Yesterday’s fourth annual THE CONTENDERS event at the DGA was a smash hit as 13 studios and distributors, along with their stars and filmmakers, got to show off their awards season slate to an audience heavy with Academy and key Guild voters. And those companies with big Oscar hopes showcased all the usual suspects this year from The Imitation Game to Birdman to Foxcatcher to The Theory Of Everything and on and on with the kinds of films that are usually awards fodder this time of year.
But perhaps the most surprising inclusion was the sudden presence of none other than Chris Rock in the race. Although Chris wasn’t there in person for the large industry crowd (he was busy in NYC boosting Saturday Night Live to its best ratings of the season), his movie Top Five was prominently included in Paramount’s reel right alongside their other upcoming fall and holiday release contenders: Interstellar, The Gambler and Selma.
The studio then decided to suddenly turn it around quickly and set a release date of Dec. 5, in the thick of the crowded holiday season, but also smack dab in the heart of awards season too.
Quite frankly, I didn’t expect it to open this year, and further I didn’t expect it to be the type of film that gets an awards push. Why? It’s an out and out comedy, uniquely mirroring Rock’s sensibilities. He wrote, directed and stars in the film. But it is also the best film of his career, one getting rapturous critical reviews from critics (very prominently displayed in Par’s Contenders reel yesterday).
So now it’s slowly starting to get some buzz and certainly Paramount is hoping for big things out of nominations for Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Movie Awards, where there are separate categories for comedies. But Oscar? Original Screenplay is probably the best shot but the Academy, which doesn’t distinguish between comedy and drama, has a famously spotty record in honoring funny people in any significant way.
Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is considered by many to be the greatest movie comedy of all time, but in 1959, the Academy nominated five super-serious pictures for their top honor instead. Ultimately, despite five other Oscar nominations, including Jack Lemmon for Actor, the Academy only acknowledged Hot for its Black & White Costume Design.
Occasionally, comedies such as Little Miss Sunshine, Tootsie, Midnight In Paris, The Full Monty, and Four Weddings And A Funeral do manage Best Pic nods, but generally Oscar only rewards them in the screenplay category or occasionally acting.
Sure, Wilder won Best Picture the next year for The Apartment but that was a dramedy at best in terms of genre. Best Picture winners like Shakespeare In Love and The Artist are light entertainments but I wouldn’t necessarily label them as comedies, not the kind I am talking about here.
In the ’30s, before World War II sobered everyone up, the Academy had more of a sense of humor, giving its Best Picture prize to It Happened One Night in 1934 and You Can’t Take It With You in ’38, both from Frank Capra. In 1977, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall took it all, a rare comedy achievement. No certified comedy has won since.
Perhaps trying to subtly remind voters of that triumph, the first quote in Par’s segment for Top Five said it “was Chris Rock’s Annie Hall,” a comparison Allen fan Rock winced at when I brought it up in a recent phone conversation.
“Oh, I’m not sensing Annie Hall, man,” he said, clearly brushing away the comparison. “It’s nothing to Annie Hall. I can’t even go there, you know. People that haven’t seen Annie Hall, maybe. I mean you know there is a template of a thousand movies trying to be Annie Hall.”
Regardless, this film is the first time we’ve seen Rock, who is playing a top comedian/actor who attempts to be taken seriously in a drama, make something this personal.
Rock gives more credit for this transition to his time on Broadway in Motherf****r With A Hat, which like Top Five was produced by awards magnet Scott Rudin.
“It was really dramatic and really funny,” Rock said. “I knew coming into this movie that I got a confidence in the play that made me realize the drama is as important, even more important than the comedy. And I tried to take the lessons I learned in (the play) and apply them to Top Five. So, yeah, it is a little more personal, it’s a lot more grounded than anything I’ve done. The characters are living in a world that’s real, as opposed to a comedy world.”
Rock emphasized that even though the movie is about a famous comic trying to go dramatic, it’s not autobiographical. It’s also clearly a movie that’s not afraid to mix style and tone. Rock is hilarious one minute in an outrageous over-the-top set piece and surprisingly touching in the next. And it all works.
“In Stardust Memories, you know they go, ‘I love your films, especially the early funny ones'” Rock said, quoting a line from Allen’s film. “People do that with me too. ‘I love your work, especially the standup’. They always do that so I thought, ‘Let me see if I can write a movie that plays like my standup.’ You know if I could be proud for a second of myself, I think the movie feels like my standup.”
Rock credits Rudin making it possible to head in this new direction.
“We both knew what it could be,” Rock said. “He was never steering me into, you know, ‘Hey, let’s make another fake Eddie Murphy movie.’ You know what happens when you’re a black standup in Hollywood: “Hey, can we make another knockoff of Trading Places, a knockoff of Beverly Hills Cop or whatever?’ But that was one of the great things about having Rudin around.”
An endless list of standup comics from Bob Hope to Billy Crystal to Jim Carrey have never been nominated for Oscars. The exceptions were funny men such as Jackie Gleason or Robin Williams who went dramatic, much as Steve Carell has done this year in Foxcatcher.
That seems to be part of the point Rock makes in his new film. The Academy did seem to be making amends for its oversights when it gave Steve Martin an Honorary Oscar last year. Jerry Lewis got one, too, but for his humanitarian work, not his comedy. He was never nominated, either. The closest most comedians get is being asked to host the Oscars. But would this former Oscar host (who emphatically told me he never got approached about hosting this year, despite a bogus trade-paper report that said he did) like to be invited to the Oscar as a nominee?
“You don’t do it for that,” Rock said. “You just do it because you want it to be good. I just did a writer’s roundtable. And that’s what is great about awards season because you just bump into people you haven’t seen in a while. I have never been nominated for anything (in movies), but I remember when I hosted the Oscars, hanging out with everybody, getting invites to the parties, not having to call your publicist and ask ‘Hey, you think you can get me into Vanity Fair’s party?’ I hope I get nominated just so I don’t have to beg to get into the parties.”
After Top Five opens next month, I doubt we will see Chris Rock begging for anything. But whether the ever-so-serious Academy decides to put Top Five in their Top Ten – or anywhere else on the big night – is a much bigger question and the kind of very long-shot possibility that makes this season so fun to cover.