I Didn’t See That Coming: Playing Against Type in the 1980s

Actors and directors often give the public what they want.  After all, their jobs involve entertaining the public and, to the degree that they are successful at any given job, that job will necessarily be demanded by the public to be repeated, often.  It’s no surprise then that since Alfred Hitchcock was so adept at suspense that suspense was, in fact, what he doled out on a regular basis.  Even when he went slightly askew, towards the comedy of The Trouble with Harry, the entire enterprise still rested upon suspense and a healthy dose of the macabre.   It’s when they really go outside their boundaries that they surprise us, sometimes pleasantly, sometimes disappointingly.  And sometimes, they take to it so well, they never turn back.  During the eighties, when I was in full swing as a cinephile, I saw several turns against type that I never saw coming.

Post Guinness 01

Let’s start with a few classic examples first, to lay the groundwork.  Theses changes happened before I was ever paying attention (or even born) so I already knew about them from movie books long before I saw the movies.  The first one is one of the biggest and best of them all, Alec Guinness.  Guinness made a name for himself as one of the greatest comic actors in all of cinema.  One movie after another proved his comic talents:  Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Ladykillers.   He did movies that weren’t comedies, too, but along the lines of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, not along the lines of intense drama like… well, here’s what happened.  In 1957, Guinness played delusional Colonel Nicholson in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It was a fantastic movie, a brilliant performance and a career changer for Guinness.  He won the Oscar for Best Actor and after The Horse’s Mouth a year later, he would go nearly twenty years before making another comedy, Murder by Death.

David Lean himself made his change with the same movie.  From Dicken’s tales to intimate dramas, like Brief Encounter, Lean could be counted on to direct the personal, smaller films that didn’t rely on a lot of big set pieces.  Movies like Summertime with Katherine Hepburn, for instance.  But then came Kwai and Lean’s career as a director of epics was set in stone.

Of course, Norma Shearer predated both of them with her sea change.  After spending her early career playing the role of the pure and innocent sweetheart she demanded something different and was lucky enough to have as her husband a man who could get her the parts she wanted, as long as she could convince him she could play them.  The man was Irving Thalberg and Norma convinced him she could play racy by posing for pictures that decidedly went against the good girl grain.  The movie was The Divorcee, and like Guinness later on, it would win her an Oscar.

One of my favorite “I didn’t see that coming” turns would have to be the great Charles Laughton turning to directing, doing it only once, and managing to direct a straight-up masterpiece in that single outing.  The movie is, of course, Night of the Hunter and it is one of the most visually inventive and deeply dark movies of the fifties.   It’s too bad Laughton didn’t take up directing in the thirties.  Who knows how many masterworks we may have gotten.

For the whole of this post so far, I’ve stuck to the classics but as I said at the beginning of this post, this phenomenon hit me hardest during the eighties when actors that I just knew were going one way, turned and went another.  It was a period with cable and VCRs and for the first time, I could watch whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.   I saw everything, all the time, and of one thing I was certain: Jerry Lewis was a wacky comedian, not a serious actor.

Boy was I wrong.

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It was in 1983 that Martin Scorsese released King of Comedy and, to this day, I think it’s one of his best films.   Also, De Niro is at the top of his form here, playing smug creepiness in an astonishing performance.  But the big surprise was Jerry Lewis, playing self-centered late night talk show host Jerry Langford to perfection.  His Langford had an edge to him, an anger, a bitterness.  I guess I should have seen it coming with Lewis’ brilliant turn years earlier as Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor but it still took me by surprise.   His not receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor took me for an even bigger surprise.  Hell, I figured he was a lock that year.  I was wrong again.

In 1984, things got a little stranger still.  After Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep spent year after year in intense and harrowing roles, it seemed odd to me to see them playing… normal.  The movie was Falling in Love and it’s best left in 1984.  Oh, it’s not awful, it’s just so undramatic.  It’s very lifeless and meandering with two of the most electrifying actors on the screen just kind of sitting there.  Stranger still was when both of them decided to go into comedy later in their careers with movies like Analyze This and Death Becomes Her (and many, many more for both of them).  But all of this paled in comparison to the seismic shock I received when I heard De Niro would be in Rocky and Bullwinkle.   Let me tell you something:  I didn’t see that coming.  Ever.  In fact, the shock still feels fresh so I’m going to move on.

