In comedy vs. drama, Oscar gets serious

Posted: February 29, 2004

"Dying is hard," croaked Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean on his deathbed. "But not as hard as comedy."Though Kean's famous last words have been the mantra of working actors for almost 200 years, you wouldn't know it from the Academy Awards. At Hollywood's annual throwdown, drama almost always trumps comedy.

"Oscar voters don't get the joke," says Tom O'Neil, author of numerous books on the Academy Awards and their history. "They like high-minded, morally uplifting, serious films because it makes what they do look more important."

More's the pity. For on this night of a thousand klieg lights, six of eight top contests pit comedy against tragedy. Oddsmakers predict that the contenders who made or wrote or starred in the heavier fare will win precisely because serious movies are taken more seriously.

Almost surely, Sean Penn's grieving father in Mystic River will take the actor prize over Bill Murray's droll superstar in Lost in Translation, and Johnny Depp's pixilated buccaneer in Pirates of the Caribbean is a long shot. (Depp won the Screen Actors Guild prize last weekend, but industry insiders suspect that Penn and Murray canceled each other out.)

And almost surely, Charlize Theron's ravaged murderess in Monster will prevail over Diane Keaton's cheeky playwright in Something's Gotta Give.

Elsewhere, Lost in Translation is up against front-runners The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Mystic River in the best picture and director categories.

In only two top races does comedy have an edge. There's supporting actress, where Ren┬Łe Zellweger's comic turn in the otherwise grim Cold Mountain is in contention with Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River and Shohreh Aghdashloo of House of Sand and Fog, tragedies both. And, in comedy's best shot of the evening, there's original screenplay, where Sofia Coppola's Translation is favored to win over Jim Sheridan's In America.

"It's obvious that people think drama is the more serious art form," says Nancy Meyers, writer and director of Something's Gotta Give. "But it's an unsophisticated prejudice."

Considering the degree of difficulty involved, Meyers observes, it's a raw deal: "In drama, you have a big target. In comedy, you have to hit the bulls-eye."

The record of past Oscar winners supports her sad tale of comedy's neglect. You'd have to go back to 1977, when Richard Dreyfuss took actor honors for The Goodbye Girl and Keaton for Annie Hall, to see jesters win laurels.

And unless you classify Chicago or Shakespeare in Love as comedies, which Meyers doesn't, it's been 26 years since a full-out laffer, Annie Hall, won best picture.

If that's not enough evidence that comedy is a second-class citizen, says Meyers, there are the cases of Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams and Tom Hanks.

Lemmon gave classic comedy performances in Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but he didn't win top actor honors "until he cried in Save the Tiger [1973]." She calls Williams "an incomparable funnyman" who got nominated for his serious roles in Good Morning, Vietnam and The Fisher King, but "didn't win an Oscar until he cried in Good Will Hunting [1997]." Oscar rewards the tears of a clown, if not the clown himself.

And then there's Hanks in Big, released in 1988. "That's a once-in-a-generation - no, a once-in-a-lifetime - performance," Meyers argues. But does Hanks win the Oscar?

"He finally wins one for Philadelphia [in 1994], in part because it's a dramatic role," she says.

Notes Randy Cohen, Emmy-award winning writer of the old The David Letterman Show on NBC, "Sanctimony is the most reliable boost you can give your Oscar chances."

Meyers didn't expect a screenplay nod for her witty comedy about the romantic triangle of Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves. "I've only been nominated once [before] - for Private Benjamin," the 1980 Goldie Hawn comedy she wrote with Charles Shyer and Harvey Miller. And the bias against comedy being what it is, "chances are slim-to-nil that I'll ever be nominated again."

Still, she wonders, "if comedy's so easy and dismissable, then why can so few people do it?"

"There are dozens of great dramatic actors," she says. "But not many Jim Carreys, Goldie Hawns, Steve Martins and Eddie Murphys." It's odd, she muses. "You get paid as much to write a comedy, as much to star in one. The second-class treatment happens only at awards time."

There are some gray areas. Zellweger gives an eccentrically funny performance that relieves the mournful Cold Mountain. She's the odds-on favorite to win supporting-actress honors tonight, but you can bet that the movie's adapted-from-the-novel gravitas (and a sympathy vote stemming from her non-win last year for her work in Chicago) makes Zellweger's lighthearted role worthier in the minds of voters.

Then again, comedy is more often rewarded in the supporting-actor categories. Consider Marisa Tomei's win for My Cousin Vinny, Dianne Wiest's for Bullets Over Broadway, and Mira Sorvino's for Mighty Aphrodite. It's the "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" syndrome.

"There's an argument to be made for splitting comedy and drama into separate Oscar categories," says Cohen, author of the syndicated column "The Ethicist." "You could argue that the folks in each category are striving to do such dissimilar things that comparison is impossible."

The Golden Globes makes such a distinction. At the Globes ceremony last month, Penn took the prize for best actor in a drama and Murray the honor for actor in a comedy. When he accepted his statuette, the Lost in Translation star couldn't help tweaking those deep-dish thespians who take themselves too seriously.

"Let's not forget our brothers on the other side of the aisle, the dramatic actors," deadpanned Murray. "Without them, where would our wars, our miseries, and our psychological traumas come from?"

The bias in favor of tragedy is ancient, says Bryn Mawr classics professor Richard Hamilton. "In Athens, comedy enters the prize arena about 50 years after tragedy."

When the competition for laurels - the Athenian Oscars - were held, "three days were devoted to tragedy and only one to comedy," Hamilton said. Then, as now, the best man didn't always win: In 431 B.C., Euripides' Medea lost to a less-well-known play by Euphorion.

Though Plato had a low opinion of comedy, holding it fit "for only slaves and foreigners," his definition of the difference between tragedy and comedy still applies. Where tragedy deals with the substance of power, the Greek philosopher said, comedy is concerned with the contradictions that arise in the absence of power.

Distinctions between the genres blurred in Shakespeare's time, explains Peter Stallybrass, English professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In Elizabethan times, as in Athenian, the powers that be considered tragedy upper-class and comedy second-class.

"The . . . attitude toward theater of that day was that tragedy should be in high language and deal with heroes and gods, while comedy should be about lower-class people and in slang. Shakespeare was criticized for mixing kings and clowns."

Shakespeare saw the genres as fluid, says Stallybrass: "It's problematic to think that every serious story is told through tragedy. Shakespeare had an interplay of high and low language, of tragedy and comedy."

What Shakespeare knew that Oscar voters seem not to is that, although the king rules the people, it is the jester who rules the king.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or

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