What the Oscar Drama Needs Is Some Comic Relief

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008

If you want to win an Academy Award, for goodness' sake don't sing, dance or make 'em laugh.

At least that seems to be the unspoken truth around Oscar time. When it comes to winning Best Picture -- heck, even snagging a nomination -- comedies and musicals usually take a back seat. Way back.

Take a quick mental scroll down the list of winners since 1927, when the first Academy Award ceremonies were held. You'll see serious, serious and more serious. By my count, only 10 musicals have taken the top prize, including "The Great Ziegfeld," "Gigi" and more recently, "Chicago."

There have been some great comedies that took the big prize over recent decades, including 1960's "The Apartment," 1963's "Tom Jones" and 1977's "Annie Hall." But only 13 statuette holders in total can vaguely be termed comedies, assuming we count "laff riots" such as "American Beauty," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Driving Miss Daisy."

This year, hope springs futile again: Johnny Depp has been nominated for his performance in the musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." The sorta-romantic comedy "Juno" is up for Best Picture, with lead actress Ellen Page getting a nod. But "Enchanted," the music-laced comedy, has had to settle for three nominations in the Best Song category. We'd like to think the Disney film has a fighting chance but we know, for the most part, "The Wizard of Oz" is always going to lose to "Gone With the Wind."

So filmmakers of musicals and comedies must look to the Golden Globes, which offers that strange hybrid category known as "Comedy/Musical." (How, exactly, do you judge the merits of "Sweeney Todd" against "Juno," anyway? The Globers chose "Sweeney.")

C'mon, Oscar. In 2001, you rolled out a new award for feature-length animation. Why not extend the fun and the credit where it's due? Let's have a slot for Best Comedy. And Best Musical. Separate from each other. And if you're feeling magnanimous, we'll take some acting categories, too. Yes, for both genres. That way, Johnny comes marching home with an Oscar for his role in "Sweeney Todd." And that cute Ellen Page gets her prize for "Juno," so Julie Christie can walk away with something for "Away From Her."

The Emmys and Television Critics Association Awards have separate categories for comedy and drama, notes Tom O'Neil, entertainment blogger and author of the book "Movie Awards." And the Screen Actors Guild Awards differentiate between the two for television performances, but not for movie roles.

O'Neil calls it a classic double standard: "With film we feel we have to lump them together, which proves Hollywood has no sense of humor."

Mixing up comedies, musicals and dramas in the Best Picture slot "makes for an uncomfortable blend," says Mike Goodridge, U.S. editor of Screen International, and a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which sponsors the Golden Globes. "When you're trying to decide between 'Goodfellas' and 'Ghost' [Best Picture nominees for 1990] or 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'The Silence of the Lambs' [ditto for 1991], it's always going to be a dilemma. . . . People tend to vote for the dark, brooding dramas."

Barry Josephson, producer of "Enchanted," says that in this era in which "darker dramas" seem to take precedent "it's almost impossible for a comedy or musical to be nominated. I don't think 'Mary Poppins' or 'The Sound of Music' gets nominated. But those movies entertain audiences in a big way. They deserve nominations the way Billy Wilder used to."

A new category for musicals or comedy, he says, "would be a very popular category not just with the Academy voters but for the people who watch the awards."

Imagine that.

There's no Oscar love for the performers, either, the ones who have immortalized themselves through song, dance or sheer funniness. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel have all won honorary Oscars at the end of their careers, but weren't acknowledged in their heyday. Jack Lemmon and Cary Grant, known for their considerable comic roles, won only when they played serious.

Why does the Academy -- whether its members admit it or not -- consider these genres more "frivolous" than "important" dramas featuring English upper-crusters sipping cordials by the ornamental shrubbery, or bent-over psychos muttering in front of oil derricks? Is it that the Academy is such a serious, dramatic, no-giggling-allowed institution? Hmm, let's take a quick gander at the Oscar ceremonies for a moment: Lisa Rinna on the red carpet oglefest with that journalistic, penetrating question, "Who are you wearing?" And the show hosts they work so hard to recruit: Do they ask them to offer heavy observations about filmmaking at the podium? No, they want funny. They want to see Jack rolling in the aisles.

Yeah, this is the citadel of high art, all right.

Academy Awards Rules Committee Chairman Charles Bernstein says for a new category to be created there would need to be more musicals. "There aren't enough out there to create a field of contestants where we could narrow it down to five. We need a larger field."

As for comedy, he says, "we console ourselves a really fine comedy or musical does have a place to go -- in the Best Picture category."

"Juno" producer Mason Novick, not surprisingly, agrees. "If you have a good, smart movie, no matter what genre, you can still do well," he says, citing "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Sideways," comedies that recently found themselves nominated for Best Picture. And then he goes on to make the slippery-slope argument: "If you break up the categories, you dilute the specialness of these five [Best Picture] movies. If you have categories for comedy and musical, where do you draw the line? What about horror movies?"

He pauses.

"Of course, I say all this, having been nominated," Novick says, semi-jokingly. "If we'd been the sixth pick, I'd probably be saying we totally need a new category."

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