“Dying is easy, comedy is hard” Jack Lemmon popularized this saying about the two sides of the acting face mask. Lemmon would know as he was able to easily switch between the two. If you’re known as a comedian can you be a great dramatic actor? Some have found is easier to make the transition than others. Being taken seriously when you’re known for making people laugh can be an uphill battle, while the latter going to the former can be a refreshing change of pace.
Enter Adam Sandler. Sandler, first gained notoriety appearing for five seasons on Saturday Night Live (1990-1995). As Sandler, sang he was fired but he wasn’t going to be defeated appearing in Billy Elliot, making him a movie star. Sandler, would go on to star in Happy Gilmore (1996), The Waterboy (1998) and Big Daddy (1999) making him a box office commodity and one of the few actors to land a $20 million a film contract. Add in his charming performance in The Wedding Singer (1998) and Sandler was a legit superstar but almost universally hated by critics. Sandler almost single handily popularized the raunchy comedy.
But things changed in 2002, when Sandler starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. Seemingly out of nowhere Sandler, shed the weir accents and frat-boy humor that made him famous. PTA found a way to harness what Sandler could do and focus it into a great performance. For the first time in Sandler’s career he received positive reviews and received a Golden Globe nomination. Habits, however proved hard to break and Sandler went back to the shtick that made him a household name. However he would show his range albeit still leaning comedically in 50 First Dates (2004) proving himself as a romantic lead, and mixed reviews for his dark but oddly feel-good performance in Funny People (2009). Sandler’s first act made him a household name and wealthy.
Sandler, next would land a Netflix deal—apparently everyone loves crude humor. His first few films for Netflix were The Do-Over (2016) and Sandy Wexler (2017) were forgettable—that’s being kind. But to use another sports analogy Sandler, through audiences a curve-ball starring in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) again earning critical praise. But his co-star Dustin Hoffman made news at the height of the #metoo movement for alleged sexual harassment charges torpedoed the film.
It turned out Sandler still was capable of surprising audiences proving he was not just capable of drama but worthy of awards attention. Thanks to the Safdie Brothers‘ Uncut Gems (2019). Sandler didn’t just receive critical praise he was being singled out by various critic groups and received a Broadcast Critics Choice Award nomination. Sandler also, received something he probably thought impossible—Oscar buzz for the first time. While he ultimately was snubbed by the Academy he did win the Independent Spirit Award for Best Actor—giving one of his classic acceptance speeches as an Oscar audition for the future. Sandler, was even asked back to host SNL, earning his first individual Emmy nomination for Best Comedy Guest Actor—it may not seem like a big deal but for the first time in his career he was singled out by a peer group for a major award.
Now he’s again receiving critical praise for his latest film Hustle (Joey’s rave review can be read here). A feel-good formulaic basketball film. Sandler plays, a burnt-out scout who discovers a ball player in the street while in Spain and puts his career on the line for this players potential for NBA stardom. Since the film debuted on Netflix it has been holding strong at #1 while also receiving critical praise.
Thanks to Uncut Gems, Sandler is on the Oscar radar again — will Hustle land him a coveted Oscar nomination. Sandra Bullock was America’s Sweetheart thanks to her starring roles in both comedies and rom-coms. But Crash (2004) not only landed her a SAG Film Ensemble Award her fellow actors started seeing her in a different light. Along came The Blind Side (2009) a feel good film about another sport—football. Bullock not only received her first Oscar nomination but won. Could Sandler follow this awards trajectory?
One huge difference between The Blind Side and Hustle is the latter was a box office hit and a rare film to reach number one in its third week in theaters. Another big difference is the release month, Bullock’s The Blind Side was released in November when Oscar films start to make their debut. Hustle, was just released and Sandler will now have to wait and hope that his performance will be remembered. But both Hustle and The Blind Side gave us two of our favorite stars in approachable feel-good dramatic roles. But helping Bullock was The Blind Side was based on a real-life story. Hustle by comparison is a work of fiction.
Is it his turn? While Sandler has just as much box office clout as Bullock. Bullock, benefited from the narrative that it was her turn to win an Oscar. Will that narrative help Sandler? It will be a hard sell for even Sandler’s biggest fans that it’s his turn for Oscar attention. Best Actor could be too hard a sell for one of Hollywood’s biggest comedians.
Regardless of what happens with Hustle audiences won’t have to wait long to see Sandler in another potential Oscar-bait film as he’ll star alongside Carey Mulligan and Paul Dano in Spaceman. Sandler may just climb the steps to the Oscar stage after all and should this happen he will give what will ultimately be one the most memorable acceptance speeches in the history of the Academy. As an added bonus Academy Award Winner Adam Sandler may give Tom Cruise the wakeup call he needs to once again try acting in a drama again—imagine that?