No matter who wins this year's Academy Award for Best Picture, one thing is certain: Nobody will be laughing, except maybe the great Billy Wilder, up there in Heaven, over a vodka martini.
That's because the joke's on us.
That's because of all the Oscar scandals, the most persistent is the Academy's refusal to acknowledge comedy as an art form and its near-universal preference for so-called, often dreary, serious films come Oscar night.
It's as if one night a year, Hollywood, purveyor of vulgar dreams, caterer to vulgar hungers, supplier of vulgar laughs, turns into "Masterpiece Theatre." Do they think we won't notice?
Of the five Best Picture nominations, only one offers the value that draws most people to the movies and, in fact, is the spiritual core of the American motion picture industry: laughter.
"Chicago" unabashedly sells that pleasure but in a highly modified form. It is a musical comedy, with the emphasis on musical rather than comedy. It has been constructed from the musical comedy tradition: Although the laughs are real, they aren't the point, they aren't the magic, they aren't the attraction, and nobody is paying to come enjoy them. It's all that fabulous singing and dancing, the pleasure of watching beautiful bodies move beautifully in beautiful space to beautiful, or at least charismatic, music.
You laugh a little, of course. I laughed at the wit in the puppet scene, where director Rob Marshall concocted giant marionettes as a metaphor for the ritual-driven drama of a big trial played out by newspapers in the '20s; and I laughed in delight -- not ha-ha gut-busting laughter, but, you know, the deep contented purr of enjoyment -- at Richard Gere's slimy tap-dance number. But the rest was, uh, pardon the French, bouncing babes, all to be treasured certainly, but not funny per se.
The other nominees: Oh, woe is me. It hurts so bad. How long have I been in this damned dentist's chair?
"The Hours": suicide, homosexuality, literature, self-loathing, Virginia Woolf.
"Gangs of New York": slice, slash, gouge, crush, smash, cut, whack, and, oh yes, rip.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers": slice, slash, gouge, crush, smash, cut, whack, and, oh yes, rip -- only in Middle Earth, not Lower Manhattan.
"The Pianist": genocide.
You could argue that this was not a particularly good year for comedy. Unfortunately, you'd be wrong. Two of the best films of the year -- neither of them nominated for Best Picture -- were comedies. That's not just opinion on my part but a consensus of critics. The amusing Web site Metacritic.com tabulates reviews, comes up with a numerical value for each and averages the ratings for each film. Why its makers do this, I have no idea; what they get out of it is beyond comprehension. But, interestingly, the comedies "Adaptation" and "About a Boy" finished statistically better than the least loved of the nominees, "Gangs of New York," which scored a fairly measly 72 (on a scale of 100). "About a Boy" clicked in at 76, and "Adaptation" was way up at 85.
And this is in no way an atypical phenomenon. Academy Award history offers no shortage of such situations. Consider the following: In June 2000, the American Film Institute released a list of the 100 greatest comedies of all time. You will, and I certainly did, have some disagreements with the list; nevertheless, it's a pretty good collection of comedy titles as produced by the laffmachine just north of San Diego over the years.
Not until No. 4 on the list -- "Annie Hall" -- do you get a movie that won Best Picture, and even then you can argue that it was that film's rich streak of poignancy rather than its comedy that made it magnificent.
Finally, at No. 8, in checks the genius Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night," which won a Best Pic way back in 1934. Then comes the great "The Apartment" (1960), which is rated at No. 20. That means that in a consensus of the 20 funniest comedies of all time, only three won Best Picture awards.
Look at it this way: Of the 200 films nominated for Best Picture between 1960 and 2000, only two dozen or so were comedies.
But for true scandal, let's concentrate on the film called by the AFI voters "the funniest comedy" ever made.
It happens to be Billy Wilder's brilliant "Some Like It Hot," with its dazzling performances by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe, with its assured, clever direction by Wilder, with its high-speed, never-give-it-a-rest screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, with its vivid black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lang, with its fabulous art direction and sets by Ted Haworth and Edward G. Boyle. The film got six Oscar nominations. Yet when the dust had settled, the movie had picked up only one victory: Orry-Kelly, for best costume design.
"Some Like It Hot": You know, when I think of that great old one, I think, "Wow, what fabulous costume design."
And if you look at the actual winners for 1959, the outrage grows yet more delicious. Best Picture went to "Ben-Hur." I happen to love this old cornball carnival of religio-nutso freakiness and sadism, but only because I love holiness as an entertainment convention (that business of never showing Jesus's mug -- priceless) and because it starred the great Charlton Heston (whom I admire immensely) at his craggy movie-star best, with a face like the Grand Tetons in winter and a dignity so imperturbable that not even a .416 Remington Magnum could penetrate it.
