For the last few years, the Oscars have received much criticism for the lack of diversity in the main award categories. The #OscarsSoWhite campaign from a couple of years ago drew attention to the lack of recognition for people of colour. The fact that only five women have ever been nominated for the best director award, with only one winner (Kathryn Bigelow for 2008’s The Hurt Locker) is shameful, and this year people have been rightfully derisive of the lack of nominations for either Debra Granik (Leave No Trace) or Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) – although both may have been victims to the release of their films outside of awards season rather than out-and-out misogyny.
But there is another area that the Oscars need to work on: having a sense of humour. For comedies very seldom get the recognition they deserve, despite being one of the most popular film genres.
A clutch of comedies have found favour of late, to be sure. Birdman (2014) may have have some dark moments, but it is clearly a comedy. The Artist (2011) is a beautifully realised pastiche that has plenty of laughs in its blend of parody and nostalgia. Yet over the last few decades it’s overwhelmingly films that embrace the serious, often tragic side of life that bring home the gold, with releases such as 12 Years a Slave (2013), Spotlight (2015) and Moonlight (2016) trouncing lighter fare. Trophies may be flung at dramas with moments of humour, such as The Shape of Water (2017), but out-and-out comedies seldom rule Oscar night.
T’was not ever thus. The first ever Oscars, which were awarded in 1929 to films made in the previous two years, had, for the first and only time, a separate category for directors of comedies, with Lewis Milestone winning for Two Arabian Knights. In 1934 It Happened One Night won Oscars in the top five categories – best picture, best director (Frank Capra), best actress (Claudette Colbert), best actor (Clark Gable) and one for its screenplay.
Two years later, Capra won his second best director Oscar for another comedy, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Two years later again, there was another best director Oscar, and another best picture win, for yet another Capra comedy – You Can’t Take It with You (1938).
The Academy seemed to love comedies, and not those just those made by Capra, with best director Oscars also going to Norman Taurog for Skippy (1931) and Leo McCarey for screwball classic The Awful Truth (1937).
It’s probably not a coincidence that 1938, on the cusp of the Second World War, would be the last year an out-and-out comedy would win the top prize for some time. While escapist fare – Gone with the Wind (1939), Mrs Miniver (1942), Casablanca (1943) – could still triumph, they usually needed to have a darker edge to them.
So when was the next comedy win? Going My Way (1944), a puddle of schmaltz that, for my money, is the worst ever winner of the best picture Oscar, is more of a musical than a comedy. Few best picture Oscar winners rival the wit of All about Eve (1950), which won the best picture Oscar in a strong year, but it’s usually considered a drama. While comedies have certainly still won the best picture Oscar, they are usually tinged with moments of tragedy. The Apartment (1960) features a suicide attempt from the female lead; Terms of Endearment (1983) ends with the death of one of its leads; Slumdog Millionaire (2008), ridiculously marketed as a feel-good comedy, features the torture of its protagonist and a scene where a child is blinded.
Foreign language films do even worse – fewer than 10 comedies have won the best foreign language film Oscar, and even some of those depend on how generous you are with your definition of ‘comedy’. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is more of a scathing satire than a laugh riot. Day for Night (1973) is more of a drama with some amusing touches. Life Is Beautiful (1997) is allegedly a comedy, although the only laughs that came from me were at its breathtaking crassness and poor taste.
As for actors, comic roles in otherwise serious films are often rewarded. In one of the more uncomfortable wins in Oscar history, Hugh Griffith won the best supporting actor award as a comedy Arab, slathered in brownface, for Ben-Hur (1959), which at least counteracted Charlton Heston’s cardboard performance (which, bafflingly, also won a trophy), while the dotty-old-lady schtick of Margaret Rutherford and Helen Hayes alleviated the solemnity of The V.I.P.s (1963) and Airport (1970) respectively.
One of my favourite ever Oscar wins remains Ruth Gordon’s comic performance as the nosy neighbour in the otherwise unnerving horror film Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Many actresses have won Oscars for playing the ‘straight woman’ to their wacky male co-stars. Jessica Lange in Tootsie (1982), Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets (1997), Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (1998) are given minimal humorous lines in their films, yet they all took home a statuette.
So if you’re a comedy actor and want an Oscar, what should you do? Until recently, teaming up with Woody Allen would have been a wise career move, especially if you’re female, with Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest (twice, in her case), Mira Sorvino, Penelope Cruz and Cate Blanchett all winning for their comedy performances in his films (Michael Caine also won an Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, although his role was less comic in nature).
Black actors have occasionally hit bullseye in comic supporting turns, often when upstaging a bland lead (it worked for Whoopi Goldberg, Cuba Gooding Jr and Octavia Spencer). Or, if your taste levels allow it, play someone with mental health issues (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump) and hope your exploitation of disability for cheap giggles won’t make you a pariah in more enlightened times.
The most deserving Oscar winners for comedy roles are the ones who so inhabit the role that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing them. Judy Holliday beat Bette Davis’s Margot Channing and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond to the top prize for her brassy moll in Born Yesterday (1950), in one of Hollywood’s great comedy performances. Goldie Hawn’s supporting role in Cactus Flower (1969) set the template for kooky love interests in romcoms for decades, while Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall brilliantly keeps the role from teetering into male fantasy.
If the misogynist cliché of women not being funny had any truth to it, no one told the Academy – male lead actors are much less frequently rewarded for the comedy performances, with James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, 1940), Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl, 1977) and Jean Dujardin (The Artist, 2011) among a few exceptions, although many men have won for the comedy supporting roles.
So will any comedies win top awards this year? Very possibly, but it will be an uphill struggle. My money is on Roma becoming the first foreign language film to win the best picture Oscar, and it deserves to, despite the many qualities of the comedies it stands alongside – BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite (both of which are very black comedies) and the controversial Green Book.
A comedy role may take either Christian Bale (Vice) or Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) to the best actor award. The best actress category is particularly strong this year, with Glenn Close the likely winner for drama The Wife after six nominations without a win, although in any other year the brilliant comedy performances of Olivia Colman (The Favourite) and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) would stand a real chance.
Although Brits may fancy victory for Richard E. Grant for his supporting role in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the most likely comedy winner this year is rival Mahershala Ali for his spikey turn as an erudite, snobby musician in Green Book. He doesn’t deserve it. Not because he isn’t great in the role, but because, given his screen time, he should have been nominated in the lead actor category. But comedy-loving beggars can’t be choosers.
- Watch BlacKkKlansman online on BFI Player
- Watch Slumdog Millionaire online on BFI Player
- Watch Shakespeare in Love online on BFI Player
- Watch 12 Years a Slave online on BFI Player
- Watch Spotlight online on BFI Player
- Watch Moonlight online on BFI Player
- Watch The Hurt Locker online on BFI Player
- Watch You Were Never Really Here online on BFI Player
- Watch The Wife online on BFI Player