5 Great Performances By Actors Playing Against Type
Mere days apart, the acting community lost two great actors in Ernest Borgnine and Andy Griffith. Both men enjoyed success on the big and small screen, but they were also both known for having a standout film role that found them playing against type.
Many actors find a groove for themselves and then stay in it for the duration of their careers. Yes, there are a few chameleons out there, but it’s far more typical to see a certain actor and immediately define him or her as the Action Star or the Romantic Lead. Often watching an actor break out the confines of their “type” can be exhilarating. There is almost a sense that we’re seeing them for the first time again as they embody a character that is completely new. The challenge of defying audience expectations can bring out the best in an actor, as it did for each of the five actors on this list.
At the beginning of his career, Ernest Borgnine often found himself playing the villain. He had the look thanks to his stocky, somewhat imposing build, but then along came Marty, a film that gave Borgnine the opportunity to play not just the lead, but the romantic lead. His performance as the lovelorn Marty is both sweet and deeply authentic. Borgnine completely sells both the loneliness that hangs over Marty like a cloud at the beginning of the film and his pure elation when he realizes he has found his perfect match at the film’s end. Happily, Marty put Borgnine’s career on a new path, leading him away from the villainous heavies to play a long string of terrific, multifaceted characters in film and on television.
Andy Griffith was known for playing the wholesome sheriff of Mayberry when he took on the role of Larry Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. Rhodes is a simple country man who is sprung from jail because of his singing voice and turned into a commodity, a theme that resonates even more now than it did when the film was released.
Rhodes is light-years away from the wise and gentle Andy Taylor. He’s uncouth, but charismatic and as the story progresses he becomes increasingly morally bankrupt. It was a daring role for Griffith to take on and it was the first (and pretty much the last) time audiences got to see the full breadth of Griffith’s talents.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wasn’t Jim Carrey’s first foray into dramatic territory, but it did mark the purest departure from his funny man persona that he had taken up to that point. Carrey is known for his energy and expressive face. He usually bounds his way through films like a human Labrador Retriever eager to do anything for a laugh.
As the sad and withdrawn Joel, Carrey is completely devoid of his usual exuberant personality. Instead he delivers a performance that is almost haunting in its quiet sincerity. Joel’s desperation first to forget then to remember is palpable throughout. Even with the terrific The Truman Show under his belt, it was shocking to see Carrey pull off such a grownup role so seamlessly.
Despite the fact that one of his first major film roles was as a murderer, James Stewart became known as the ultimate nice guy. Thanks to films like Harvey, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life, Stewart became defined by his affable personality. However, even at his most self-sacrificial in It’s A Wonderful Life, there is an intensity simmering just below the surface of Stewart’s performance and it’s that intensity that director Alfred Hitchcock tapped into in Vertigo.
Any of the collaborations between Hitchcock and Stewart could have landed on this list for the way they pushed Stewart beyond his comfort zone, but Vertigo pushed him the furthest. As Scottie, the acrophobic cop, Stewart embodied a character whose obsession with his dead wife ultimately leads him to attempt to transform another woman into her, even going so far as to insist she change her hair and wardrobe. It is an unsettling film, one that leaves the viewer feeling off-kilter for many reasons, but primarily because it’s so disorienting to see the nicest guy in Hollywood heading into such creepy territory.
Prior to The Dark Knight, Ledger was known almost exclusively as a romantic lead in films aimed squarely at the teenage demographic. A few dramatic roles in indie films like Candy and Monster’s Ball hinted at the actor’s range, but as far as most viewers were concerned he was still a romantic figure. It seemed odd then that Ledger of all people would be cast as the psychotic villain The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film.
Any fears Batman fans may have initially had were dispelled the minute Ledger appeared onscreen. His usual heartthrob persona was nowhere to be found as the actor completely disappeared into The Joker, delivering one of the most chilling performances of all time. Sadly, Ledger passed away before the film’s release, but his work in The Dark Knight still earned him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
I would love to hear which against type performances have surprised you the most over the years. Share your favorites in the comments!
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