8 Former Sitcom Stars With Oscar Buzz This Fall

By  · Published on September 15th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

It’s an understood rule of comedic actors that they can all do drama, as well. Comedy is harder, of course. But then not every comedic actor is truly an actor. Not every comedic performance is about more than good line readings and having the necessary timing to tell a joke. Stand-up comedians often get starring gigs on sitcoms, but that doesn’t mean they’ll wind up with an Oscar nomination someday. (Sorry, Sinbad.) Those who do end up with Academy recognition are those who were always set to shine on the big screen and wound up on TV as a short little detour along the way. Jennifer Lawrence, for example. And Tom Hanks. And Leonardo DiCaprio. But there are also former TV comedy stars who do great work in dramatic movies and never garner Oscar attention, and then they have to go back and do a Dumb and Dumber sequel.

There is hope and buzz for quite a few former sitcom stars this fall. They could join the likes of Helen Hunt, George Clooney, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Mo’Nique, Sandra Bullock, Marisa Tomei, Will Smith, Diahann Carroll, Woody Harrelson, John Travolta, Judd Hirsch, Thomas Haden Church, Patty Duke, Pat Morita, Kate Winslet, Billy Bob Thornton, Jamie Foxx and Robin Williams. I’m sure I’m forgetting some others (and not even thinking of all the variety TV players like George Burns, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Cher and Goldie Hawn). Or they could be the next Jim Carrey. Check out the funny TV vets said to be in contention now that the Toronto International Film Festival has spewed out a number of this year’s awards candidates.

Jennifer Aniston (Best Actress) — Still best known for her role on Friends (and star of the Ferris Bueller sitcom before that), Aniston went through a little phase early this century where it seemed like she’d continue to do great things on the big screen. That mainly came with The Good Girl, for which she received critical praise and an Independent Spirit Award nomination. But outside of starring in a Nicole Holofcener movie a few years later, she has stuck mainly with bad comedies until now. With Cake, she lets her looks go a bit and the result is what Kate Erbland calls “the definition of ‘awards bait’” with a role the actress must have expected to receive Oscar buzz. Others are more kind, though, with Deadline’s Pete Hammond saying the performance is “game-changing” and “should be Aniston’s Monster or Monster’s Ball – or even Dallas Buyers Club.” Now the movie just needs a distributor to release the thing for consideration.

Steve Carell (Best Actor) — One of two Daily Show alumni receiving awards buzz this fall (host Jon Stewart for writing and directing Rosewater), the former star of The Office has played in the dramatic sandbox before, but with Foxcatcher he seems genuinely interested in being taken seriously. He even wore a prosthetic nose to prove it. From Cannes, William Goss assured us that his turn as real life eccentric millionaire John Du Pont has the goods: “as a means of disrupting his widely accepted image as a comedian, it allows for an impressive turn filled with understated desperation and domination.”

Michael Keaton (Best Actor) — Keaton might not be remembered for TV work, but after getting his start with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and some one-off roles on major primetime shows such as Maude, he got his first big break starring in his own sitcom, shared with John Belushi, titled Working Stiffs. It was quickly canceled and he moved onto movies right away, though he nearly quit in those early days. More recently, he’s again been less of a star than he should be, and with Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) he apparently shines in a meta role playing a former superhero actor (a la himself in Batman) looking to resurrect his career. Peter DeBruge of Variety calls it “the comeback of the century.” That’s often the sort of thing the Academy loves.

J.K. Simmons (Best Supporting Actor) — If we’re to remember Simmons as a TV actor first, the more appropriate series to reference is either Oz or The Closer, maybe even Law & Order, each of them dramas, but the actor starred in a short-lived sitcom last season. You may have already hopefully forgotten Growing Up Fisher, in which he played a blind father for some borderline Mr. Magoo humor. For those having trouble wiping it from memory, his performance in the continued festival darling Whiplash ought to do the trick. From Sundance, Rob called it his “most intense and enthralling” yet.

John Goodman (Best Supporting Actor) — Despite being memorable in movies beforehand and afterward, those both comedy and drama, Goodman is forever going to have Roseanne at the top of his bio. Maybe one day he can receive an Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, or perhaps he can actually get a nomination someday. He earned awards and critical attention for supporting roles in the past, namely in Coen Brothers works such as Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis. Now, although nobody has seen it yet, Goodman is on lists of potential nominees for the upcoming remake of The Gambler directed by Rupert Wyatt. We’ll cross our fingers and wait and see.

Adam Sandler (Best Supporting Actor) — Don’t put any money on this one, but at least one outlet has named Sandler (who got his start on The Cosby Show before Saturday Night Live, let’s not forget) as a dark horse contender for his role in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. And there’s reason for that to be backed up, with The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth calling him “pitch perfect … with a realistic weariness” and Mike Ryan calling it his “most understated performance” and celebrating that he “gives a shit again.” However, it might not be showy enough to have the Academy caring.

Elizabeth Banks (Best Supporting Actress) — Another dark horse is this Scrubs and 30 Rock co-star, who is having an interesting year between her multiple festival films, lead voice work in The Lego Movie, an upcoming reprisal of her Hunger Games character, her filming Pitch Perfect 2, which is her directorial debut, and now some gracious marks out of Toronto for Love & Mercy. Kate wrote that she “demonstrates solid dramatic chops” and “makes out quite well, infusing her layered performance as Wilson’s second wife Melinda with humor and humanity.”

Emma Stone (Best Supporting Actress) — Technically, Stone was the “star” (aka a contestant) of a reality competition program (In Search of the Partridge Family), and a nomination would disturbingly not make her the first person to come out of such a start (see Jennifer Hudson). But that program won her a role on a sitcom – The New Partridge Family, which didn’t go beyond the pilot stage, but still. She is riding the wave of awards buzz Keaton is on with Birdman, and Jessica Kiang of The Playlist pushes her to its crest, claiming the actrefs is “maybe the best she’s ever been, delivering a snarling monologue at one point that is basically a manifesto for the modern millennial, and then tempering it with a tiny beat at the end that kinda deserves an Oscar all by itself.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.