The Oscars Are No Laughing Matter

As anyone who's seen 'Extras' will tell you, if you want an Oscar, you'll probably have to do a Holocaust film. Even though the majority of major box office successes in recent years have actually being comedies. Here's why these academy oversights just aren't funny anymore.
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As anyone who's seen 'Extras' will tell you, if you want an Oscar, you'll probably have to do a Holocaust film. Even though the majority of major box office successes in recent years have actually being comedies. Here's why these academy oversights just aren't funny anymore.

The Oscar ceremony is the central pillar of the mythology Hollywood swathes itself in; it is the ultimate expression of the industry’s desire to have its product taken seriously as an art form, the clearest articulation of its priorities, aspirations and insecurities. All of which may explain why comedy has fared so poorly in the Academy Awards’ eighty-three-year history.

Even when a comedy film is selected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to exemplify the best the medium has to offer, it falls within strict parameters which preclude anything too dark or lowbrow, chiming with its high-minded ideals. One has only to compile a list of the artists overlooked by the Academy to get a sense of what it is they are looking for. From the Marx Brothers to Laurel and Hardy to W.C. Fields, comedy has been consistently looked down on - even Robin Williams and Woody Allen had to ‘soften up’ or ‘get serious’ to pick up a statuette.

‘Important’ is the order of the day; consequently, films are cherry picked which serve to repudiate the notion that Hollywood is nothing more than a tawdry tinsel factory - any comedy hoping to stand a chance must fulfill the criteria. It’s no coincidence that Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) was the first comedy to win Best Film, Best Actor and Best Actress. Capra’s light yet socially conscious oeuvre was exactly the sort of humour the Academy could safely endorse.

The Oscars coincided with the institution of the Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, and the move towards stringent self-censorship in lieu of external regulation. The next thirty years was marked by this quest for respectability, presenting the most edifying version of the business - which meant that only the most saccharine works were deemed eligible for Academy approbation.

One anomaly in all this is The Apartment (1960), which won Best Picture and Best Director. Its frothy exterior masks the sly subversion that Billy Wilder used to circumvent the strictures of the Hays Code. The fact that the film is a pitch-black satire of alienation, corruption and exploitation in the workplace seems to have escaped the attention of voters. In many ways, its success presaged the gradual erosion of the stifling consensus that had retarded the development of American cinema.

On its big night of self-congratulation, Hollywood can only countenance a certain degree of levity. The host is permitted to inject an air of playfulness into proceedings, but when it comes to the matter in hand, the Academy will always do what is best for business.

After the fall of the Production Code in the late 60s, the Academy was quick to embrace the spirit of boldness that a new generation brought to a floundering, outdated industry. Sadly, such permissiveness did not extend to its perception of comedy. The comedic roles to win Best Actor and Actress betray a steadfast cultural conservatism, picking performances from lightweight fare like The Goodbye Girl (1977), Terms of Endearment (1983), Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and As Good As It Gets (1997). Comedy remained a confection undeserving of serious consideration.

Equally, the Supporting Actor award is littered with belated gongs for venerable veterans like George Burns, Jack Palance, Martin Landau and John Gielgud; while the Supporting Actress award frequently rewards beautiful women for their ability to ‘do funny’ - Goldie Hawn, Jessica Lange, Marisa Tomei - in much the same way that the Academy rewards the willingness to ‘ugly up’ amongst leading ladies. Again, there are anomalies; Kevin Kline is winningly nasty in A Fish Called Wanda (1988), and Olympia Dukakis was more deserving of recognition than Cher for Moonstruck (1987).

There are, however, certain categories in which comedy stands a better chance. The fact that so many comedies have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay in the last ten years may simply be due to the increasing lack of dramatic films deriving from original ideas, but it could also be an admission that the construction of film comedy requires a high degree of skill and invention.

On its big night of self-congratulation, Hollywood can only countenance a certain degree of levity. The host is permitted to inject an air of playfulness into proceedings, but when it comes to the matter in hand, the Academy will always do what is best for business.

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