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by D.R. Stewart
February 13, 2012 10:55 AM
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For Your Consideration: The 10 Best Comedic Performances That Weren’t Even Nominated

Universal Kristin Wiig in "Bridesmaids"

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.)

There’s an understanding that best-actress consideration for a comedian is too much to hope for; better to put your energies where there's hope for success.

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 in "School of Rock"
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 in "The Cable Guy"
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.


  • Bogdan | February 14, 2012 7:00 AMReply

    Jim Carrey is one of the most underestimated actors by the Academy, not just for his comedic performances which are brilliant. Just remember "The Truman show", "Man on the moon" and "Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind", he didn't even get a nod.

  • Lydia | February 13, 2012 11:12 PMReply

    1994 - Johnny Depp was nominated as best actor for his comedic and brilliantly conceived performance as Captain Jack Sparrow!

  • Warren | February 14, 2012 3:53 AM

    Surely you mean 2004?

  • Steven Ball | February 13, 2012 8:28 PMReply

    SOME LIKE IT HOT is pure genius & everyone in it deserves an Oscar. & that includes the little guy who plays the bellhop. Speaking of bellhops what about Jerry Lewis? And did Peter Sellars ever get the Oscar he deserved for playing 3 or 4 different characters in Kubrick's Strangelove?

  • Brian Harris | February 13, 2012 5:29 PMReply

    Some of these I can get behind. Murray, Murphy, Martin, and Carell in particular. Never seen the Bob Hope piece but I have no doubt it was deserving.

    But Jim Carrey for The Cable Guy? You're stretching. That movie was an objective catastrophic failure on nearly every level. Critics savaged it. Audiences didn't like it either. And a lot of that has to do with Jim Carrey's embarrasing, over-the-top, volcanically obnoxious performance. Entire columns were written devoted to its inanity. Looking back, I have to admit that it's hard not to admire his courage and his ability to cut loose in that way that only a select few comic actors (Robin Williams, the aforementioned Mr. Martin) can. But does that make him worthy of an Oscar nomination. Why not just nominate him for Liar, Liar? Hell, at least that movie was funny.

    Ron Livingston and Jack Black were odd choices too. Livingston was really a straight man in that movie in a lot of respects. Granted, being the straight man requires a lot of skill ( just ask George Burns, the Marlon Brando of straight men), but there was so little depth to Office Space that I'd find it hard to justify nominating anyone from that movie. Well. Maybe Gary Cole. And Black playing his own instruments is impressive, but - and I suppose this is where taste plays a factor - I just didn't find him funny. The whole screaming and flailing thing, is that really acting? Did we really see a character there?

  • DR | February 13, 2012 6:22 PM

    being lazy, was going to respond re Carrey, but my man did it for me:
    I do realize that Livingston is not broad in Office Space, but he gets a ton of mileage out of his lines, and is genuinely funny. In fact, he's the kind of lead that the Academy usually likes to favor -- light on the big yucks, but very real in his performance. If he doesn't ground the film, it could go off into "Idiocracy" land ...
    As for Black, I don't know what I can do for you on that. Maybe, as you say, it's your taste -- but he was such a joy to watch in School of Rock. So much of comedy is melodies (not timing as everyone declares) and his line deliveries are pitch perfect. Don't forget, he could easily be seen as a jerk, his character is bit of a rogue. It's a bit like Robert Preston in Music Man -- in the hands of many people he would come off as a really bad guy. I feel bad that all you get out of that performance is "screaming and flailing."

  • Eric | February 13, 2012 5:25 PMReply

    My minority vote goes to Robin Williams in "World's Greatest Dad."

  • Brian Harris | February 13, 2012 8:43 PM

    It's an interesting article, and it makes some fairly strong points in defense of the script, but I just don't see it with Carrey. There was nothing human about it, not even the ending; which now that I think about it may have been the point. I tend not to see much in Carrey's performances but mugging. I thought it was interesting that the aforementioned article brought up The Truman Show, because that remains Carrey's single performance that delivers any sense of humanity for me. To know that he's capable of that kind of honesty and chooses not to deliver it most of the time is very frustrating for me as a film fan, and sad for me as an actor.

