Jan. 24, 2014 at 4:24 AM ET
"Dying is easy, comedy is hard," goes the old show biz cliché. Unless you're looking for an Oscar, of course. That's when comedians face death, disease, and hardship, without cracking a joke. Because as Oscar reminds again and again, comedy just doesn't get you much appreciation when you're up against Meryl Streep as Britain's first female prime minister or Daniel Day Lewis transforming himself into a legendary (and doomed) American president.
This year, Matthew McConaughey picked up his first Oscar nomination by applying his easy charm to a reckless Texan gaunt with AIDS in "Dallas Buyers Club," erasing memories of his tired rom-coms in the process. And he's not the only comedy veteran who got the Academy's attention by turning to drama.
Jonah Hill, best known for goofing his way through Judd Apatow comedies, picks up his second Oscar nomination for his offbeat turn in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," a labor-of-love role he took just so he could work with his directing hero. Though previously nominated for playing a nerdy statistician in "Moneyball," this one still took him by surprise: "I am in complete and total shock," read Hill's official statement. "I honestly was not expecting this, on a level you can't even imagine." (The 30-year-old actor will be able to flex his comedy chops again this weekend when he hosts "Saturday Night Live.")
And Amy Adams, who spoofed Disney princesses in "Enchanted," continues her transformation into a dramatic powerhouse with her fourth nomination, this time as a con artist in "American Hustle."
They are just the latest in a long tradition of performers who found success making people laugh, but turned to drama to get Oscar attention.
Remember when Tom Hanks, the nicest guy in Hollywood, was also America's favorite funny everyman in films "Splash," "Big" and "A League of Their Own"? He was likable, relatable, and effortlessly funny — the closest thing this generation has to Jimmy Stewart. But it wasn't until 1993, when he brought his warmth and authenticity to the sobering role of a man dying of AIDS in "Philadelphia," that he won his first of two Academy Awards for best actor. Hanks won critical raves for his turn in this year's "Captain Phillips" and emerged on nomination day as one of the Academy's leading snubs.
Sandra Bullock's comedy chops and tomboyish charm charged up everything from "Speed" to "The Heat," but after years of playing the girlfriend, she became a tough, protective mom in "The Blind Side" (2009) and won the Oscar on her first nomination. This year, she went into space to get her second nomination, for "Gravity."
Goofball "Mork & Mindy" comic Robin Williams was so often the wild card let loose in the controlled environment of a movie set that he wasn't always able to develop an actual character on screen. So after three nominations for best actor (including a serious turn in "Dead Poets Society") he finally won for a subdued, controlled supporting role in "Good Will Hunting" (1998).
Julia Roberts shone brightest in romantic comedies through the '90s. She still looked fabulous in the working class wardrobe of "Erin Brockovich" (2000), but her tart, tough, single mother stirred into action out of an instinctive reflex of injustice was just what she needed to take home the best actress statue.
Jamie Foxx, like Robin Williams, jumped from stand-up comedy to TV and movies. After multiple seasons on the ensemble of "In Living Color" and the lead in "The Jamie Foxx Show," however, he was ready for something more challenging. He took on 2004 in impressive fashion with a nomination for supporting actor for "Collateral" and a best actor win for playing R&B legend Ray Charles in "Ray."
Joe Pesci spent most of his career spoofing his New Jersey street manner in comedies like the "Home Alone" and "Lethal Weapon" films. But he earned his first nomination by bending that energy into a volatile performance for "Raging Bull" (1980) and took home an Oscar by pushing it further in "GoodFellas" (1990). Jonah Hill is likely taking note of the Scorsese connection.
For other stars with comedy roots, it's still an honor just to be nominated.
Bill Murray was the king of big-screen comedy in his heyday, dominating the box-office with his comic con-man and lovable slob act in such hits as "Stripes," "Groundhog Day," and the "Ghostbusters" films. Since then, he's let a wistful yearning and regret come out in more nuanced roles, earning him his one and only Oscar nomination as an American actor in Tokyo who makes a brief connection in "Lost in Translation" (2003).
Eddie Murphy, the "Saturday Night Live" veteran so funny in "Trading Places" and "Beverly Hills Cop," received his sole nomination as a James Brown-inspired R&B star in "Dreamgirls" (2007). The rumor was that he lost because another film of his was released a little too close for comfort: "Norbit," a comedy so off-key that it soured the goodwill earned by his impassioned turn in "Dreamgirls."