There are eight films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s a real murderer’s row of serious stuff: An abused woman held captive in a shed with the son she conceived with her rapist; a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sex abuse within the Catholic Church; the financial crisis that wrecking-balled the homes and lives of millions of Americans. Missing from the ranks of the highest honor the Oscars have to offer? A single comedy.*
Dramas win Best Picture almost 90 percent of the time. Ninety percent! And that doesn’t even get into the acting and directing categories, where it is far more likely for an actor to be celebrated for a dramatic role than a comedic one.
The Oscars reward perhaps nothing so consistently as readily-apparent effort. Excellent comedy appears effortless. Excellent drama appears… effort-full. Brie Larson’s performance in Room. Eddie Redmayne’s arc in The Danish Girl. How Leonardo DiCaprio nearly died in the frozen river while curled up in the carcass of a bear he once called his wife and thought he could love forever in The Revenant. (…I haven’t seen The Revenant.)
But it’s equally difficult, if not more so, to pull off a performance like Amy Schumer’s in Trainwreck, Melissa McCarthy’s in Spy, or Amy Poehler’s in Inside-Out. The majority of Academy members seem to operate under the popular misconception that drama is more challenging, and therefore more deserving, than comedy. Maybe there’s no comedic feat as impressive as withstanding the emotional toll of making a movie like Spotlight. But maybe there is. Maybe it doesn’t matter. These awards exist to acknowledge excellence, not degree of difficulty. To quote Center Stage, yet another cinematic masterpiece that the Academy completely overlooked: I want to see the beauty, not the effort behind it.
This double-standard basically forces actors who we know are funny — Channing Tatum, Steve Carrell, late night MVP Jennifer Lawrence — to fritter away precious time and energy being “serious” just so they have the chance of winning stuff. (The closest Lawrence has come to comedy are those David O. Russell flicks that exist in a nebulous space between comedy and drama so as to guarantee the actors in them can score Oscar nominations.) Comedians can’t be accepted into the ranks of Real Actors until they show they can do the opposite of the thing they built their careers by doing; dramatic actors with impressive humor muscles never get the opportunity to flex them.
These professionally funny people could be out there making awesome movies that audiences would love and cherish for all of time. But they’re not. And that’s why for every one Wolf of Wall Street, we get approximately 18 movies in which DiCaprio hides his innate handsomeness and capacity for hilarity behind a furrowed brow and a gross beard. Leo’s handsomeness and hilarity belong to us, the people, not to his secret, private life! We must incentivize the deployment of both of these assets by rewarding them with Oscars.
By all but ignoring comedic work, the Academy takes the public stance that comedy lacks significant artistic merit. There is some retro Puritanical impulse at play here, the idea that anything fun is innately bad for a reason no one can quite place, that pleasure is wrong, and anything that causes enjoyment is frivolous at best, suspect at worst.
It also suggests, not-so-subtly, that comedy is just less “important” than drama. That a comedic work, all else being equal, will never have as powerful an impact on our culture at large as a dramatic one. In shocking news, you can make people laugh and think at the same time! I would point out that some of the most talented, influential people working today are doing exactly that, and their work is as important as any dramatic thing going: the aforementioned Ms. Schumer on her television show; Hannibal “I told a stand-up joke that sparked the public downfall of alleged serial rapist Bill Cosby” Burress; Tig Notaro, who is so brilliant she can literally make people burst out laughing while telling them she has cancer; John Oliver, who does so much reported eviscerating it’s a miracle his desk isn’t drowning in the actual guts of his targets. Aziz Ansari’s idea of a nuanced, insightful exploration of race is Master of None. The Academy’s idea of a nuanced, insightful exploration of race is Crash.
You know what, when it works, is the best part of the Oscars telecast? The host. You know who the Academy always winds up tapping as a host? A comedian. Think about how bonkers that is: The Academy, as an institution, cannot be bothered to bestow upon comedians the highest honor they have to offer. But the Academy can invite those comedians to entertain that year’s nominees, nearly all of whom are nominated because they proved their worth by being serious.
The easiest, most obvious, solution to this failure is to adopt the same model as the Emmys: Eliminate Best Picture, and replace it with Best Comedy and Best Drama. Poof! Twice as many movies can be honored, a greater variety of work celebrated — maybe even people of color, I don’t know, just spitballing here — and the odds of Amy Schumer showing up even if she isn’t Jennifer Lawrence’s plus-one increase approximately 500 percent.
Actors who want to game the system, as they all do, would be more likely than ever to sign on to a promising comedy instead of yet another gloomy biopic. Imagine the caliber of comedies we would see if all the funniest people in Hollywood knew the Academy’s highest honor could actually be earned through humor.
The disdain for comedies — like the disdain for other genre movies (action, sports, sci-fi, fantasy), like the lack of diversity in acting nominees, like the near-absence of women in directing, screenwriting, and technical categories — is all part of the same problem. The Academy decides what is excellent based on an impossibly narrow idea of what constitutes excellence. It’s a value system that places historical dramas above dystopian futures, war stories above domestic narratives, male-centric experiences above stories that revolve around women, white faces above people of color. It trains the movie-going public to put certain types of stories and people on a pedestal and treat everything and everyone else like some less-than also-rans.
The fact is, if movies are more than entertainment, if they are about more than just compelling, thoughtful storytelling; if they are — at their best — also about illuminating, challenging, questioning, and/or lifting up whatever we decide, as a society, is fundamental and valuable about the human experience, the Academy’s consistent failure to recognize comedy is totally illogical. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding about what it means to be a person. It suggests the Academy is unfamiliar with laughter, or that its members believe joy is essentially a less vital emotion than sorrow. Which is, well, sad.
*The Martian is not a comedy. The Golden Globes are drunk.