And speaking of 1984, that was the year Mia Farrow showed me she was an even better actress than I knew with her incredible about face in Broadway Danny Rose, one of Woody Allen’s best, period.  From the quiet and restrained characters I had grown accustomed to burst forth the loud and brassy Tina, mobster moll and no-nonsense woman.   I couldn’t even recognize her until I saw her with her sunglasses off looking in the bathroom mirror.

The year before brought two other performances I never saw coming.  The first came from Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies.   The Duvall I knew, or thought I did, was the Duvall from The Great Santini and Network.  Loud, abrasive, pushy.  And there was the other Duvall, from The Godfather movies and THX 1138, who was more quiet, more willing to follow and not get too excited.   But neither of those prepared me for the country singer Mack Sledge, his reflective ways and his nostalgic heart.  It remains one of the great performances of the silver screen.

The other from 1983 was Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment.  MacLaine had made dramatic turns many times in her career before Terms of Endearment but with this movie there was one important distinction.  In Terms of Endearment, MacLaine played old.  I say that in relative terms since she’s starting to look young to me in it now (She wasn’t even 50 yet, neither was Nicholson.  In fact, the age he was in it I’ve already… never mind).  The point is, she wasn’t playing perky and she wasn’t playing sweet.  She wasn’t playing ditzy and she wasn’t playing cute.  She was playing a woman who’d been through a lot, had very selfish tendencies, and was a little on the bitter side of life.  It turned out MacLaine was so good at playing that kind of role that she ended up playing variations on it for the rest of her career, a career that’s been going strong every since.

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I guess the last one that really surprised me in those prehistoric days of the eighties was Tom Hanks.  Years later when he was winning back to back Oscars and playing astronauts and World War II captains under pressure, people marvelled at his transformation but I remember seeing it first in Nothing in Common.  It’s not remembered much these days but it was a real departure for Hanks at the time and I think he acquitted himself well.  He held his own against Jackie Gleason (no small feat) and Eva Marie Saint and took his first tentative steps towards drama.  When he started playing the heavier stuff in the nineties, I wasn’t surprised, for once.

There are many, many others from so many other movies throughout the years but these were the first ones that really blindsided me.  There have been more since and will be more in the future.  A good actor, or director, knows when it’s time to try something knew and it works even better if no one sees it coming.

34 Responses I Didn’t See That Coming: Playing Against Type in the 1980s
Posted By PaulDBrazill : February 10, 2013 2:14 pm

Great article. Got me thinking about others like Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell Of Success.

Posted By PaulDBrazill : February 10, 2013 2:14 pm

Great article. Got me thinking about others like Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell Of Success.

Posted By Arthur : February 10, 2013 3:01 pm

Fascinating topic! Actors like Cary Grant, though, could always do both comedy and drama. Shirley MacLaine had earlier taken a serious turn in THE APARTMENT and had a serious undertone in SOME CAME RUNNING. And, yes, Jerry Lewis displayed a remarkably split personality in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. As for Hitchcock, his first two films were quite artistic, but did not sell. So he knew that in his next film he had to make something very commercial to save his career and went into thrillers.

Posted By Arthur : February 10, 2013 3:01 pm

Fascinating topic! Actors like Cary Grant, though, could always do both comedy and drama. Shirley MacLaine had earlier taken a serious turn in THE APARTMENT and had a serious undertone in SOME CAME RUNNING. And, yes, Jerry Lewis displayed a remarkably split personality in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. As for Hitchcock, his first two films were quite artistic, but did not sell. So he knew that in his next film he had to make something very commercial to save his career and went into thrillers.

Posted By Emgee : February 10, 2013 4:48 pm

Who thought Jack Lemmon, he/she of Some Like it Hot and Irma La Douce fame could do serious drama? How about a nuclear meltdown ( China Syndrome) or looking for his son in Missing?
Bet not many people saw that coming, although in fairness he already played an alcolic in Days Of Wine and Roses.
Still, many people will remember him as a comic actor.

Posted By Emgee : February 10, 2013 4:48 pm

Who thought Jack Lemmon, he/she of Some Like it Hot and Irma La Douce fame could do serious drama? How about a nuclear meltdown ( China Syndrome) or looking for his son in Missing?
Bet not many people saw that coming, although in fairness he already played an alcolic in Days Of Wine and Roses.
Still, many people will remember him as a comic actor.

