I’m not a big believer in the idea that the Oscar is any genuine measure of a movie or an actor in the first place. But if we must take Oscar seriously, then I would point out what I think is its most glaring deficiency: the short shrift given to comedy.
Not an expert but I reckon that being funny on film has got to be one of the more difficult things to pull off in movies. It truly takes skill and talent. Lots of people can fake at being all pouty or sad that such and such Dramatic Thing happened. But not a lot of people, when you get right down to it, can actually be funny in a movie.
When they do, and are, I’d like to see them get Oscars. Why don’t they? Well because Oscars are too Serious and take themselves so Seriously that they’d be embarrassed to do it. At most they’ll give it to a comedy if the comedy gets all solemn and tear-jerky near the end (for example, Life Is Beautiful.) This is just one of many reasons that Oscars are meaningless, but it’s a big one.
Let’s look at 2004′s awards (honoring films from 2003). Here were the Best Actor nominees: Sean Penn for Mystic River, Ben Kingsley for House of Sand and Fog, Bill Murray for Lost In Translation (who got in via the ‘solemnness’ comedy exception), Jude Law for Cold Mountain, and Johnny Depp for Pirates (which, ok, fair enough). Sean Penn won for some movie you’re never going to watch again for like the 5th time and there you go. Whoop de doo. Raise your hands, how many of you want to go back and rewatch Mystic River because Sean Penn was so damn Oscary in it? (And how many of you even remember anything at all about Law in Cold Mountain?)
I submit that the winner should have been….Jack Black, for School of Rock (which I also think ought to have won Best Picture). The problem is that Black isn’t a Serious Actor, so he wasn’t considered. But he should have been. With all due respect to Mr. Kingsley who did well enough as that Iranian guy, no single actor that year stood out as much in a movie performance as Black.
Let’s go back and identify some other great comedy performances – and compare them to the actual Oscar winners:
2004 – Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite. (winner – Jamie Foxx for Ray)
2003 – Jack Black vs Sean Penn
1999 – Ron Livingston, Office Space. (winner – Kevin Spacey, American Beauty)
1998 – Jeff Bridges, Big Lebowski. (winner – Roberto Benigni, Life Is Beautiful)
1997 – Mike Myers, Austin Powers. (winner – Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets)
1990 – Macaulay Culkin, Home Alone. (winner – Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune)
1988 – Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man)
1983 – Eddie Murphy, Trading Places. (winner – Robert Duvall for Tender Mercies)
1982 – Sean Penn, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (supporting actor winner – Louis Gossett Jr)
1979 – Bill Murray, Meatballs. (winner – Dustin Hoffman for Kramer v Kramer)
1978 – John Belushi, Animal House. (supporting actor winner – Christopher Walken, The Deer Hunter)
Now, I don’t say that every guy on my Comedy List was better than the actual Oscar winner, and some of the matchups here are tricky. I’ll give my props to Walken and Duvall – those were their best performances after all. And choices like Culkin, or Nielsen, may seem downright stupid (though I can kinda defend them – they left their mark, didn’t they?).
But imagine that, for each pair, you had to go back and watch one of them again. Is it so much of a stretch to think you’d pick more from the comedy list? And mightn’t that say something? Which list contains more performances that stand out in your mind as distinctive, as good performances? I know my answer…