For the first time ever, we're scared of Albert Brooks.
This week, Albert Brooks makes a welcome return to the screen as a lethal Jewish mobster in Drive — which may seem like a strange casting choice to those familiar with the comedian's roles as the nebbish reporter in Broadcast News or the neurotic fish in Finding Nemo. But as the following list illustrates, the same fear and loathing that so often fuels great comic performances can also create genuinely scary cinematic villains.
1. Bill Murray, Mad Dog and Glory (1993)
The premise sounds like a Saturday Night Live gag: timid Robert De Niro cowering fearfully in the presence of a menacing Bill Murray. But the role reversal works surprisingly well in John McNaughton's underworld love story about a lonely civil servant attempting to rescue a young woman named Glory (Uma Thurman) from the clutches of a Chicago mob boss (who also dreams of "killing" as a stand-up comic). Murray, a notorious brawler in his younger days, has always had the cocky swagger of a guy used to getting what he wants, so when he finally drops the smirk and screams that he "owns" Glory, chances are you'd cower, too.
2. Mo'Nique, Precious (2009)
Mo'Nique pulls no punches in her gritty stand-up (like 2007's I Coulda Been Your Cellmate, performed at a women's prison in Ohio). But even so, few were prepared for the actual punches (not to mention the television) she threw in her Oscar-winning performance as the monstrous mother in Lee Daniels' drama. Some critics were deeply moved by the film, while others slammed it as exploitive melodrama, yet Mo'Nique's pitiful, pathological Mary clearly made an indelible impression that qualifies her for inclusion (alongside Mrs. Bates and Mommie Dearest) in the Bad Mama Hall of Fame.
3. Rodney Dangerfield, Natural Born Killers (1994)
And speaking of terrible parents… Oliver Stone's controversial tale of spree-killers Mickey and Mallory was filled with disturbing images, but the most shocking of all may have been the sight of Rodney Dangerfield in a dirty wife-beater as Juliette Lewis' physically and sexually abusive father, Ed. The fact that the scene unfolds as a hellish sitcom parody (complete with inappropriate laugh track) only makes the brutality of the performance more grotesque.
4. Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner (1997)
Steve Martin is a smart, talented guy who could easily spend the rest of his career making cool films with interesting directors. Why he chooses instead to waste most of his time on mediocre crap like Cheaper By The Dozen 2 is a pop-culture mystery for the ages, especially after you watch his performance as a ruthless con man in The Spanish Prisoner. Perhaps owing to his supposedly aloof off-screen persona, Martin generally seems more at home in cool noir than warmed-over family mush, and his ease with David Mamet's rat-a-tat bad guy banter makes you wonder if he's been conning us with the nice-guy shtick all along.
5. Robin Williams, Insomnia / Death to Smoochy / One Hour Photo (2002)
While Steve Martin's crappier film roles seem to result from some kind of cynical lowest-common-denominator calculation, I always get the feeling Robin Williams simply doesn't know any better: he's just the kind of guy who honestly thinks Patch Adams was good. At the same time, Williams' dark side has always been right there on his sleeve with the rest of his emotions, and when he chose to let it run wild in 2002 (playing a teen-murdering crime novelist, a psychopathic kids' show host, and a creepy stalker in quick succession), the cumulative effect was downright chilling.
6. Sandra Bernhard, The King of Comedy (1983)
During an interview with Sandra Bernhard on a recent edition of his WTF podcast, Marc Maron admitted his surprise that the comic chanteuse (and former Madonna BFF) was, in fact, nothing like the angry, borderline deranged stalker she played in Martin Scorsese's film about obsessed fans kidnapping a Johnny Carson-esque talk show host (portrayed by the equally iconic Jerry Lewis). Indeed, like Anthony Perkins before her, Bernhard apparently learned the hard way that playing a psycho to perfection can sometimes have unintended consequences.