Loosen up, Oscars

When I was at an early screening of the upcoming comedy “Role Models” the other night, I found myself thinking about the Academy Awards, wondering what I always wonder when I see a good new comedy: Why on Earth shouldn’t the Oscars recognize good work in comedy the same way they do in drama, animation, cinematography, editing and all the other great movie crafts? Shockingly, comedy is so thoroughly ignored by Oscar voters that it’s been more than 30 years (yes, count ‘em -- thirty) since a true comedy -- Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” -- won the Oscar for best picture.

To say this is a disgrace would be an understatement. I hate to bore you with a recitation of film history, but movies began as a comic medium. A generation of Americans grew up falling in love with the cinema, largely thanks to Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and a host of other inspired silent movie comics. A second generation of moviegoers survived the Great Depression, thanks to the wonderful screwball comedies of the 1930s, from “My Man Godfrey” to “The Awful Truth” to “It Happened One Night” to “Midnight,” not to mention the great Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields movies of the period.

The comedies of the ‘30s remain the true pillar of movie art from that era, immensely watchable even today, as many of the dramas and gangster films of the period have lost much of their thrill and allure. Comedy often tells us more about our time than the most acclaimed drama. In fact, I’d argue that if future cultural historians wanted the best window into the contemporary mores of the early 21st century, they wouldn’t find much help from most of our recent Oscar winners (“Crash” aside), which tend to be set in the past, looking back in time for lessons about earlier eras. For the best analysis of people’s anxieties, quirks and fears in 2008, you’d start by watching Judd Apatow movies, which have more to say about our time than “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” James Bond or even thoughtful art films like “Atonement” or “There Will Be Blood.”


Directed by David Wain, who did 2001’s “Wet Hot American Summer,” “Role Models,” which is being released by Universal Pictures Nov. 7, has no weighty message to deliver. It’s simply loaded with shrewd comedy writing and slyly funny performances. Penned by a quartet of writers, including Wain, the film’s costar Paul Rudd, Ken Marino (who plays a comically clueless stepdad in the film) and original writer Timothy Dowling, it follows the misadventures of two mismatched young guys -- Rudd and Seann William Scott -- who find themselves forced to become mentors to a pair of unhappy young boys in a Big Brothers-style community service program.

The Apatow influence is inescapable, since the film is populated with various actors, starting with Rudd and costar Elizabeth Banks, who are best known for their work in Apatow films. The project has an intriguing history. It was originally at Fox, which put it in turnaround. Producer Mary Parent, now MGM’s production chief but then a producing partner with Scott Stuber, picked it up, believing it was a timely comic premise: “I loved the concept of these two guys -- one of them totally cynical, the other completely living in his imagination -- who were forced to learn how to step out of themselves and help other people.”

In Dowling’s original script, the guys were raffish beer salesman, which Parent felt was too close to the characters in “Wedding Crashers.” There was also a big high school football game in the film’s third act, which was tossed out during script rewrites, replaced by a comical medieval-style battle reenactment.

The project was transformed in numerous other ways. The original director, Luke Greenfield, got the ax during preproduction, replaced by Wain, who had worked with Rudd on “Wet Hot American Summer.” The film lost its original title, “Big Brothers,” when the real-life organization nixed the idea. For a while, the movie went under “Little Big Man,” which the filmmakers dropped, worried that it would require too much explanation for moviegoers. “Role Models” was relatively generic, but it gave Universal a good hook to base its marketing material around.

There are a host of stellar performances in the film, but none better than the one given by Rudd, who gives his character a wryly poignant spin rarely seen in comic buddy films. Played by Rudd, Danny Donahue is smart, cynical and thoroughly disappointed in himself, shrewd enough to see that he’s going nowhere in life but not resourceful enough to stop himself from spinning his wheels.

If this were a performance set in a drama instead of a comedy, it would inspire all sorts of noisy best actor chatter from the awards-season soothsayers in cyberspace. But because it comes in a comedy package, Rudd will go award-less, just as Steve Martin did in “All of Me,” the 1984 comedy that featured one of the most soulful acting performances in modern times, a performance roundly ignored by Oscar voters because it happened in a comedy.

Why does comedy get so little respect at Oscar time? “When it’s done well, it looks effortless,” says Stuber, who has worked on a host of great comedies, first as a Universal studio exec, now as a producer. “But the truth is, comedy is really difficult. I have incredible respect for the writers and filmmakers, because it’s really hard to create the right dynamic that can capture humor that comes from real human experience. And when it comes to acting, if you want to understand the complexity of comedy, try to imagine what Eddie Murphy did in the first ‘Nutty Professor.’ It’s sheer genius -- he’s not just playing entirely different characters, but he’s playing opposite totally different characters who are all him. You can’t believe he didn’t get an Oscar. The acting is as good as you’ll ever see.”

It’s long overdue for the academy to give a separate Oscar for best comedy film and comedy acting performances as well (even the Golden Globes have a separate category for comedies). After all, the precedent has already been set. When it became clear that Oscar voters were never going to ever give a best picture Oscar to an animated film, even though many Pixar films were the best movies made in their year of release, the academy suddenly created a best animated film category to right the wrong. It may mean that animated films are in a creative ghetto, but at least they get to take home a trophy. The academy should do the same for comedy.

It would also make good business sense. With the Oscar telecast’s ratings in free-fall because most viewers have never seen any of the limited-release dramas vying for best picture, having a separate comedy category would allow the Oscar telecast to give airtime to a host of more commercial, broad-appeal movies. It has always struck me as unbearably elitist that the academy would happily invite comic actors on the show, but only as hosts and presenters, not as award winners.

Alas, the motion picture academy is still in denial. Sid Ganis, its president (and a veteran comedy producer as well), was polite enough to take my call. But he brushed off my idea, saying (talk about denial!) that just because a comedy hasn’t won a best picture Oscar in 30 years doesn’t mean that one couldn’t win. “I absolutely feel that a comedy of quality would and could be nominated and win,” he told me. “It’s happened before, so why couldn’t it happen again?”

Well, then why did the academy create a special animation award? Wasn’t that an obvious admission that animated films didn’t have a chance in hell of winning in the overall best picture category? No, says Ganis. “They do have a chance in hell of winning best picture and winning in any other category.” He argues that creating a new comedy category would set an unfortunate precedent. “We see a lot of superhero movies and comic book movies and horror movies, but we don’t have a separate category for all of them,” he says.

OK, so the academy doesn’t get it (even though one of Sid’s own movies, Adam Sandler’s “Big Daddy,” would have been a worthy comedy nominee). Maybe they never will. If I were Universal, I’d give any academy member a free ticket to the opening night of “Role Models.” Laughter is a communal experience. It might be nice for some of the academy mandarins to hear it for themselves. Comedy is part of the fundamental DNA of film. Instead of figuring out how to energize its dying institution, the academy is guilty of pushing the Oscars further and further away from the people who actually love movies.



This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog.