 38 years old at the time, boyish. He’s the opposite of the classic hero; not only is he reluctant to assume his destiny, he actively runs from it the entire movie. Hell, it’s not even really his destiny. Despite the controversy it inspired, Life of Brian makes it clear that there’s another guy named Jesus around the area, and he seems like a pretty good dude. Brian, on the other hand, is just a simple, decent person who wants to get laid and avoid trouble with the Romans. Only Chapman could play both the Colonel and that guy. – Nathan Kamal