How Oscar Lost Its Sense of Humor -- and 20 Comedies Worthy of Best Picture

It was nice to see Silver Linings Playbook on the list of nominees for Best Picture this year. Mind you -- I'll lay odds it won't win, and fun as it is, against the field it faces it probably shouldn't.

Still, it's reassuring that Oscar can pay tribute to a comedy with its most important award.

Remember the story of the vaudevillian on his deathbed who remarked: "Dying is easy -- comedy, that's hard." Outstanding comedy is arguably the most challenging type of film to pull off successfully, yet somehow over time the Academy hasn't recognized this in the movies they nominate for Best Picture.

If, for instance, you scan the Best Picture nominees over the past six decades, comedies make up less than 10 percent of the total -- roughly three to four films per decade. (Admittedly, I'm looking at what I call "pure" comedies, not "dramedies" or films you would first categorize as something else- say, a musical or romance).

Interestingly, this was not always the case. Oscar's first fifteen years most always included a comedy among the Best Picture noms: By my count, a total of 16 comedies were cited between 1927-1942.

Certainly some of the titles include movies that don't hold up so well: 1931's The Front Page, and 1938's You Can't Take It With You (which actually won Best Picture!)

Other titles we still know and love today: She Done Him Wrong (1932); It Happened One Night (1934) which swept all the major awards; The Thin Man (1934); Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936); Libeled Lady (1936); The Awful Truth (1937); Ninotchka (1939); The Philadelphia Story (1940); and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).

Of course, at this point the Second World War intervened, and a more serious mood came with it. Then in 1944, the Academy decided to limit the number of Best Picture nominees to five titles. From that point on, comedy never really made a comeback at the Oscars.

Even looking over the past three years, and a total of 30 Best Picture nods, the comic pickings have been exceedingly slim: Only a couple of animated entries (Up, Toy Story 3), and one Woody Allen feature (Midnight In Paris) which would be better categorized as a romantic fantasy.

Is this oversight wholly the fault of the Academy? Who else, unless we all agree it's somehow natural or fitting for great comedies to be treated like the second-class citizens of cinema.

Obviously I don't agree. To demonstrate why, here's my personal list of twenty superb comedies that were fully worthy of a Best Picture nod but unaccountably got overlooked:

  • Duck Soup (1933) -- Pure comedic genius, and the finest Marx Brothers film ever. The Academy didn't get the joke.
  • Modern Times (1936) -- Oscar's black eye -- no real love for film pioneer Charlie Chaplin.
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)/His Girl Friday< (1940) -- Incredibly, Howard Hawks's two incredibly fast Cary Grant comedies scored not a single Oscar nod between them.
  • The Bank Dick (1940) -- Mr. Fields was never cited for anything by the Academy. Was it because he liked his drink?
  • Adam's Rib (1949) -- This top Tracy/Hepburn outing drew just one major Oscar nod for its script. This classic got shafted!
  • Some Like It Hot (1959) -- This was a glaring omission, but it was Chuck Heston's year -- and he was not that funny.
  • The Odd Couple (1968) -- The best Lemmon/Matthau pairing ever, worthy of Best Picture and two Actor nods. Only Neil Simon was nominated for screenplay.
  • Harold and Maude (1971) -- One of our most enduring black comedies and cult films -- ignored by Oscar for its originality and edginess.
  • Love and Death (1973) -- Woody's most sustained comedy, but it would take another four years for the Academy to honor or even recognize him.
  • Young Frankenstein (1974) -- Mel and Gene's finest hour, and still one of the funniest movies ever made. How could they have missed this one?
  • Airplane! (1980) -- If comedies are supposed to make you laugh, then this comedy takes a capital "C." Overlooked entirely by the Academy. Too low-brow?
  • This Is Spinal Tap (1984) -- Uproarious rock spoof by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest and company, but the only music Oscar could hear that year was Amadeus.
  • Dazed and Confused (1993) -- Richard Linklater's brilliant breakthrough ensemble comedy, not deemed Oscar-worthy. (Just what is, then?)
  • The Big Lebowski (1998) -- Clearly the Academy thought it was "The Small Lebowski"; it was completely shut out at the Oscars.
  • Being John Malkovich (1999) -- Yes, it got Oscar nods for director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, but this wildly inventive comedy truly deserved a Best Picture nomination, and at least one win -- for something!


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