Gilbey on Film: being serious

Thoughts about comic actors turning straight.

There's a special frisson when a performer renowned for comedy goes straight. I didn't feel it when the stand-up comic John Bishop popped up as the hero's murdered chum in the flashback scenes during Ken Loach's Route Irish, but that's only because a mixture of luck and careful planning has enabled me to avoid that species of TV comedy show on which Bishop has appeared -- Live at the Apollo, 8 Out of 10 Cats, and all the other ones that you can watch for three or four minutes before the urge to grind broken glass into your eyes becomes irresistible.

I recognise his larky lad persona, and I can see why Loach used him: Bishop emphasises the present-tense chirpiness, rather than making the character a living portent of the tragedy which is to befall him. Besides, the director has a history of looking to the stand-up circuit and the working men's clubs of the north for his actors, among them Bruce Jones (star of Loach's Raining Stones, and later a Coronation Street regular) and Crissy Rock (who played the lead in the harrowing Ladybird, Ladybird).

With more established comics who bring the baggage of their previous work, the change of tone can be jarring; it may not always work, it may even capsize the film, but there's a unique tension for us in watching a performer from whom we expect warmth or humour, only to find those qualities absent or mangled. Maybe Stanley Kubrick was just having a terrific wheeze when he entertained the idea of casting Steve Martin in the role that eventually went to Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. But he was undoubtedly prescient -- that was back in the late 1970s, when Martin's only leading film role had been in his delirious vehicle The Jerk, yet Kubrick must have seen in his mania something fraught that could be used to serve dramatic material. Sure enough, Martin was outstanding a year or two later in the rhapsodic movie version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven.

Cut to a decade on and other directors (along with Martin himself) came round fully to the idea of him as a "straight" actor, with the comic playing earnest in Grand Canyon, untrustworthy in Leap of Faith and subtly chilling in David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. Is it the proximity of comedy and aggression (comics "slay" or "kill" their audiences, after all) that makes it strangely appropriate when comedians not only turn serious, but get sinister with it?

There are rebranding opportunities, to be sure. Robin Williams seemed pretty much spent as a comic actor before he relaunched himself as a nasty piece of work in a toxic hat-trick of movies (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, One-Hour Photo). Those pictures prompted half the audience to marvel that they had no idea he could be so creepy, and the other half to exclaim: "So you didn't see Patch Adams, then?" Even if that defection to the dark side didn't stick, its residue could be felt recently in Williams's work in the pleasingly unpleasant black comedy World's Greatest Dad.

Likewise, Adam Sandler's career didn't take a turn for the avant-garde after Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a wuss with a temper in Punch-Drunk Love, but it's nice to think it let some fresh air into his persona, and allowed him to accept that he didn't always have to be the guy with whom moviegoers would most like to have a pint (see Funny People for another example of how fine Sandler can be when he's not sending valentines to the audience).

It must be galling that comedy is so rarely rewarded or even acknowledged by the award-winning bodies. Despite more than 20 years of devilishly inspired comic performances, Bill Murray never got within sniffing distance of an Oscar until he landed a Best Actor nomination for his melancholy work in Lost in Translation. I wouldn't claim Dan Aykroyd as Murray's comic equal but it's striking that he too was noticed only once he'd notched up some respectable, "real" acting in Driving Miss Daisy.

Will Ferrell has voiced his irritation with this divide between comedy and drama, where all the recognition goes to the latter. He put his case most eloquently in a song he performed with Jack Black and John C Reilly at the 2007 Academy awards ceremony. It began with Ferrell reciting: "A comedian at the Oscars/ Is the saddest man of all/ Your movies may make millions/ But your name they'll never call," and ended with him resolving to play "a guy with no arms and legs/ Who teaches gang-bangers Hamlet." Somewhere in between, he imagined dining with Jeremy Irons, then threatened to break Ryan Gosling's hips.

As with most comedy, it was deadly serious in intent. He told me: "I don't think the producers of the show even got what we were doing. They were backstage saying, 'Oh, that was lovely. Very funny.' They didn't realise every word was true."

Comedians are bitter and unhappy. This much we know. But it's rare that they reveal that side of themselves on screen. When they do, it can be deeply unsettling, chiming as it does with those moments in childhood when a cherished and apparently good-humoured parent shows a darker aspect to their character. Sometimes the sourness is already so present in their comedy that it isn't hugely jarring to find that it translates well to drama -- was anyone really surprised that Murray could play a bullying, insecure mob boss in Mad Dog and Glory?

That familiarity isn't always a shock absorber. I wonder if I will ever forget the sight of James Bolam, a fixture from my childhood thanks to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, playing an avuncular pimp in the gloomy British film Stella Does Tricks. Bolam's appeal was always mildly unsavoury, but it was inspired casting to imagine him as this predatory monster. He plays it like a cross between Michael Caine in Mona Lisa, Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanours and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He oozes ugliness; after his scenes, you feel like scrubbing yourself clean. Part of the disgust is inevitably bound up with his past life as a Likely Lad. You look at him and you think: "Oh, Terry..."

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.