Posted By Richard B : February 10, 2013 6:01 pm

Hey. Walter Matthau only directed one movie, too, you know. But who does everyone always remember?

At least one writer at AMERICAN FILM thought Sandra Bernhard was a lock for a nomination for KING OF COMEDY, too. But the sad truth is the movie barely saw a release, and that put the kibosh to any of its chances.

Was it Pauline Kael who described FALLING IN LOVE as like watching rwo bodybuilders lift toothpicks? I thought the real surprise was when Meryl Streep turned to comedy in SHE DEVIL and blew Roseanne off the screen.

Other women have made surprising graduations to dramatic actress, of course, from Jane Fonda to Sally Field to Mo’nique.

Back in the day, Billy Wilder was famous for casting against type such light romantic comedy leading men as Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray. There’s often another side to these stories, though: everyone else had turned the part down. (Humphrey Bogart got famous on George Raft’s discards, just like Richard Gere did on John Travolta’s.)

Posted By Richard B : February 10, 2013 6:01 pm

Hey. Walter Matthau only directed one movie, too, you know. But who does everyone always remember?

At least one writer at AMERICAN FILM thought Sandra Bernhard was a lock for a nomination for KING OF COMEDY, too. But the sad truth is the movie barely saw a release, and that put the kibosh to any of its chances.

Was it Pauline Kael who described FALLING IN LOVE as like watching rwo bodybuilders lift toothpicks? I thought the real surprise was when Meryl Streep turned to comedy in SHE DEVIL and blew Roseanne off the screen.

Other women have made surprising graduations to dramatic actress, of course, from Jane Fonda to Sally Field to Mo’nique.

Back in the day, Billy Wilder was famous for casting against type such light romantic comedy leading men as Ray Milland and Fred MacMurray. There’s often another side to these stories, though: everyone else had turned the part down. (Humphrey Bogart got famous on George Raft’s discards, just like Richard Gere did on John Travolta’s.)

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 11, 2013 10:41 am

As to Ray Milland, he starred in Wilder’s first American movie that Wilder got to direct, The Major and the Minor. Wilder was wanting Cary Grant for the part of Major Kirby, but happened to be out driving one day and stopped at a red light. Milland happened to pull up at the same lignt, next to Wilder’s car. Wilder called over to Milland and asked him if he wanted to be in the movie he was getting ready to direct and Milland said,”Sure!” So, that’s how he was cast as Major Kirby. I am assuming that since they worked well together in the film, that when Wilder was approaching The Lost Weekend, he knew that Milland would be able to do that part.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 11, 2013 10:41 am

As to Ray Milland, he starred in Wilder’s first American movie that Wilder got to direct, The Major and the Minor. Wilder was wanting Cary Grant for the part of Major Kirby, but happened to be out driving one day and stopped at a red light. Milland happened to pull up at the same lignt, next to Wilder’s car. Wilder called over to Milland and asked him if he wanted to be in the movie he was getting ready to direct and Milland said,”Sure!” So, that’s how he was cast as Major Kirby. I am assuming that since they worked well together in the film, that when Wilder was approaching The Lost Weekend, he knew that Milland would be able to do that part.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 11, 2013 10:46 am

A bit of against type, but actress Agnes Moorehead comes to my mind, for her parts in two different mediums. When I first saw her in films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, she played quiet women, one a bit more emotional than the other, but still quiet women, in the background of the main plot, in the background of the main characters’ lives. However, enter the 1960s and the television comedy Bewitched, and she was the fabulous, colorful,and funny “witch” mother of Samantha, mother-in-law to Darren. She was loud and proud, so to speak, and a delightful character. In fact, if she ever pops up in an older film I happen to be watching, my husband will always remark,”Endora!!”

Posted By jennifromrollamo : February 11, 2013 10:46 am

A bit of against type, but actress Agnes Moorehead comes to my mind, for her parts in two different mediums. When I first saw her in films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, she played quiet women, one a bit more emotional than the other, but still quiet women, in the background of the main plot, in the background of the main characters’ lives. However, enter the 1960s and the television comedy Bewitched, and she was the fabulous, colorful,and funny “witch” mother of Samantha, mother-in-law to Darren. She was loud and proud, so to speak, and a delightful character. In fact, if she ever pops up in an older film I happen to be watching, my husband will always remark,”Endora!!”

Posted By Andrew : February 11, 2013 11:55 am

You referenced Jack Nicholson but the role I found completely against type was in “About Schmidt”.

