Bill Murray became a big screen superstar on the back of loose-limbed performances in comedies like Caddyshack, Stripes and Ghostbusters. By 1984, however, he was tiring of playing the clown and looking to do something with a bit more edge.
When director John Byrum gave him a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge, Murray responded the very next day. Calling the director at 4 am he said, “This is Larry, Larry Darrell,” dropping the name of the novel’s main character, an enigmatic man on a quest for spiritual fulfillment.
The resulting film bombed, with Roger Ebert suggesting Murray played “the hero as if fate is a comedian and he is the straight man.” Of course Murray has gone on to become a credible and in demand dramatic actor, but the story of a comedian’s rocky leap from farce to drama still rings true today.
This weekend Chris Rock’s new comedy Top Five tells the story of Andre Allen, a fictional megastar trying to jump from silly comedies to Uprize, a serious drama about the slave revolt in Haiti.
Top Five is a new twist on an old story. Many comedians have tried to flick the switch from comedy to drama.
The late Robin Williams effortlessly hopped between genres. In 2002 alone he made three films, the lowbrow laffer Death to Smoochy, bookended by the psychodrama One Hour Photo and Christopher Nolan’s thriller Insomnia.
Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Jonah Hill are best known for funny movies like Blades of Glory, The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Superbad, but each have stretched their dramatic muscles. Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction earned a good review from Roger Ebert who said Ferrell “has dramatic gifts to equal his comedic talent.” Carell’s new drama Foxcatcher looks poised to earn him notice at awards time and Jonah Hill is a two time Oscar nominee for heavyweights Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Finally, think Jim Carrey and visions of talking butts and rubber-faced features come to mind but he made a serious run at being a serious actor. Perhaps he was pushed into more thoughtful work when his Batman Forever co-star Tommy Lee Jones told him, ‘I cannot sanction your buffoonery,” but whatever the case in movies like Man on the Moon, The Majestic and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind played it straight. “It’s going to be so hard to talk out of my ass after this,” he said when he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor award for The Truman Show, “but I’ll manage.”