Want to make someone laugh? Suggest a purely comedic lead performance deserves an Oscar.
Yes, this is the year Melissa McCarthy was nominated as best supporting actress for “Bridesmaids,” which also got a best screenplay nomination. However, what’s much more common for the Academy is Jonah Hill’s best supporting actor nomination for a mild-mannered dramatic performance in “Moneyball.” And what you’ll never see is the Academy nominating a comedian for a lead performance in a comedy.
The Academy knows it has a problem. For the 2007 show, Marc Shaiman, Judd Apatow and Adam McKay wrote “A Comedian at the Oscars,” a song about comedians getting no love come statue time, and got Jack Black and Will Ferrell to sing it. (A little like participating in your own discrimination, but we’ll let that go.) Funny because it’s true, the lyrics claimed comedic roles don’t count unless you do a sufficient number of toned-down dramatic parts to offset a gift for being funny.
This is like telling long-distance runners they can’t get a gold medal for the marathon unless they also prove they can sprint. It’s also why we get unfortunate wannabe Oscar-bait creations like Jim Carrey in “The Majestic” — but why Glenn Close isn’t expected to embarrass herself trying to make your sides ache before she can earn a nomination.
Similarly, while it was great to see McCarthy get the push this year that led to her nomination, the absence of Wiig in a similar capacity spoke volumes. It’s as if there’s a quiet understanding that a best-actress consideration for a comedian is too much to hope for; better to put your energies where they have hope for success.
What’s even more frustrating is the actors’ branch of the Academy votes for their own nominations, as if they don’t believe that the work of their comedic brethren contains as much magic and alchemy as tortured-soul dramatics. (As Shakespeare asked, “Do I not bleed?” He could be echoing the sentiment of every comic actor come Oscar night.)
The great comedic actor creates comedy on a set where the audience is a bunch of dudes in shorts dreaming about lunch and time-and-a-half. Months later, people sit in a theater laughing at what he did, all the while believing in the story. This is equal to crying on cue, or being spastic or making an angry face for the crane shot.
If anybody wants love and acceptance, it’s comedians. So here’s some love and acceptance for a few of the many overlooked gems in comedic acting. (And to be clear: Comedic acting equals being funny in a movie while holding to its humanity and reality as a story. Another measure is imagining any of these performances with Adam Sandler instead.)
Kristen Wiig “Bridesmaids” (2011) This one leads because the wound is the freshest. Wiig got the big belly laughs while maintaining a real sadness that echos back to the Little Tramp. She’s bummed out at life, in a state of self-loathing and translates all of this to comedy. In this case, a great comedian like Wiig is betrayed by her own talent: She makes it look easy and natural. She holds down the center of the movie, being believable in the narrative, situations, scenes. Essentially, it’s a “Rocky” moment for her. But, unlike Stallone, whose work came in a drama, she was never seriously considered for the statue.
Steve Martin, “All of Me.” (1984) Critics are often impressed by comedians doing physical comedy. Okay, here it is — Martin’s body morphing as he fights off Lily Tomlin’s invasion is prima facie evidence for this comedic tool. The New York Film Critics Circle responded by giving Martin best actor of the year. The Academy? Nada.
Jack Black “School of Rock” (2003) The performance combines not only comedy but musical talent. He’s not just grimacing while someone else plays the piano (think “Shine”); he’s the one strumming and singing. It’s a character that by all rights we should dislike for his sloth and deceit, yet Black imbues him with a sense of rock n’ roll deluded messiah. This film suffers from what the British call “Tall Poppy Syndrome” or what I term “Too Funny Movie.” If your movie is too successful in a mostly comedic way — then critically, it must be cut down to size.
Ron Livingston, “Office Space” (1999) Livingston never forgets he’s serving the movie, as both a romantic and comedic lead. His ennui propels everything around him. This film may be the best comedy (people quote it like a Monty Python sketch) of the last 20 years and it works because of Livingston.
Steve Carell, “40 Year Old Virgin” (2005) The title sounded like a one-joke premise. In the hands of a comedy hack, it could easily have been disaster. But ask Catherine Keener about how solid Carell was as an actor in this film. He’s not a standup counting his yuks. His underlying frustration is palpable yet never maudlin. Again – his sin? Being in a gross-out movie, and being too funny while conveying the pathos. I would posit that performances like Carell’s and Wiig’s are even more difficult to achieve in big-budget broad comedies. To do a great performance in an art house movie, where everyone is on board with favoring the art over the commerce, seems like an easier task.
Bob Hope. “Road to Utopia” (1946) Hope mined his Oscar snubs for a lifetime’s worth of jokes, but like all great comedians, he was effectively needling the Academy about its priorities — comedy, not being one of them. Hope and Crosby were deep into the series at this point, but Hope still shows up for work. He’s a letch, a coward, a liar and a scallywag, all in the service of considerable humor. Who can forget Hope’s ask, trying to project a tough-guy attitude, despite ordering a lemonade — “In a dirty glass.” It’s a small line, but in the hands of Bob Hope, it’s a famous touchstone for comic actors.
Jim Carrey, “The Cable Guy” (1996) This is like Jerry Lewis’ master class in “Nutty Professor.” Just like we knew Jerry Lewis was funny, we didn’t realize the depth of it until he opened up with all the elements. Everything is there in this flick for Carrey, too. Characters, physicality, menace, madness, yearning, desperation. Again, holding up the dramatic mirror to this performance – there is no way the Academy does not at least nominate this if he did all of these things in a drama.
Richard E. Grant, “Withnail and I” (1987) This one is so real, it almost makes us forget it is intensely comedic. Grant gets every laugh he should, but you also feel for Withnail and his wasted talent for being a reality star, before reality television was invented. Grant’s performance is akin to Bob Beamon’s leap in Mexico City, where you didn’t realize humans could do certain things.
Eddie Murphy, “Trading Places” (1983) This movie doesn’t have a bad note in it, and the symphony’s conductor is Eddie Murphy. If you stumble into it while scrolling your TV menu, I dare you to stop watching. Murphy’s character changes his point of view several times in the film, with the scene of his old friends at his new house being a particular piece of good acting. The frustrating thing about this movie is it examines all the things the Academy traditionally goes for – class struggle, racism, female exploitation, with the main characters taking full arcs. Murphy makes this possible. You wish there were more of these roles for Eddie, but never forget he got this one right.
Bill Murray, “Groundhog Day” (1993) This movie is in the National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and Murray is its romantic lead. He’s got a character arc that unfolds over a period which some have estimated to be between 10 – 10,000 years. And he’s very, very funny in it. Academy says sorry, keep moving; nothing to see here.
And finally, we have the exception who proves the rule: Bill Murray in “Lost In Translation” (2003). Yes, he was nominated for his role at the 76th Annual Academy Awards. And many critics projected him as the winner. The film was neither too commercial nor too funny. (As Murray said in “Caddyshack,” “So I got that going for me. Which is nice.”)
But come Academy night, the fix is in. Which clip does the Oscar show? Murray mugging, because comedians make faces. (Never mind the scene was for a photographic shoot, where the sole purpose is to make faces.) For Sean Penn, we have a crane shot of him emoting at operatic full ballast. Murray reacts honestly to the award announcement – annoyed, defiant, his face reads so much on TV that Penn tries to soothe him. Good for Murray – he’s had it with the Academy, and he’s calling them out on their unrelenting and systematic shut out of humor.
There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way people think about acting, for the funny to quit being ghettoized. If we are to believe that critical momentum builds to the academy’s vote, then we have to require all critics to take one improv class. Try and make one funny short film. And see how hard it is to be funny on any level when people not only expect it, but demand it.