  • Craig Kocur | February 13, 2012 3:59 PMReply

    Tom Hanks in "A League of Their Own". I don't think he's ever been better.

  • Edward Copeland | February 13, 2012 3:21 PMReply

    First off, neither Wiig nor her screenplay deserved nominations because Bridesmaids was an overlong, terribly written unfunny film whose only saving grace was Melissa McCarthy which is why she's been rewarded. Second, you've left off the most glaring best actor snub for a comedic role in history: Cary Grant in His Girl Friday in 1940. To make matters worse, the winner was Jimmy Stewart in a comic performance in The Philadelphia Story but he wasn't even the best lead actor in The Philadelphia Story because it also co-starred Grant (who wasn't nominated at all). They were making it up to Stewart because he didn't win the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Also, I love Bill Murray and wanted him to win for Lost in Translation, but I wouldn't label that film or performance a purely comic one the way his turns in Groundhog Day and many others examples are. The question on Murray isn't so much why didn't he win for Lost in Translation but why has he only been nominated once? Then look back at poor Cary Grant who deserved nominations countless times but only got in twice when he made soggy, sappy, soapier pictures.

  • Brian | February 13, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    A supporting role, but still comedic and brilliant: Jon Cryer as Duckie Dale in Pretty In Pink.

  • Brian Harris | February 13, 2012 5:38 PM

    Grant was a terrific personality and interesting to watch, but I don't know if I'd call him an actor. He was more a performer, in the same way John Wayne was. Not much vulnerability, which is really what good comedy is about. Jimmy Stewart kind of owned him in The Philadelphia Story, IMHO.

  • Pdog | February 13, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Ron Burgandy

  • Thomasi | February 13, 2012 3:02 PMReply

    Oh, and just as criminal as Albert Brooks' snub for his dramatic work in "Drive" are all his previous snubs for his comedic work in his own films, especially "Modern Romance."

  • Thomasi | February 13, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    Wow. Eighty-plus years of Oscar history and the only non-contemporary performer you can cite is Bob Hope? Never you mind, all you Marilyn Monroes, Tony Curtises, Carole Lombards, Alec Guinnesses, Charlie Chaplins, Claudette Colberts, Joel McCreas, and Cary Grants. Jack Black and Bob frickin' Hope will bear the standard for you.

  • D.R. | February 13, 2012 3:23 PM

    Thomas! -- Just like when AFI does a countdown and I fuss and fume about how they missed things, I knew I was top-heavy on contemporary. Tony Curtis, being a particular rant of mine -- his multi-faceted performance in "Some Like it Hot" always being more worthy of comic acting than Lemmon. Thank you for all your good catches. Peter Sellers as Clouseau, how'd I miss that? Charles Laughton in Hobson's Choice? Keep em' coming!

  • brian godshall | February 13, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    Eddie Murphy in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR - genius.

  • Thomasi | February 13, 2012 5:41 PM

    I was going to say Peter Sellers, but he was nominated for both Dr. Strangelove and Being There, his two greatest. I love Clouseau, and it is great slapstick, but he's done more full-bodied comic work.

  • Peter Miller | February 13, 2012 4:57 PM

    SEVEN different parts?? ALL unique and individual???

    Hell YES he deserved at LEAST a nomination for that!!!

  • Peter Knegt | February 13, 2012 1:52 PMReply

    There's no way in hell it ever could have happened, but Anna Faris's work in SMILEY FACE is genuine comic genius.

  • WC | February 13, 2012 3:07 PM

    I agree 100%!

  • David | February 13, 2012 1:36 PMReply

    Kevin Kline for "Dave" and Jaime Lee Curtis for "True Lies" or "A Fish Called Wanda". For Jim Carrey I'd say "I Love You Phillip Morris", "The Truman Show", or "Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind". Oh and Patton Oswalt for "Big Fan".

  • Jim | February 13, 2012 1:12 PMReply

    Eddie Murphy in "Bowfinger" ... the film crew assistant half of his split role in that movie is masterful.

  • Dana Harris | February 13, 2012 1:22 PM

    the bit where he's running across the freeway -- funny, scary, pathos. Amazing.

  • Jake | February 13, 2012 11:41 AMReply

    Forgot a major one : Jeff "The Dude" Brides for The Big Lebowski.