Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race

Albert Brooks recalls meeting with “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn about taking the role of the film’s heavy, gangster Bernie Rose. Though Refn had expressed interest in casting Brooks, he peppered the actor — known primarily for a celebrated string of neurotic comedies — with questions about why he’d be good for so serious and menacing a part.

“My answer was, ‘Go ahead and cast the six people who always get this role, then as soon as they come onscreen, people know what’s going to happen,’ ” Brooks recounts. “It’s nice when you don’t know where a character is going. I haven’t done 11 of these in a row.”

The result was a sharp portrait of calculated viciousness from Brooks, and the kind of acclaim — thousands of “who knew?” tweets, he proudly cites — that could land him a second Oscar nomination.

But this year has also seen buzzworthy praise for other funnymen making dramatic strides, including typically bluster-filed onscreen motormouth Jonah Hill as quietly brilliant baseball thinker Peter Brand in “Moneyball” and frequent wacko Will Ferrell as a shut-down, alcoholic salesman in “Everything Must Go.”

Any of these actors could follow in the footsteps of laugh legends like Jackie Gleason (“The Hustler”), Peter Sellers (“Being There”) and Eddie Murphy (“Dreamgirls”), who scored Oscar noms for more sobering roles. The irony is that the Acad’s acting branch is typically more likely to recognize their funnier peers when they show “range” — think Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) and Robin Williams (“Dead Poets Society,” winning for “Good Will Hunting”) — than when they succeed at what made them famous: setting of spasms of laughter.

But for Brooks, who entered showbiz wanting to be an actor before turning to standup and subsequently making his own films, the ability to do “Drive” was in him already, he says. The reason Refn got excited about him in the first place was that the director remembered the actor’s portrayal of a cornered yuppie in the comedy “Lost in America.”

“He got afraid when I yelled at (Julie Haggerty),” reports Brooks, laughing. “So great!”

The perception problem lies in the bum rap comedy gets, he says. There’s so much variety under that umbrella that to say a pure joketeller like Henny Youngman and Richard Pryor — who augmented his humor chops with serious work (“Blue Collar”) — do the same thing is silly.

“The big scenes in ‘Broadcast News’ had to get tears,” he points out, referring to his Oscar-nominated performance in James L. Brooks’ bittersweet hit. “I’ve grounded my own comedy in so much reality, that I don’t see a big difference between the two.

“The actors you really like have to do both. Because people are both. Your buddies are both. You laugh with them, and you have terrible moments with them. It’s being able to walk the line.”

“Moneyball” director Bennett Miller says it was considered an eccentric, even risky move to cast “Superbad” star Hill opposite Brad Pitt. But Miller sensed a shared outsiderdom in Hill and the character of Peter Brand.

“He’s a character that, though, awkward, if given a little opportunity, some sunshine and water, could grow into something formidable,” Miller says. “And Jonah really owned this thing. People have not seen the full measure of what Jonah can do.”

Miller cites Jerry Lewis’ no-frills turn as an egocentric Johnny Carson type in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” as a benchmark for how comedy stars can achieve a new level of authenticity with the right kind of dramatic role.

“He was just so complete and truthful, that in a flash everything you know about Jerry Lewis is dismissed,” Miller says. “Frankly, it was easier to accept him, that this was the real Jerry Lewis. And I think Jonah in this role is revealing more of who he actually is than in his more comedic roles.”

Film critic Leonard Maltin, meanwhile, looks at Ferrell in “Everything Must Go” and his earlier straight-faced turn in “Stranger Than Fiction” and sees the A-list star’s best work.

“He never strained for credibility,” says Maltin of Ferrell’s “Everything” performance. “I believed him completely as this clueless, self-destructive guy who hits bottom and doesn’t quite know where to turn. It’s not a somber performance, but it’s a serious one.”

The situation Ferrell’s character finds himself in could just as easily have been turned into a manic comedy showcasing the performer’s gift for out-of-control lunacy. Therein, perhaps, lies the key to why comedians can switch gears so well.

“The same instincts that fuel a great comedian help make a solid dramatic actor,” says Maltin. “Good comedians need good natural instincts about human nature, and that intuitive quality serves them well if they get hold of a good part.”

Eye on the Oscars: Talent Race
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