Comedy…It’s a Funny Thing

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Comedy…something the Academy Awards haven’t normally warmed up to in its 83 year history.  When Oscar goes for comedy it’s usually in a “dramedy” or “smart comedy” sort of fashion.  Look at last year’s The Kids Are All Right.  They’ve never went for slapstick or raunchy that typically makes big box office.  It’s not them.  It’s not necessarily a complaint but an observation as the Academy goes for genre films like Westerns and since the year of ten, Sci-Fi or Action.  The “comedy” that AMPAS has embraced the past few years has been films like Alexander Payne’s Sideways which won only one Oscar for Adapted Screenplay after being nominated for a just mere five Oscars.  The Academy thought too unconventional to reward Thomas Haden Church for his funny but at times unlikable “Jack” or Virginia Madsen as the beautiful and smart “Maya.”  Note, this is the year Clive Owen blazed up the screen in Mike Nichols’ Closer and Morgan Freeman won his long overdue Oscar in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.  Sideways nearly swept the critics’ awards winning over seventy five critics’ awards, many as Best Picture of the Year including the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

In other years Oscar has taken to a comedy but will only reward it in their screenplays respectively and/or perhaps an acting award or two.  In 2007, Alan Arkin beat out big hitters like Eddie Murphy and Jackie Earle Haley for his lovable drug-addicted “Grandpa Edwin” in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine.  Murphy, in a comedy film of his own, had been conceived a frontrunner for weeks leading up to the ceremony.  Some say he lost the Oscar because of the release of the box office bomb, Norbit.  Some say it was the drama performances that were nominated alongside Arkin that were deemed either too controversial (child molester Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children), too profane (Mark Wahlberg in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed), or simply a performance that some felt shouldn’t have been nominated in the first place (Djimon Hounsou in Blood Diamond).

In 2005, arguably one of the best years of comedy in the new millennium but perhaps one of the worst years of film in general, Oscar overlooked powerhouse comedic turns that some critics actually embraced.  I found myself taken in a heavy way by Joan Allen’s work as the broken yet fierce “Terry Ann Wolfmeyer” in Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger.  Co-star Kevin Costner also gave his best performance in years, perhaps his career as the funny “Denny.”  You can chalk it up to a very early release date in theaters, or perhaps a crowded Best Actress lineup consisting of Judi Dench, Felicity Huffman, Keira Knightley, Charlize Theron, and eventual Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon.  Depending on what you consider drama or comedy, an argument can be made for Toni Collette in her tour-de-force in In Her Shoes.  Junebug rides the same line between drama and comedy yet Amy Adams got recognized for stunning performance so maybe it’s a moot point.

In a more raunchy selection, on my imaginary Oscar ballot, Vince Vaughn would have been placed in Best Supporting Actor for his hands down funniest and most surprising work in Wedding Crashers.  It was one of the most brilliant comedic turns seen in years.  Director Judd Apatow impressed many critics along with stars Steve Carell and Catherine Keener in the mega-hit The 40 Year Old Virgin.  Can anyone not agree that the writing in Tina Fey’s high school “bitch-fest” Mean Girls was not worthy of an Adapted Screenplay nomination in 2004?  Maybe you can, maybe that’s just not your thing, but raunchy has a voice and at times, heart.  Films like Shaun of the Dead and Napoleon Dynamite have outstanding lead turns from their actors and some hysterical comedic elements but never had a shot in a race of dramatic, emotional, hits.

Comedic snubs by Oscars you ask?  Let’s run it down besides the ones mentioned above:

Mark Wahlberg’s sole acting nomination should not be for Scorsese’s The Departed, rather for his impressive and career best work in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees.  The film itself may be flawed but there’s no doubting the work of Wahlberg and even co-star Jude Law.  Adam Sandler’s work in Punch-Drunk Love (arguably not a comedy at all) was missed by Oscar which they could have made up for a Supporting nomination in James L. Brooks’ Spanglish.  Oscar chose to repeat history.  Oscar couldn’t embrace Jim Carrey’s greatest work in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  The film itself should have been named among the final five Best Picture nominees.  Will Ferrell nailed his work for Stranger than Fiction while Jeff Daniels’ proudest work in The Squid and the Whale was left ignored.  You can’t forget the years of comic genius’ with the works of Steve Martin being left off for Father of the Bride and Parenthood and Bill Murray in Rushmore and Groundhog Day.  I still smile every time I think of Chris Farley in Tommy Boy.  Not an Oscar vehicle at all but can you say not a great performance?  Who knows?  There are countless others but I’m sure you’ll go for notable omissions in the comment section.

Let’s give Oscar credit though because they’ve taken the high road many times.  Twenty years ago you wouldn’t see Johnny Depp nominated for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl or Ellen Page for Juno or Robert Downey, Jr. for Tropic Thunder.  Oscar has taken big strides in this new age of cinema and they surprise us every now and again.  This year maybe we’ll see Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig noticed for their impressive works in Bridesmaids or perhaps a screenplay nomination for the hilarious Crazy, Stupid, Love or even Joseph Gordon-Levitt finally getting some Oscar recognition in the emotional yet still funny 50/50.  Jason Reitman’s Young Adult and Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo remain to be seen so there’s potential in that regard.  Even Woody Allen is still fighting for a spot in the race with his early year hit, Midnight in Paris.

What’s your take on the subject?  What are your Oscar comedic snubs?  What comedies can we see this year?

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Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He also founded the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, the first Latino-based critics’ organization in the United States. He’s also an active member of the African-American Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, FOX 5, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.