10 Great Shapeshifting Comedic Performances

Poor Ricky Bobby went crazy soon after he retired

Poor Will Ferrell. He’s actually not too bad of an actor when he tries. For every Anchorman, there’s a Step Brothers. His newest film is actually kind of intriguing, as his role in Casa De Mi Padre is entirely in Spanish. The film’s called boring and dull, but an honest effort on Ferrell’s behalf. What a shame. In recognition of his efforts, let’s look at some other comedic actors of whom have also taken similar risks. I don’t mean with speaking in a different language, but with taking on a while different persona much like Farrell did.

Here are ten great shapeshifting comedic performances.

My first reaction to this shot was "Sweet Jesus", but then I realized that that could be taken out of context. Oh wait...

10. John Turturro: Jesus Quintana-The Big Lebowski 

Sadly Turturro isn’t in this film for very long, but his few moments on screen are hysterical. Jesus Quintana is a bowling extraordinaire and an apparent sexual harasser. He’s everything revolting but everything cool at the same time. The way he cleans his bowling ball is so wrong but so captivating. Turturro really put a lot of time and effort into becoming Jesus Quintana, even if the role is one of the smallest in the film (even the kid with the missing homework has a more crucial part to the story and plot). Oh well. Turturro is never one to get lazy with his roles, and his commitment to this film made Jesus on film for too little.

After seven thousand groundhog days, he said "screw it" and switched teams for a day.

9. Bill Murray: Bunny Breckinridge-Ed Wood 

Murray’s ultimate triumph will always be his work in Groundhog Day; An excellent example of untouchable comedic acting. However, his most unusual and different performance is his role as Bunny in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bunny is one of Ed Wood’s best friends and he dreams about getting sexual reassignment surgery. While Ed Wood hides his desires to dress up as a woman from time to time, Bunny couldn’t be more open about his homosexuality, and Murray plays this perfectly. His over-theatrics and still face on top of non-sequiturs make for awkward moments and uneasy laughter with a slight stroke of Murray’s usual brilliance.

What on earth happened to Janet Leigh?

8. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon: Joe and Jerry-Some Like it Hot

This one’s a bit tricky because we know from the beginning that they are men dressed up as women. It’s part of the plot and it’s essential for their survival. That doesn’t stop Curtis and Lemmon from transforming and being completely batshit crazy as their female parallels. Actually, as obvious as they are, they do somewhat of a good job passing off as women. This kind of gag has been done before, both terribly and kind of well. Another great example is Dustin Hoffman’s work in Tootsie which is definitely worth noting. However, none have done it quite as good as the tenacious two in Some Like it Hot.

I think Borat not watching the road is the least of this man's worries

7. Sacha Baron Cohen: Borat

Whether it’s on tv, in his feature film or even in interviews and live events, Borat has become a sensation. Sacha Baron Cohen’s intolerant bigot of a character is a bit of a curious creation. Borat is essentially an imbecile and ignorant, yet the real joke here is that he gets others around him to reveal that they share the same qualities. The only difference is that Cohen is acting and the others are not. Cohen stayed in character for months (what a disaster that must have been at home) and never broke out of character, even in the toughest of scenarios. He may have endured worse events in character as Bruno, but he cut the Bruno act much sooner. As Borat, however, there was much less of a connection between the actor and the character, and it feels as if Borat has been killed now that he isn’t anywhere anymore. Whether that’s a good thing or not is up to you.

I believe there is a spy among us

6. Robert Downey Jr.: Kirk Lazarus-Tropic Thunder

What gets Downey Jr. extra points here is the fact that he is playing an Australian actor who is playing an African American.  You have to admit that this is quite the task, considering in reality he is neither and thus has to work hard on both sides of his character. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for Downey Jr., as usual. In fact, Kirk Lazarus is probably the biggest reason why you should watch Tropic Thunder. Sure it’s pretty funny, and Tom Cruise’s cameo is quite a memorable one, but Kirk Lazarus makes you forget that he is, quote unquote “a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude”. He runs the show and is easily the brains, brawn and bones of the film, even when it was Ben Stiller’s film to begin with.

