No laughing matter
Do the Golden Globes have anything to teach the Academy Awards? Maybe one thing: How to lighten up.
The Globes, with its two best picture categories, knows that dramas and comedies are almost completely different art forms that can’t be judged against each other. But with its sole best picture category, the Oscars have celebrated comedies so infrequently -- despite their popular appeal and sometimes enormous box-office take -- that it leaves many comedic actors feeling that academy voters just don’t get it.
“Maybe it’s just the dichotomy of laughs versus seriousness,” says Ben Stiller, whose R-rated summer comedy, “Tropic Thunder,” earned critical praise and is edging toward $200 million in worldwide ticket sales. “People, you know, just assume that since it’s not serious, you don’t take it seriously.”
But just because the actors appear to be having fun on-screen doesn’t mean the work isn’t challenging, insists Sarah Jessica Parker, who won four of the eight Golden Globes for which she was nominated during her tenure on HBO’s “Sex and the City,” and who could well be nominated again for this year’s big-screen version of the show.
“It might look like it comes easily but there’s enormous choreography to it; there’s endless rehearsing of timing, thinking about your environment, props,” she laughs, trailing off. “There’s just a lot that goes into it. And it’s hard -- it’s wonderfully hard,” she says, citing the absence of immediate feedback as another challenge to making a film comedy.
“Unlike in theater, where you have a response and you can kind of get a meter, film is very much a vacuum -- you are working in silence, you know, you’re not hearing responses. Comedy requires participation from the audience in a different way than straight material does, so when you’re filming you really have to think about timing and the other person’s role in it in a different way.
“It’s also complicated to have pathos in comedy without being insipid, saccharine, trickily manipulative . . . nevermind the whole physical part of comedy, which is also very much a part of the storytelling.”
Both actors believe it’s difficult for anyone not involved in comedies to fully appreciate just how challenging that work is -- as hard and perhaps even harder than dramatic acting.
“When you see a drama, it’s open to interpretation,” says Stiller, who could garner at least three Globe nominations for “Tropic Thunder” as its co-writer, director and star. “People say, ‘Oh, I thought that was good,’ ‘I didn’t buy it,’ ‘It really moved me,’ ‘It didn’t move me.’ But with comedy, it’s similar to a horror movie in that if the audience is screaming, it’s scared and you know it -- you actually hear the response. And in a comedy, it’s the same thing, you know, you get into that first screening and people are either laughing or they’re not. No matter how much you want to justify it or try to equivocate, you can’t argue with the fact that people are not laughing, that something is not going the way it needs to go for the movie.”
So should the motion picture academy get with it and adopt comedy and musical categories?
“I don’t know if the solution is a new category or not,” Stiller says. “It’s worth looking at.” He pauses and adds, “It just seems like there is no recognition for people who, over the years -- and this is for years and years, you know -- have been doing such great work.”
He doesn’t name names, but some are obvious. Such greats as Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy have never won an Oscar, and many were never even nominated.
And even the Golden Globes, which has no trouble recognizing a fun, larky musical (Surely, “Mamma Mia!” is a shoo-in this year) often seems to take a highbrow approach to funny business. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (the organization behind the Globes) tends to recognize works that straddle the line between comedy and drama with such films as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Sideways,” “The Squid and the Whale,” “Thank You for Smoking” and even “Pride and Prejudice” regularly drawing notice over laugh-out-loud comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Superbad.”
With the Globes and the Oscars, true, broad comedies usually have to settle for recognition in the screenplay categories -- with a recent notable exception in “Borat,” which did receive a best picture Globes nomination.
And there’s the occasional performance nod too, which, this year, could make Stiller a happy man.
His “Thunder” costar, Robert Downey Jr., whose role as a white actor who has a “pigment alteration” to appear black for a role in the film within the film caused gasps, has been generating plenty of awards buzz for a supporting actor nomination -- for both the Globes and the Oscars. His performance parodying overly intense actors radiates off the screen and adds an element of real intelligence to the broad humor that permeates the rest of the movie.
So, do comic actors and filmmakers settle for this kind of sporadic recognition or push for a best picture category? Does it even matter?
Stiller emphasizes, “I don’t think comedic people really take themselves seriously, and I think you have to have that attitude if you do comedy. Yes, we love to get critical praise and awards and all that stuff but, at the end of the day, when you’re making a comedy, people in the theater are either laughing or they’re not laughing, and that’s the gauge that you have to go by. The audience is really who you’re making it for.”
Maybe writer-director Preston Sturges, one of the best comedic talents to work in Hollywood, said it best in his 1941 film “Sullivan’s Travels,” which covered some of this same turf. In it, he tells a studio chief: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Wise words to the academy in these tough economic times.
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The Oscars haven’t generally been kind to comedies, only a handful have been nominated for best picture and of those only 11 -- using an extremely loose definition of comedy -- have won. Most are genre-hybrids with comedic elements, not pure laugh-out-loud comedies:
“It Happened One Night” (1934)
“You Can’t Take It With You” (1938)
“Going My Way” (1944)
“The Apartment” (1960)
“Tom Jones” (1963)
“The Sting” (1973)
“Annie Hall” (1977)
“Terms of Endearment” (1983)
“Driving Miss Daisy” (1989)
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998)
“American Beauty” (1999)
-- Scott Feinberg