12 Performances That Broke The Mold

Photo: Annapurna Pictures.
In the new movie, Foxcatcher, Steve Carell is virtually unrecognizable as John du Pont, the real-life eccentric millionaire who became unusually fixated on Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). It’s a chilling performance that's going to change the way audiences look at Carell forever.
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Although the actor underwent a major physical transformation for the role — including the biggest prosthetic nose you ever did see — some crafty makeup isn’t the reason his performance already has most critics talking Oscar.
Carell has become one of the biggest stars in the world for the ease in which he plays lovable dopes in films like his breakout The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But, as du Pont, Carell doesn't just ditch the aw-shucks persona — he douses it in gasoline and sets it ablaze.
It's exactly the kind of against-type role that every actor who's ever been typecast craves — one that takes an audience's built-in assumptions and completely obliterates them. Carell is just the latest in a long line of actors who've asked us to check our expectations at the door. Here are some of the best that came before him.
Tom Cruise - Tropic Thunder
Thanks to some kooky shenanigans involving a certain talk show and a certain couch, Cruise was in need of a major jolt to help resuscitate his once Teflon career. Does a fat suit, a bald cap, and an insanely potty-mouthed spoof of a Hollywood exec count as a jolt? Why, yes. Yes it does.
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Jim Carrey - Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
The elastic-faced funnyman put the theatrics aside to play Joel Barish, the hapless hero who’s looking to get some seriously sad memories permanently wiped from his brain. If Carrey’s performance were an equation it would look something like this: endearing + mournful + refreshing = a revelation.
Adam Sandler - Punch Drunk Love
It’s no surprise that modern master Paul Thomas Anderson was behind one of the most inspired bits of casting ever, when he tapped professional man-child Adam Sandler to play the oddball introvert at the heart of this peculiar romance. Rather than ditch the manic energy that’s fueled his most famous performances, Sandler channeled it to create one of the most wildly unpredictable characters ever.
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Jamie Foxx - Ray
The In Living Color alum showed flashes of brilliance in films like Ali and Any Given Sunday, but nothing could prepare us for his startling turn as the title character in this acclaimed Ray Charles biopic. Foxx didn’t just play the legendary singer — he flat out disappeared into him, and got an Oscar for his troubles.
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
When Christopher Nolan announced that Aussie heartthrob Heath Ledger would play The Joker in the second installment of his Batman trilogy, the news was met with a collective “huh?” from the peanut gallery. Then the movie was released, and Ledger’s macabre, terrifying turn as Gotham’s most notorious villain became the standard-bearer for all comic book baddies ever since.
Mo’Nique - Precious
Prior to her Oscar winning turn in Precious, Mo’Nique’s filmography included illustrious titles like Phat Girlz, Beerfest, and Half Past Dead. Then Lee Daniels’ triumphant story about an African American teen trying to survive her abusive mother came along, and changed everything. Mo’Nique’s blistering turn as the terrifying matriarch was ugly and brutal, and we couldn’t look away.
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Reese Witherspoon - Walk The Line
Her bubbly performance as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde turned Reese Witherspoon into America’s undisputed sweetheart, but it was her gutsy portrayal of June Carter Cash in James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic that turned her into one of America’s greatest actresses.
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
After living and working in virtual irrelevance since his heyday as an '80s movie star, Mickey Rourke came back with a vengeance in Darren Aronofsky’s poignant character study about an aging wrestler on the ropes. Tender, sad, and vulnerable, it's a career-reviving performance if ever there was one.
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Sean Penn - Carlito's Way
No one would have expected that the actor who played spaced out surfer dude Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High would turn in one of the most talked-about performances of 1993. But, that's exactly what Penn did, as the afro-sporting, weasel-faced lawyer Dave Kleinfenld. Just like that, Sean Penn: Mr. Madonna died, and Sean Penn: the actor was born.
Robin Williams - One Hour Photo
Robin Williams plays a deathly shy photo clerk who becomes dangerously obsessed with one of his customers in Mark Romanek's chilling psychological thriller. It wasn't the film that won Williams his Oscar, but that doesn't mean it wasn't his masterpiece.
Patton Oswalt - Big Fan
Stand-up comedian and geek culture savant, Patton Oswalt, is astonishing in this dark character study of a misguided sports fanatic who lets his love of his favorite team get the better of him. Think of Oswalt IRL and sub the New York Giants for Star Wars.
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Whoopi Goldberg - The Color Purple
Whoopi Goldberg first gained notoriety in the '80s thanks to her raucous one-woman Broadway act, The Spook Show. That's when she caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, who took a chance by casting the unknown comedian as the hardscrabble Celie in his adaptation of Alice Walker's eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. And, just like that, a star was born.
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