Dying Is Easy. Comedy Is Hard.
I’ve seen all the Oscar®-nominated movies, so why does the Academy hate comedy? The Big Sick, The Disaster Artist, and I, Tonya were all better films with more to say about the human condition than snoozefests Dunkirk and Phantom Thread. But these comedies are in good company. Some Like It Hot, The Palm Beach Story, Groundhog Day, Bringing Up Baby, Ghostbusters, Harold and Maude, In Bruges, and Modern Times (etc. etc.) weren’t nominated for Best Picture.
The treacly and mediocre 9/11 drama Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close earned a Best Picture nomination in 2012, a year that the brilliant Bridesmaids was shut out of the running. Quick reality check: which movie would you rather watch right now?
Clearly, being recognized by the Academy is often more about “important” subject matter. The Oscars are predictable this way. Wanna win the office Oscar pool? At a loss when looking at the list of documentary shorts? Always go with the Holocaust movie. If a comedy were to sneak onto the list, it’d be a sure loser.
Life, I guess, is serious and so a film must be serious to win an Oscar — even though, as we all know, real life has big laughs even in the most dire and conflict-filled moments. But the Oscars aren’t real life. If you want to have a crack at an Oscar trophy for Best Picture with a funny movie, I recommend you kill off a main character like in Terms of Endearment (1983) — which, by the way, is a long time to reach back for an example of a comedy actually winning the award. Maybe if the writers of The Big Sick had killed off the heroine, they’d be gripping a Best Picture Oscar on March 4 (though they could still win for Best Screenplay – but don’t count on it).
Sometimes it’s enough to act serious. How serious is dress making? If you treat it seriously, then you’ve got a winner. If Phantom Thread (or Call Me By Your Name for that matter) had a couple laughs in it, it’s possible it would have been deemed less “important” and not considered as a Best Picture contender. Take, for example, another — I would argue better — film that takes fashion seriously, The Devil Wears Prada. Edit out all the laughs and it may have had a shot at a nomination, but clearly it was too funny to be considered Oscar-worthy.
So what’s going to win Best Picture this year? Pick the film with the fewest laughs.
Film students would do well to screen those William Powell films, not to mention those of Lombard and Loy.
- Steve Tatham
I love “My Man Godfrey”! Great example.
- Tom Reed
I completely agree with your premise and I love your examples, especially Modern Times. In fact, I would say the Academy made its first major misstep in 1931 when another Chaplin movie, City Lights, wasn’t even nominated! Honestly it deserved Best Picture AND Best Actor, in my opinion, and Modern Times deserved Best Picture, as well. Chaplin was robbed of two Oscars right out of the gate. This anti-comedy bias is something I’ve never understood about the Academy, since most people working in the industry surely knows that comedy is the hardest thing of all to successfully execute. One can argue that Stanely Kubrick’s greatest film is Dr. Strangelove and I would not disagree with that. I think the Coen Brothers ‘ comedies are vastly underrated (Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading), as are Parker and Stone’s (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and Team America: World Police). They’re geniuses. They had to go to Broadway to be taken seriously: The Book of Mormon won 9 Tony Awards, so there’s some vidication there. The Tony Awards don’t seem to share the bias to the same extent as the Acaedmy. Other comedy luminaries that have not gotten their due are Judd Apatow, Mike Judge, Christopher Guest, and of course the Monty Python troupe. If I had to pick my all-time favorite (live action) comedy it might be Life of Brian. Sure there’s raunch, but that doesn’t bother me much. And the organization that seems to have dialed-in the perfect balance of comedy and pathos and are yet still taken seriously is Pixar, and their movies have won more Oscars in recent years than any other production entity. Animation somehow transcends the bias, it seems. Thoughts?
- Steve Tatham
Interesting you bring up 1931 because that’s a good example of the Academy’s tastes being consistent over the years. They selected “Cimarron” for best picture. Although, as a western it was a genre picture, it was epic in scope; a lavish, expensive production spanning decades and for its “importance” it was selected over the fine screwball comedy “The Front Page.” As you say “City Lights” was not even nominated — likely punished for being a silent film in the new era of Talkies. I agree with the great comedians you cite and yes, good for the Tonys, right. And the Emmys too. It’s only the Oscars that seem trapped in this stuffy anti-comedy bias. Well, maybe the Nobel too. Not a lot of Nobel Prizes given out for comedy.
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“My Man Godfrey” — which has as many laughs as the overrated (and invariably mentioned) “Bringing Up Baby,” not to mention far more heart and a message that resonated with Depression-era moviegoers — wasn’t nominated for best picture either, but another 1936 William Powell comedy was: the fine newspaper screwball “Libeled Lady,” with Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy. (A four-star film in more ways than one.)
“Bridesmaids” probably wasn’t nominated because it was too raunchy. Can’t anyone create a comedy these days without raunch?