Want To Win An Oscar? Then Don’t Do A Comedy
The last comedy to win an Oscar for Best Picture was Annie Hall, in 1977. If a comedy doesn’t take home the gong in the next three years, it will have been a full four decades since the Academy deemed a funny film worthy of Cinema’s highest accolade. So why is this? Ironically, perhaps the best insight into the answer to this question comes in the form of a joke that appeared in a comedy series…
In an episode from Family Guy’s third season entitled ‘From Method to Madness’, there’s a gag which goes: “Let’s remember our performance hierarchy: Legitimate Theatre, Musical Theatre, Stand-Up, Ventriloquism, Magic, Mime.” Although it’s obviously intended as a joke, there is an undeniable truth here: the further down that hierarchy a performer appears, the less likely it is that what the performer is doing will be considered ‘art’.
The same kind of rule could be applied to Cinema, or at least to the way in which films are judged. If the last forty years are anything to go by there has, over the years, been an overwhelming tendency to ignore comedies in favour of more ‘serious’ films at the Oscars, perhaps because it is felt that a film that has a serious message is inherently more ‘worthy’ of consideration. But isn’t it true that comedies can have an equally valid point to make?
This week we take a look at some of the best comedies in recent years to miss out at the Oscars. If you’re a fan of films that make you laugh while getting their message across, then read on. If, on the other hand, you’re a film director / actor / actress looking to bag a golden statuette, our advice would be this: Want to win an Oscar? Then don’t do a comedy.
Team America: World Police
This might seem like a strange choice, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s film is so funny it’s easy to forget that, at its heart, Team America is a merciless satire on U.S. foreign policy. Released in 2004 in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, Team America lambasts everything about the Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’, from its apparent ignorance towards other cultures to its unquestioning reliance on ‘I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E.’, in this case re-imagined as a slightly unreliable super-computer. Inspired by the productions of Gerry Anderson, the film also makes deliberate use of the limits of marionettes for comedic purposes and perfectly captures the perception from other nations that America was behaving like the world’s police force. It was never going to be considered for an Oscar, particularly after its running gag about the ‘Film Actor’s Guild’, but it’s one of the South Park creators’ best moments ever.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Another political satire, this time from acclaimed director Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove was released in 1964 at the height of the Cold War against a backdrop of McCarthyist paranoia about the Soviets and the threat of ‘mutual assured destruction’ following developments in nuclear weapons. Starring Peter Sellers in various roles, including that of former Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, the film brilliantly lampoons the West’s paranoid rhetoric, including concepts such as the ‘missile gap’ – the name given to a perceived shortfall in the number and power of U.S. nuclear missiles in comparison to those of the Soviet Union. Although the film was a huge hit and nominated for four Oscars, the film walked away empty-handed. It did fare better at the BAFTAs however, picking up four awards including Best British Film.
The Cable Guy
Starring Jim Carey and Matthew Broderick, on the face of it Ben Stiller’s 1996 film is just another vehicle for Carey’s zany antics, but delve a little deeper and The Cable Guy is actually a pretty unsettling story about a stalker. When Steven (Broderick) moves into a new apartment, he slips the cable guy, Chip (Carey), $50 in order to get him to ‘unlock’ the full range of channels and feigns interest in Chip’s work. Chip, a lonely soul raised almost entirely by television, takes Steven’s words to heart and tries to become Steven’s new best friend. Steven’s irritation at Chip’s unannounced visits soon turns to terror when he discovers Chip has been fired from a previous job for stalking his customers, and when Steven tries to sever his ties with his unwanted new buddy, Chip sets out on a mission to destroy Steven’s life. As disturbing as it is funny, the film was roundly ignored by the Academy, despite taking a very healthy $60 million at the box office.
The Royal Tenenbaums
Nobody does dark comedy quite like Wes Anderson and his 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums is one of the best examples. With a star-studded cast that includes Gene Hackman, Luke and Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Bill Murray, the film details the lives of one extraordinarily dysfunctional family and beneath the comedic performances the narrative tackles a range of issues including drug addiction, cancer, alienation and even incest. Nominated at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs for Best Screenplay, in both cases the film walked away with nothing, but the film has nevertheless become a cult classic among moviegoers.
A Serious Man
Another directing partnership that specialises in comedies of the darkest variety, The Coen Brothers’ semi-autobiographical film A Serious Man charts their adolescence growing up in a Jewish family out in the Minnesota suburbs. Michael Stuhlbarg stars as the family’s patriarch, Larry Gopnik, whose life begins to collapse when he is suddenly informed by his wife that he must obtain a ‘get’, a Jewish divorce, so she can move in with her new love interest, Sy Abelman. His career also begins to fall apart as his application for tenure at his university goes from being a sure thing to a pipe dream when the University’s board of directors begin receiving anonymous, derogatory letters about him. Larry turns to his synagogue for advice, but the senior Rabbi is never available and the advice of the junior Rabbis is largely useless. The film deals with the notion of religious relevance in the modern age, as well as other issues such as the bullying Larry’s teenage sons suffer at school, partly as a result of their faith. Although the film received nominations for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, the awards for both went to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.