But it illustrates the Hollywood Important Picture pathology almost too exquisitely. It's self-important, ponderous, unbearably long, unbearably clumsy. It has lots of loud, bad music inspired by the classical canon. It faces squarely backward. Its thrills are few and far between and completely incidental to the actual meaning of the picture (which is the power of faith). But the thrills make the picture, particularly that chariot race (still one of the best action/stunt sequences ever filmed). It's got miracles. It endorses the current edition of political correctness (in those days, orthodox Christianity). It's square, moral, cheesy. And did I mention: It's really long.
And at least today, no one, and I mean almost no one on Earth, would proclaim "Ben-Hur" a better movie than "Some Like It Hot."
And "Some Like It Hot" wasn't even nominated for Best Picture.
The others in the category that year were "Anatomy of a Murder," Otto Preminger's admittedly excellent adaptation of the Robert Traver bestseller by the same name; the ponderous but unattackable "The Diary of Anne Frank"; the equally unattackable "The Nun's Story" (Audrey Hepburn as a holy sister!) and the interestingly angry "Room at the Top," an English import with Laurence Harvey as a nasty plebeian boy on the rise. All four of those pictures were better than "Ben-Hur" but had almost no chance against it (it holds the record, recently tied by "Titanic," for Oscars in a year).
A quick scan of the list reveals other venal atrocities:
The wonderful "A Thousand Clowns" lost to . . . "The Sound of Music."
"Dr. Strangelove" (my choice for greatest American comedy) lost to . . . "My Fair Lady," possibly the worst film ever to win Best Picture.
"The Graduate" -- "Plastics!" -- lost to "In the Heat of the Night."
"M*A*S*H" lost to "Patton."
"Network" lost to . . . "Rocky" ("Rocky"!)
"Tootsie" lost to "Gandhi"!
And think of the great comedies that weren't even nominated for Best Picture: "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers" (both by Mel Brooks); "Groundhog Day"; "Sullivan's Travels"; "Ghostbusters"; "To Be or Not to Be"; "This Is Spinal Tap"; and Woody Allen's great films "Sleeper," "Bananas," "Love and Death," "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" and "Play It Again, Sam." On and on it goes, through changes in fashion and politics, through changes in history and morals, only one thing remains the same: Hollywood pretty much doesn't take comedy seriously.
Why should this be? And what can be done about it?
Part of it, of course, is the simple persistence of the highbrow/lowbrow split in American popular culture. Since millionaire aristocrats of the 19th and 20th centuries controlled the art world, art has been split into those two distinct classes, high and low. That continues, though less obviously, to this day.
Thus it is that certain "refined" forms of expression are valued far more than certain "unrefined" forms of expression. Those forms that require the most rigorous education are more revered than those that require only a pulse. Drama, for example, is held among many, including critics, to be a "higher" art form than comedy. This prejudice will almost always play out in the Academy Awards.
But the main reason, or so it seems to me, is the sweat factor, plain and simple. Despite a famous old story -- A comedian is on his deathbed; his son asks him if dying is hard, and he replies, "Dying is easy. Now comedy, that's hard!" -- the genius of comedy is how easy it seems. Comedians, comedy writers, screenwriters, directors: They work for years to polish their skills, so that, at their peak, what they're doing seems effortless. When it works, it seems so easy. It takes on a momentum of its own, things seem to happen so naturally. The timing is exquisite. Ask Jack Benny to choose between his money and his life and he'd say: ". . . I'm thinking it over." You could analyze that line for a year before you realize that the reason people who have heard it a thousand times still rupture at it wasn't the "I'm thinking" part -- it was the ". . ." part.
In feature films, the best comic technique is neutral professionalism, which lets the dialogue, the comic structure, the performances, and not the film technique, carry the weight of the piece. If you look at the great comedy films, you'll see that few of them are by auteurs laden with a particularly vivid visual style or a fondness for unusual editing rhythms. There's nothing showy about great comedies except, er, the great comedy.
That is particularly true in great comic performances. Rarely are they fraught with angst; they're straightforward, in absolute obedience to the material. The performances, however, that the Academy prefers are far showier and involve more extreme psychological conditions, almost always under extreme stress. Comic masters are aware that the more strain their characters display, the harder it is for the audience to laugh. The ideal comic performance -- Cary Grant was a master at this -- is effortless, without strain or sweat or raised voice.
These are deep-seated realities, not about to change. The one possible solution -- for this, I am indebted to Aviva Kempner, the Washington documentarian ("The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg") and all-around film provocateur -- is that the Academy really should get away from the absurdity of its apples-oranges competition in the Best Picture category and initiate a new category, Best Comedy.
You don't want the broadcast becoming even more ungainly than it is, and you don't want it turning into something ridiculous like "The People's Choice Awards" -- Best Television Comedy on a Tuesday Night Between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. -- but you want an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that demonstrates that it understands what its own industry is up to. Don't you?