Dying is easy, comedy is hard. Someone said that, right?
Judging by the paltry number of “pure” comedies that have won Best Picture Oscars in the past, apparently the Academy doesn’t think it’s hard at all. But could this actually be the year comedy will once again get its due in the Best Picture race? Will we ever see another genuine laugher taken seriously? “It’s crazy when you see what these great comedy people do,” says Bridesmaids producer Judd Apatow. His film was a huge surprise summer hit and has one of the highest critics ratings on Rotten Tomatoes with 90% fresh reviews. That’s a lot better than many dramatic contenders that pundits take more seriously as true Oscar pictures. Broad, hit-’em-in-the-gut comedy is almost always dismissed.
Apatow told me he was really surprised when Bridesmaids started to become part of the awards conversation this year but now believes they have a shot, at least in some categories — although not daring to dream of Best Picture yet. “We’re very hopeful about Melissa McCarthy in supporting. (Co-writer and star) Kristen Wiig should get recognition too. It’s very hard to do what she does,” Apatow said, adding that he thought Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover (which Apatow did not produce) should have been recognized a couple of years ago for the “perfect supporting part” but was obviously overlooked.
Further proving disrespect for comedy in the Acad, Apatow himself was dissed even to become an Academy member until finally getting the invite in 2008. Considering the Academy’s usual reluctance to reward the genre, Wiig is shocked they are even in the hunt, but Bridesmaids is the only movie Universal is significantly campaigning this year. “It’s nuts,” she said. “Recently we were looking at our original draft and thinking the fact people are even talking about it in this way is very strange. But I think ultimately it’s about the story and characters. You have to care about them or you’re not going to care about the movie whether it is comedy or drama.”
Bridesmaids is also hoping for recognition as a Best Picture Comedy or Musical nominee in the Golden Globes, where it actually does have a realistic chance of making the cut (The Hangover actually won). Many have called for the Academy to institute separate categories to honor comedy, like the Globes have always done, but it has never flown.
It is not hard to see why.
Often there’s a very gray line between what constitutes a comedy in the first place. The Hollywood Foreign Press lets studios determine which categories they want to be in but has final say. In other words, if a studio tries to squeeze J. Edgar into comedy because there is less competition, forget it. This year, there has been lots of discussion among distributors about what constitutes a comedy. Fox Searchlight initially debated whether to enter its George Clooney starrer The Descendants in the Comedy or Musical category because there are definite laughs, but the dramatic elements ruled the day and it is submitted as a drama. Same with Sony’s Moneyball, which had some TV ads with quotes calling it “hilarious.” In the end, it wasn’t that hilarious — it’s in drama.
On the other hand, DreamWorks officially submitted The Help in comedy or musical even though it has some very heavy dramatic moments. On Monday, an HFPA committee rejected it in comedy and determined it would compete as a drama, where it will go head-to-head with Disney/DreamWorks’ other big hopeful, War Horse (assuming both get nominated, as seems likely). It’s not surprising: At a recent event I attended, a lot of HFPA members were voicing concerns about having to judge The Help as a comedy. The film was indeed initially sold by Disney and DreamWorks with an emphasis on its lighter elements, and past Globe winners in the category such as Driving Miss Daisy were similar in tone. Still, that would have meant Viola Davis would compete in the Best Actress-Comedy or Musical category, and no matter how you slice it, her character — a civil rights-era maid — just wasn’t that funny. Other entries that remain in the category that border comedy and drama are Focus Features’ Beginners and Summit’s 50/50, both dealing with main characters with cancer; Paramount’s Young Adult; and The Weinstein Company’s My Week With Marilyn. But the placement seems logical, and their chances against stiff competition in the drama categories would be considerably lessened. Last year, Focus entered the dramedy The Kids Are All Right in the comedy categories and bagged Globes for both the picture and Annette Bening.
It seems unfair that sometimes pure comedies such as this year’s Midnight In Paris, The Artist, The Muppets and Crazy Stupid Love have to share the category with films that also benefit from the kind of heavier subject matter toward which voters tend to gravitate.
As for the Oscars, you can probably count on one hand the number of “real” comedies that have won Best Picture in the last 84 years of the contest. There was It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You in the 1930s, All About Eve in the ’50s, Tom Jones in the ’60s and Annie Hall in the ’70s. I don’t really count movies like The Apartment (1960), which had heavy drama laced within the laughs but was actually a Globe winner in Comedy. The last Golden Globe Comedy or Musical winner to repeat in the Best Picture category at the Oscars was Chicago in 2002.
This year, there is a real chance that something like the silent comedy The Artist or Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris could join the short list Best Picture winners that really are comedies in intent and execution (even though The Artist has its own dramatic moments). But why is it so rare and why does it take a Woody Allen to do the trick? “I think that it’s very difficult to put comedies and dramas in the same category,” says Midnight In Paris producer Letty Aronson, a longtime Allen collaborator who also happens to be his sister. “Somehow, if you certainly look over the history of the Academy, and not just the Academy but any awards or people’s thoughts, they feel that drama is more important. Certainly awards-wise, dramas get them way out of proportion to comedy. … It would certainly be fairer to everyone to make two distinct categories because it’s not possible — you’re comparing apples to oranges.”
OK, so maybe this is the year Oscar will learn to lighten up a bit.