Everybody's making a big deal of Denzel Washington's first foray into funny with this week's opening of the action comedy "2 Guns."
It may be a big deal for a two-time Oscar winner like Washington, but it's not a big deal in Hollywood.
Actors work tirelessly for years to be taken seriously, and as soon as they're taken seriously, they whine that nobody will let them do comedy. You think that all actors want to direct? Believe me, it's a bigger cliche that all dramatic actors want to do comedy. It's almost as big a cliche as comedic actors who want to do drama.
With a few exceptions (Bill Murray, Robin Williams and Will Ferrell, to name three), comedians rarely make the leap successfully.
Dramatic actors, on the other hand, have had an easier time of it, and I suspect it's because they are better actors than comedians, so they know how to act funny.
Washington's co-star in "2 Guns" is a prime example.
Once he got out of prison and finished his silly music and modeling careers, Mark Wahlberg did everything in his power to be taken seriously. He not only starred in serious fare like "The Departed," "Boogie Nights" and "The Perfect Storm," but he has become a powerful Hollywood producer (HBO's "Entourage" and "Boardwalk Empire.")
When he teamed with Will Ferrell on "The Other Guys," he demonstrated a real flair for comedy, which no doubt led to being cast in the monster hit "Ted."
Washington was the comedy novice this time, and he held his own with Wahlberg. After "Malcolm X," "The Hurricane" and "Training Day," it was a little unsettling to see Denzel making jokes but he is good enough to pull it off.
Leslie Nielsen was one of the first dramatic actors to cross over when he was cast against type in the comedy "Airplane!" And don't call him Shirley.
There are many others, including Christopher Walken ("Biloxi Blues"), Jeff Bridges ("The Big Lebowski") and Tom Cruise (as Les Grossman in "Tropic Thunder").
Robert De Niro, whose career could be categorized as "intense," broke through to comedy in the 1999 film "Analyze This," not only proving himself a comic actor but mocking his screen image at the same time. He may have gone overboard in the aftermath of his laugh-filled euphoria ("Meet the Fockers"), but if anyone deserves to make bad comedies, it's De Niro.
Another actor who gets a free pass on any role is Meryl Streep. She can make as many "She-Devils" as she likes, and I will forgive her.
In a four-year stretch ending in 1982, Streep pretty much killed any hope of a comedy career. Of course, those same four years established her as the greatest actress of her generation. Who could argue with her work in "The Deer Hunter," "Kramer vs. Kramer," "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Sophie's Choice"?
Years later, Streep told me that she certainly wasn't complaining about what those films did for her career, but she did regret that the movie industry pigeonholed her as a serious actress and wouldn't send her comedy scripts.
And she said she definitely wanted to stretch herself with funnier roles. She has always loved to laugh, and has a reputation for appreciating a good joke.
With that in mind, I walked into her hotel suite with a small tape recorder in my pocket. I sat down beside her on a sofa and we chatted for a few moments before the start of the interview. Finally, she asked: "Don't you have a tape recorder?'
I shook my head no.
"What about a notepad?"
I shook my head.
"Well, how will you remember what I said?"
"Don't worry," I said, keeping a straight face. "I have a great memory."
There were a few moments of embarrassing silence that must have seemed like an eternity to the three-time Oscar winner. I just stared at her blankly, and she had a look of genuine panic. Even an actress like Streep couldn't hide her emotions. Movie stars feel better when they see a tape recorder. Otherwise, they worry that the interviewer will make up quotes.
When I felt the joke had sufficiently played it itself out, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my tape recorder.
The best actress in Hollywood stared at the tape recorder in shock. A slight smile quickly elevated to giggles and eventually full-out, snorting, shoulder-shaking guffaws. Then she fell off the sofa and rolled around the floor laughing.
I have been a big Meryl Streep fan ever since. There are not a lot of Hollywood stars who could handle being the butt of a joke, and even fewer who would risk their reputation as a serious actress by falling off a sofa.
After "Mamma Mia!" and "It's Complicated," filmmakers know she can handle any role _ with or without the laughs.
Barry Koltnow: email@example.com
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