Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin in the comedy Little Miss Sunshine.
There is an old Hollywood legend that when character actor Edmund Gwenn (an Oscar winner for playing Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street) was on his deathbed, he was visited by fellow actor Jack Lemmon. When Lemmon asked him if it was difficult to face death, Gwenn supposedly replied in a whisper, “Oh it’s hard, very hard indeed… but not as hard as doing comedy.”
It makes one wonder if performing comedy is regarded as a challenge harder than death, then why is it that Oscars have traditionally ignored films and performances that fall into that genre, while almost exclusively showering praise upon dramatic films like Million Dollar Baby and Crash. Well, all that changed this year.
The 2007 Academy Award nominations are chock full of recognition for comedy throughout the major categories, a coup that has surprised even industry insiders. Some say that the quirky dysfunctional family comedy Little Miss Sunshine may emerge as the Best Picture winner, while others think Sunshine doesn’t stand a chance and will most likely suffer the same fate as Sideways back in 2005. Yet its awards to date may be the foot in the door comedies need in the years to come, kind of like what Barbara Walters did for women in TV broadcasting.
But why does comedy have to fight to get its foot in the door in the first place? Why isn’t the foot, and the leg attached to said foot, and the entire body already in door? Why is comedy such an under-appreciated craft?
When I talk to other comedy writers about this dilemma, they’re totally at a loss to explain why dramatic movies are often considered works of art while comedy is almost always written off as fluff. But they all agree that funny indie-films are “in fashion” now and that’s why they’re finally getting recognized. It makes me wish Fletch had been released in 2006, because if funny is what’s “in” with academy voters, Chevy Chase would be the Sir Laurence Olivier of this year’s awards ceremony.
But is it fair to blame the Academy for traditionally ignoring funny films? Does some of the blame lie with the movie studios who traditionally burn off their comedies in the summer and then come October, when the Oscar buzz heats up, release the dramatic films they see as top contenders? Is that what causes a brilliant comedic actor like Bill Murray to stop being funny and start seeking out Oscar caliber roles like Lost in Translation, in the hopes of getting respect as a performer?
In my experience as a writer, it’s much easier to make a person cry than to make that person laugh. You take a grandma, make the audience fall in love with her and then you kill her. Tears central. But to make that same audience laugh, now that’s a challenge! Because what you think is funny might not even show up on the comedy radar of the person sitting next to you. So when I saw Sunshine, I couldn’t help but notice how successfully the writers pulled off a script that was over-the-top funny, while also remaining grounded and instantly relatable. From a writer’s point of view, it was a very difficult and impressive endeavor indeed. For that reason alone, it deserves the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Comedy has had an easier time bringing home the statue in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories (but the top acting categories, as Borat would say, “not so much.”) Past winners include Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist, Jessica Lange for Tootsie and Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda.
Why is this? Could it be that playing a funny, scene stealing, side-kick is tougher than it looks? I would have to say yes. Comedic timing is a very specific talent and isn’t something you can just learn. You either have it or you don’t and if you got it, start picking out some Harry Winston jewelry because there’s a good chance your next role might send you down the red carpet.
However, Best Supporting Actress nominee Abigail Breslin, whose funny and touching portrayal as the plain-looking, ice-cream-eating seven-year-old daughter with dreams of winning a beauty pageant, is unlikely to topple Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Hudson, who is pretty much a lock in that category. This is one of those times for Breslin that it truly is just an honor to be nominated. My favorite nominee this year has to be 73-year old Alan Arkin who plays the heroin-snorting yet big hearted patriarch of the family and whose performance in my opinion, stole the movie… maybe even more when his character is off-screen.
Meryl Streep, who holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations of any actor, deserves her nomination for her hilarious performance as powerful fashion editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl can wear Prada, J. Crew or Old Navy it doesn’t matter because she always adds something unique to her roles. What made her performance so brilliant in Prada was how she underplayed the role and didn’t go for the easy laughs that could have made her character predictable. Instead, it was her icy quietness and intensity that instilled fear in everyone around her that made us all laugh. She played Miranda so flawlessly, it almost made me wonder if maybe she wasn’t acting at all. This is why I now have an irrational fear of Meryl Streep.
Although, Sacha Baron Cohen isn’t nominated for Best Actor for his role as Borat in the hugely offensive, outrageously funny and incredibly popular film– he does share a screenwriting credit and could very well take home the gold for Best Adapted Screenplay. Wa wa wee wah! High five!
Of course, whether he wins or not the simple fact that he’ll be in attendance will definitely give the Oscars telecast a much needed “Borat boost”, a ratings uptick for a show that can be a total snooze fest. Borat could actually benefit some of the lesser known films that the coveted younger viewers will be exposed to when tuning in to watch Baron Cohen. Who knows how many teens will be adding The Queen, under their favorite movies on their MySpace page?
Will this comedy boon be like Haley’s comet, only appearing every seventy something years -- or is it here for good? I think it’s probably too soon to tell. So for now I guess we should sit back and enjoy the laughs while they last. If nothing else, let’s hope that at least one of the comedies wins, even if it’s just Best Costume Design for The Devil Wears Prada because when Edmund Gwenn was talking about the difficulty of doing comedy, I’m sure he meant that it’s hard to make funny costumes too.
Sarah Mc Laughlin has been writing for various television sitcoms for the past six years, including the hit Fox TV show “That ‘70s Show”, where she was executive story editor. She is also a freelance entertainment reporter/columnist for iVillage and various movie sites.
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