Plenty of comedies have serious shot at nabbing Oscars this year

December 25, 2003|By Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - Two of the biggest hits of the year, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Elf, were powered by knockout comic acting - Johnny Depp as a grunge pirate and Will Ferrell as the oversized elf.

Their performances, like Bill Murray's in Lost in Translation, Jack Black's in School of Rock and Ellen DeGeneres' voice work in the animated Finding Nemo, excited critics and fans. Whether their work can translate into Oscars, however, is another matter. For when it comes to comedies, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it seems, just hasn't gotten the joke.

Comic legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel never won an acting Oscar, and current comedy heavyweights such as Mike Myers, Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy have been shut out. Still, in a year when laughter ruled at the box office - six of the 10 top-grossing films so far this year are comedies - the studios are mounting campaigns for these performances for either the Academy Awards or, at least, the Golden Globes. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are full of ads promoting comic performances and films along with more serious fare.

Among the possible contenders for the Oscars:

Murray for his critically acclaimed turn as one of two lost souls in Tokyo who find each other;

Depp for his over-the-top portrayal of an eccentric pirate captain who's more Keith Richards than Douglas Fairbanks;

Farrell for his endearing naif raised by elves, who's investigating his human roots;

Black for his renegade rocker posing as a substitute teacher;

DeGeneres for her regal blue tang with short-term memory loss. (Voice work can qualify an actor for an Oscar.)

Jamie Lee Curtis' zany physical comedy in Freaky Friday and Billy Bob Thornton's alcoholic, anti-Elf turn in Bad Santa are also worthy of note, maintains Newsweek film critic David Ansen. So is work by New York Film Critics Circle winner Eugene Levy (A Mighty Wind) and Bill Nighy (Love Actually) in the supporting actor category.

"This year was stronger than usual for comedy," Ansen says. "But unlike a satire like Network, a comedy with `heart' like Moonstruck or a socially relevant Dr. Strangelove, flat-out comedies almost never get nominated. It's crazy because Hollywood movies that have endured are more likely to be comedies than dramas. No one's rushing out to rent The Life of Emile Zola, which won, while the great screwball comedies don't age at all."

School of Rock producer Scott Rudin believes comic star turns like Black's get overlooked by the academy because "great comics make it look easy - and Oscar rewards what looks hard."

"What Jack did in School of Rock was as hard as what Nicole Kidman did in The Hours," he said, alluding to her Oscar-winning performance in another of his films. "Achieving a looseness, sustaining a buoyancy in a planned medium like ours isn't easy because movies are stop and start, stop and start. The sheer force of Jack's talent kept an inanimate object aloft for the full 100 minutes."

Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer is equally high on Depp. "The role was originally written for a mainstream Burt Lancaster type," he says. "But Johnny made it his own. Wearing makeup and walking with a stagger, he turned in an extraordinarily daring performance."

Although Carrey won a Golden Globe for The Truman Show, the motion picture academy didn't even nominate him for best actor. But that's nothing new for comic performances. Dustin Hoffman was recognized for Rain Man rather than Tootsie, which many consider his finest work.

"Carrey will get an Oscar only if he plays Dr. Pasteur - and doesn't break all the vials," says Oscar-nominated writer Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!, Tootsie). "What's so tough about comedy is the voters think the actors are just being themselves on-screen. Comedians such as Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Steve Martin and Billy Crystal are asked to be host of the show, but they're the ringmasters, not the royalty."

The supporting actor category, he adds, is easier to crack for comic performances - just ask Marisa Tomei (who won for 1992's My Cousin Vinny) or Mira Sorvino (who won in '95 for Mighty Aphrodite). "The academy has no problem saying, 'You're close ... here's a cigar,'" he observes. "It's a consolation prize for the filmmakers."

Very few comedies have won the best picture award - among them Annie Hall and Shakespeare in Love. Comic classics such as Bringing Up Baby, Modern Times and A Night at the Opera weren't nominated for the top prize. Nor was Some Like It Hot, the No. 1 film on the American Film Institute's all-time comedy list, which only won for costume design. And it's not just male comic actors who haven't fared well with the Oscars; the best actress field has also been notably devoid of comics. Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday), Cher (Moonstruck), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) are among those admitted to the inner sanctum.

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