I would also throw out Adam Sandler “Punch Drunk Love” amd then later in “Reign Over Me”.

Posted By Andrew : February 11, 2013 11:55 am

You referenced Jack Nicholson but the role I found completely against type was in “About Schmidt”.

I would also throw out Adam Sandler “Punch Drunk Love” amd then later in “Reign Over Me”.

Posted By Jeb : February 11, 2013 1:47 pm

A recent “playing against type” that immediately comes to my mind is Adam Sandler in PT Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Did anyone see that one coming? I recommend this movie to many friends who have not seen it just because they thought it was just another “Adam Sandler movie”.

Posted By Jeb : February 11, 2013 1:47 pm

A recent “playing against type” that immediately comes to my mind is Adam Sandler in PT Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Did anyone see that one coming? I recommend this movie to many friends who have not seen it just because they thought it was just another “Adam Sandler movie”.

Posted By Doug : February 11, 2013 3:07 pm

Bruce Willis can’t be considered one to ‘play against type’ because he is both a comedic type and a dramatic type.
It was a bit of a revelation when comedian Jim Carrey started turning in fine dramatic performances, but Willis from the beginning has done both well.

Posted By Doug : February 11, 2013 3:07 pm

Bruce Willis can’t be considered one to ‘play against type’ because he is both a comedic type and a dramatic type.
It was a bit of a revelation when comedian Jim Carrey started turning in fine dramatic performances, but Willis from the beginning has done both well.

Posted By swac44 : February 11, 2013 5:20 pm

I was thinking something similar about comic actor Chris Tucker, who has a small but enjoyable role in the recent Oscar contender Silver Linings Playbook. Most people probably know him as a loudmouth cop in the Rush Hour series with Jackie Chan, but I was reminded of some fine work that he did in the Hughes brothers’ crime thriller Dead Presidents. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in more demanding parts (or serious parts that have comedic undertones).

Posted By swac44 : February 11, 2013 5:20 pm

I was thinking something similar about comic actor Chris Tucker, who has a small but enjoyable role in the recent Oscar contender Silver Linings Playbook. Most people probably know him as a loudmouth cop in the Rush Hour series with Jackie Chan, but I was reminded of some fine work that he did in the Hughes brothers’ crime thriller Dead Presidents. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of him in more demanding parts (or serious parts that have comedic undertones).

Posted By DBenson : February 11, 2013 7:07 pm

Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein.” Had he done any comedy at that point?

Posted By DBenson : February 11, 2013 7:07 pm

Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein.” Had he done any comedy at that point?

Posted By Richard B : February 11, 2013 9:16 pm

The Wilder/Milland story reminds me of the one about Charlton Heston having the effrontery to wave at Cecil B. DeMille as the great man was driving onto the Paramount lot, which piqued DeMille’s curiosity, which led to him casting Heston in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which led to him casting Heston again in “The Ten Commandments,” which certainly couldn’t have hurt Heston’s chances of being cast in “Ben Hur.” Which raises the question: Would anyone who saw Heston in “Dark City” have pictured him as Moses?

Posted By Richard B : February 11, 2013 9:16 pm

The Wilder/Milland story reminds me of the one about Charlton Heston having the effrontery to wave at Cecil B. DeMille as the great man was driving onto the Paramount lot, which piqued DeMille’s curiosity, which led to him casting Heston in “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which led to him casting Heston again in “The Ten Commandments,” which certainly couldn’t have hurt Heston’s chances of being cast in “Ben Hur.” Which raises the question: Would anyone who saw Heston in “Dark City” have pictured him as Moses?

Posted By Richard B : February 12, 2013 5:30 am

Heavens, speaking of the Eighties, how could I have forgotten the comic turns by Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen as parodies of their iconic Fifties selves in AIRPLANE? Nielsen milked this for far longer than his counterparts; his reinvention of himself as a comic leading man effectively gave him an entire second career late in life, even if I personally think he was never better than as deadpan Frank Drebbin in POLICE SQUAD (by the first NAKED GUN movie they were already amping up the mugging a little bit).

Posted By Richard B : February 12, 2013 5:30 am

Heavens, speaking of the Eighties, how could I have forgotten the comic turns by Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges and Leslie Nielsen as parodies of their iconic Fifties selves in AIRPLANE? Nielsen milked this for far longer than his counterparts; his reinvention of himself as a comic leading man effectively gave him an entire second career late in life, even if I personally think he was never better than as deadpan Frank Drebbin in POLICE SQUAD (by the first NAKED GUN movie they were already amping up the mugging a little bit).

