It’s too bad there aren’t more voices speaking up about the unfairness of comedies not getting recognized at the Academy Awards over the decades and right into the present. Back in the 1930’s, several comedies were honored for some Oscars (two for Best Picture)–even though they basically fell under the Screwball Comedy category that never really made you laugh yourself silly. Of course, many of the comedies that did make you laugh out loud then (i.e. Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges, Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, et. al) were considered too pedestrian to be considered seriously for an Oscar. The arguments have been made for years that what looks easy in making you laugh out loud is a lot harder to craft and translate effectively on the big screen than a dramatic performance is. The further arguments are: The Academy can’t be that dense after all these years, can they? Well, yes they are–and taking things at surface level for comedies only gets worse as time goes on.
As much as I bemoan the lack of understanding and skill in the crafting of a satirical movie that goes over a lot of the Academy voters’ heads–at least Oscar history can be redeemed somewhat by the fact they recognized a few sophisticated comedies. In fact, they honored the very first Screwball Comedy as Best Picture: “It Happened One Night” in 1934. While I’m sure no one keeled over from laughing at the movie–the light comedic sophistication level of that film and other Screwball Comedies of the era is such that Academy voters apparently seemed to get all the inside jokes in the film…as well as maybe the racy metaphors. As with Satire, a lot of the biggest revelations in “It Happened One Night” about relationships, sex and all-around zany situations people sometimes find themselves in were more internal laughs than outright guffaws.
While the Screwball Comedy basked in the spotlight of being honored as a worthy and lightly comedic genre–comedies from true sophisticates (and yet still ones to make you guffaw) the Marx Brothers went mostly unnoticed at the Academy Awards. Their films from the 1930’s still hold up brilliantly today in the way their comedy routines are conveyed. I’m consistently amazed at how much I laugh at all the familiar one-liners and routines we’ve seen a million times. I also laugh considerably at W.C. Fields’ movies from the same time period. The Brothers Marx and Fields should have been singularly recognized by the Academy for their ability to not only be sophisticated in their feature films–but also subtle as W.C. was in his ability to convey so much via facial expressions and being one of the best slow burns against horrific situations in the history of comedy.
Well, we probably wouldn’t equate Frank Capra with fall-down comedy either. But he did have a light, under-the-radar satiric streak–even in moments of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In his comedy “You Can’t Take it with You” in 1938–the sophistication was a little higher perhaps and with some great comments on society. That film winning Best Picture in 1938 was really the last time a truly sophisticated comedy making comment about society won Best Picture. That didn’t happen again until “Annie Hall” in 1977 that was the typical subtle (and occasionally obvious one-liner) Woody Allen comedic blend.
Going their own way…
The only comedy in the 1940’s recognized for Best Picture (and the last one for the next twenty years) was 1944’s “Going My Way.” Despite Bing Crosby being a usually a straight-faced hoot in numerous eye-winking comedies (including the Oscar-ignored “Road” movies with Bob Hope)–“Going My Way” isn’t exactly what you’d call one of his best comedies. In fact, with the dramatic moments in the film, it might have been the first Dramedy that won Best Picture back when the word Dramedy would illicit mass confusion. The film certainly has some light comedy moments–but any film with a touching, dramatic scene of someone dying (once all hints of comedy had been carefully siphoned away) would guarantee an Oscar nomination. A whacked-out comedy that involved a death scene would have been sacrilegious back in those days. But black comedies weren’t even available in the underground film world yet.
With Bing Crosby winning his Best Actor Oscar mostly on the merits that he could do drama (or dramedy)–his knowing comedy in the “Road” movies and in something such as “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” is much more fun to watch. Bingo had a lot of wheels turning in his less-recognized comedies that made them fun to watch.
Oscar obviously went into a pattern after WWII of being more serious-minded and thinking the social issue pictures of the 1950’s and 60’s were important to recognize. And that’s obviously not worth arguing over when many of those films had to be made as a sacrifice of a decade or more from comedy in order to get certain issues into the public consciousness. However, the comedy truly went in brilliant directions during the 50’s that were conveniently ignored as Best Picture nominees. Billy Wilder directed and wrote several of his classics during this period. But because the comedy went into the “sex farce” mode considerably starting in the early 50’s–some of the conservative members of the Academy likely shunned those when Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot” should have been nominated for Best Picture (despite that film getting non-winning noms in other categories). At least one partial sex farce won Best Picture in 1960: “The Apartment.”