Mere seconds before the final page of War and Peace got destroyed, pissing off everyone involved with the film

5. Audrey Hepburn: Eliza Doolittle-My Fair Lady

This entry is similar to the last one but is also different in a big way. Eliza Doolittle starts off as an obnoxiously loud woman who transforms into a graceful socialite as the film progresses. Hepburn had to take on both sides, of course, and her accents are impeccable for both. While the latter Eliza and half of the film isn’t funny, the first half is as her boorish ways and strong accent (one that is so over the top it’s somehow realistic) provide comic relief and the extra umph we needed to be interested in a musical.

No relation to Karl Marx here, before my blog gets taken down for relations to communism

4. Grouch Marx: Just… Groucho Marx as Groucho Marx

Here’s another somewhat of a wild card. Groucho Marx, one of the Marx brothers (a classic comedic ensemble) was essentially just himself all of the time, and yet he wasn’t. His insults and plays-on-word were lightning fast and surprisingly unscripted for the most part, so you knew that a bit of his act was real. However, were his responses sly and over the top for a reason? While this may remain a mystery, I think the answer lies with his mustache and eyebrows, which were painted on so badly they were too obvious to not notice. In the end, his persona was most probably a shift from who he really was, as it is the persona the world loved, but the wit remains his main key to being himself.

Sir Alex Guinness abandoned ship when George Lucas announced he was making prequels to Star Wars

3. Sir Alec Guinness: The entire D’Ascoyne family-Kind Hearts and Coronets

This film is the most deliciously evil I have ever seen. It reeks of British dry humor and sly laughs at the face of death. Sir Alec Guinness, whom most of you know from Star Wars, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, used to be a renown comedy actor, and what may be his best work in this genre is that of this film. What makes his work here stand out so much? He plays eight different bloody people. Not only does he play eight different people, he plays them all so differently. He plays a priest, a photographer, a general, and even a woman, amongst others. Even the smallest of these roles gets full devotion from Guinness, and it’s a shame to watch them, considering the film is about a man who seeks to kill this entire family.

Let's play "who looks more unimpressed"

2. Charlie Chaplin: The Tramp-Virtually Everything the Tramp’s Been In.

When you mention Charlie Chaplin to someone, they will automatically think of the sideways hat, the tight clothes, the bendy cane and the iconic mustache. Oddly enough, this really isn’t Charlie Chaplin. In fact, Charlie Chaplin looks nothing like this. This image they envision is actually the character Chaplin embodied known more or less as The Tramp. The Tramp starred in the vast majority of Chaplin’s films (most of which he wrote, directed, starred, and composed the score for himself). That alone is a good enough reason for him to be here. In reality, he was very particulate and quite a serious perfectionist. On film, he’s anything but, as he clumsily wobbles everywhere and drops everything. If that doesn’t sell it for you yet, this will.

Yep. This is him. Don't you feel silly now?

Dr. Strangelove used to be sane before World War II

1. Peter Sellers: Chance the Gardener-Being There

Peter Sellers takes the number one spot, because he’s done this many times before. Actually, the main reason for his depression in real life was reportedly because he became too many characters and lost his sense of self identity. You could pick any of his roles, from The Pink Panther to Dr. Strangelove to The Party to all of his radio work, and you’d still have many more options to pick from. Simply put, Peter Sellers is one of the best chameleon actors of all time and may very well be the best contemporary comedy actor (his comedic genius is matched only by Chaplin and Marx). Since I could only pick one role, though, I went with his role as Chance.

His other roles are funny because of how eccentric they are. Their accents and expressions are so exaggerated and on point. In Being There, his second last film and perhaps his masterpiece, he is anything but over the top. In fact, he is reserved. Chance is naive and essentially stupid (in fact, he is referenced in Kirk Lazarus’s ‘full retard’ speech. Nice connection to an earlier part of my article, eh?). He grew up in a billionaire’s mansion his entire life working as a gardener. Once he is forced out into the real world for virtually the first time ever, he has no idea what on earth is going on but is too shy to question it. His subtle reactions and perfect comedic timing are priceless, and a fantastic example of how far outside of ones comfort zone a comedy actor can go.

I decided to put two clips for this last one to try and set the tone a bit. Oh, and he’s never been in an elevator before but the other man thinks he is talking about the wheelchair he is sitting in (to ruin the joke/explain for the confused).

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1 Response to 10 Great Shapeshifting Comedic Performances

  1. merzybean says:

    Some Like it Hot was fantastic, I thoroughly enjoyed it. As for Borat, very nice!

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