Posted By swac44 : February 12, 2013 8:58 am

I don’t think Hackman had done an out-and-out comedy when he had his cameo in Young Frankenstein, although there were comic elements to some of his previous roles (I’m thinking of his sausage-making gangster Mary Ann in Prime Cut at the moment).

In fact, just last week Marc Maron’s WTF podcast featured a lengthy chat with Mel Brooks that’s well worth hearing (plus a follow-up interview with Carl Reiner a couple of days later). He talks about how Hackman was a good friend of Gene Wilder’s, and asked him if there was anything in the film that he could do, and as luck would have it they hadn’t cast the blind hermit part yet. Talk about a coup!

Here’s the podcast: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_358_-_mel_brooks

Posted By swac44 : February 12, 2013 8:58 am

I don’t think Hackman had done an out-and-out comedy when he had his cameo in Young Frankenstein, although there were comic elements to some of his previous roles (I’m thinking of his sausage-making gangster Mary Ann in Prime Cut at the moment).

In fact, just last week Marc Maron’s WTF podcast featured a lengthy chat with Mel Brooks that’s well worth hearing (plus a follow-up interview with Carl Reiner a couple of days later). He talks about how Hackman was a good friend of Gene Wilder’s, and asked him if there was anything in the film that he could do, and as luck would have it they hadn’t cast the blind hermit part yet. Talk about a coup!

Here’s the podcast: http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episodes/episode_358_-_mel_brooks

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 12, 2013 9:03 am

Leslie Nielsen was definitely an about-face for me, too. In AIRPLANE and POLICE SQUAD he’s perfectly deadpan but I never enjoy the NAKED GUN movies as much because he starting performing more like he thought he was Jerry Lewis when what made him funny was his absolutely unchanging expression.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 12, 2013 9:03 am

Leslie Nielsen was definitely an about-face for me, too. In AIRPLANE and POLICE SQUAD he’s perfectly deadpan but I never enjoy the NAKED GUN movies as much because he starting performing more like he thought he was Jerry Lewis when what made him funny was his absolutely unchanging expression.

Posted By jbryant : February 15, 2013 5:52 pm

As swac44 mentioned, Hackman showed some comic chops in roles prior to Young Frankenstein. In fact, speaking of Gene Wilder, Bonnie and Clyde has a comic scene featuring Wilder and Hackman (“Don’t sell that cow!”).

Another ’80s against-type performance that comes to mind is Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People.

Posted By jbryant : February 15, 2013 5:52 pm

As swac44 mentioned, Hackman showed some comic chops in roles prior to Young Frankenstein. In fact, speaking of Gene Wilder, Bonnie and Clyde has a comic scene featuring Wilder and Hackman (“Don’t sell that cow!”).

Another ’80s against-type performance that comes to mind is Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:09 pm

As a child of the 70′s and 80′s, seeing Leslie Nielsen in something dramatic was the about-face for me. I grew up watching Airplane!, Police Squad and later The Naked Gun. When I eventually saw Forbidden Planet and The Swamp Fox many years later, that surprised me.

I remember Tom Hanks doing a dramatic turn as Meredith Baxter Birney’s alcoholic brother on Family Ties after being a faithful fan of his goofy hijinks on Bosom Buddies. I still miss the goofball Tom Hanks that starred in Bachelor Party, Splash and The Money Pit. He just seems to make such serious movies all of the time now (the Toy Story movies notwithstanding). It’s a shame, because he was such a great comedic actor.

Posted By robbushblog : February 17, 2013 1:09 pm

As a child of the 70′s and 80′s, seeing Leslie Nielsen in something dramatic was the about-face for me. I grew up watching Airplane!, Police Squad and later The Naked Gun. When I eventually saw Forbidden Planet and The Swamp Fox many years later, that surprised me.

I remember Tom Hanks doing a dramatic turn as Meredith Baxter Birney’s alcoholic brother on Family Ties after being a faithful fan of his goofy hijinks on Bosom Buddies. I still miss the goofball Tom Hanks that starred in Bachelor Party, Splash and The Money Pit. He just seems to make such serious movies all of the time now (the Toy Story movies notwithstanding). It’s a shame, because he was such a great comedic actor.

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