From the British comedy getting recognized…to getting stung…
The Oscars not recognizing British comedy could have been a crime worthy of imprisonment while forced to watch every American gross-out comedy made today 24/7. When they gave Best Picture to “Tom Jones” in 1963, it was finally validation that someone in the Academy understood the British comedy sensibility and realizing we stole everything from them in the same department. Yet, the British comedy hasn’t been recognized as a Best Picture since then despite so many great contenders. Maybe it’s because Monty Python changed everything with British comedy in the 70’s and raised the bar a few notches above the heads of the Academy again.
You have to apply some forgiveness again to the Oscar for not recognizing another comedy until the early 70’s. All of those serious issue films permeated the 60’s following the assassination of JFK that deserved the spotlight until things settled down and the people were in a mood to laugh again. When it finally happened with “The Sting” in 1973–some might have thought it was just to make up for not recognizing Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” a few years earlier. While the chemistry between Redford and Newman was fun in both movies–“The Sting” still fell within a border that the Oscars always kept when recognizing comedies: They had to be lightweight or an amalgamation with drama.
Comedies with romance return to the Best Picture category…and then the 2000 void…
After “Annie Hall” won for Best Picture in 1977–the Academy seemed to decide that comedy and romance went together better and created a more appealing whole that satisfied voters as a true work of art. Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” was probably too smart for the majority of Academy voters (as are most of his movies)–yet accessible enough to the masses that it brought hints to the aging Academy of the comedies recognized in the 1930’s. Allen’s film, though, was much more subtle than any comedy recognized previously and ones that won Best Picture later.
Satire developed to a high level after “Annie Hall” thanks to the Zucker Brothers, their 1980 “Airplane” and subsequent other brilliant satires that brought back belly laughs to the movie theatre again. When I saw “The Naked Gun” in 1988–I’d never experienced a movie before that had the audience rolling in the aisles after every scene. Older members of my family would tell me the same thing happened back in the 40’s during “Abbott & Costello” movies, but really wasn’t typical in-between those times. Does that mean the 80’s were the true last era of the belly-laugh comedy? Even those Zucker Brothers movies became less funny by the 90’s.
Having “Terms of Endearment” being considered a comedy is a bit of a stretch. But that’s what the Oscar designated it after honoring Best Picture to it in 1983. If the 80’s were making great, funny comedies–then a lot of comedies were robbed at the Oscars as usual. As I said above, though, lightweight comedies with considerable drama, romance and massive star power were the new ingredients to a Best Picture nod or win. The best example of that is when the whimsical “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture in 1989.
“Shakespeare in Love” and “American Beauty” seemed to be the grand finale in comedies winning the big prize at the end of the 90’s. After “There’s Something About Mary” came out in the late 90’s–comedies changed into nothing but fizzled gag fests, gross-out situations and a return to very artless slapstick. It’s no wonder that no comedy has been nominated or won Best Picture in the 2000’s. And there probably won’t be until the comedy can be restored to a higher place it once held. It’s a shame Hollywood can’t innovate in the comedy and bring a higher respect to the genre instead of using enough toilet jokes to write a toilet joke dictionary. At least all the unfunny slapstick being used now keeps the ones who do stunt work steadily employed. Overall, though, the American people are dying for a good comedy and unfortunately lap up anything they can get–even if it’s sub-par.
When a bad comedy goes to #1 from the audiences out there desperate to see a comedy they can laugh out loud at–it only begets more bad comedies. With that sociological situation on automatic pilot, the chances are the art of comedy won’t be getting back to where it was for Oscar to honor them.
After all, Hollywood still has plenty of actors able to scream and emote in dramas…with the pupils in their eyes turning into the shape of an Oscar in all those scenes. Movies are still taken at face value rather than letting a rare sophisticated comedy sink into the mind for a few days…