Comedies lay egg in Oscar races

To the makers of comedies, the Academy Awards is no laughing matter.

“Serious people somehow are more admired than clowns,” says veteran writer Larry Gelbart, reflecting on Oscar’s usual snub of comedies. “It’s the idea that serious ideas should be rewarded more than comedic ideas and that comedy is easier and trivial.”

As Hollywood and much of the world awaits the announcement of the Oscar nominations Wednesday, many wonder if any of this year’s successful comedies — including “Mrs. Doubtfire,””Sleepless in Seattle,””Dave” and “Groundhog Day”– will be left out in the cold once the nominations are announced.

If history is any indication, there’s a good chance they may not make the cut — and that’s why, to the creators of comedies, the Academy Awards can be so depressing.

While there are no accurate statistics to support the assertion that comedies are overlooked or dismissed, many of those involved in making comedies say members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences give them short shrift.

“It’s Hollywood’s way of presenting a self-important picture of itself,” says Gelbart, who was nominated in 1982 for his “Tootsie” script, but ended up losing to “Gandhi.”

“They think it’s easy to be funny, but it’s the toughest thing in the world,” says writer-director Billy Wilder, one of the few who has won Oscars for his comedies. “A lot of people think comedy is easier and the actors bring the jokes with them.”

In the 65 years, comedies have been nominated in various categories, even occasionally winning, but it’s very rare to find a funny film that has won multiple Oscars.

Woody won

The most recent sweep was in 1977, when Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” won four awards: best picture, best direction, best original screenplay and best actress. Before “Annie Hall” was Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” which, in 1960, won five Oscars, including best picture, directing and screenplay.

And before “The Apartment,” the most recent sweep was in 1934 when Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” also won five Oscars, including best picture, best direction and a best actor award for Clark Gable.

But when it comes to Oscars for acting, the omissions are even more glaring. It’s almost hard to believe that Cary Grant, considered the greatest comedic actor ever, was never nominated for any of his comic roles, although he was nominated twice for two dramatic turns — 1941’s “Penny Serenade” and 1944’s “None But the Lonely Heart.” Perhaps embarrassed at their own lack of judgment, the Academy finally awarded Grant an honorary award in 1969.

“They took him for granted,” says Gelbart. “They said he was playing Cary Grant and that wasn’t enough.”

Overlooking the talent

“If an actor plays a drunk, they think that’s work and the actor is working hard,” says Wilder. “In a comedy, Cary Grant would come into a room and say ‘Tennis, anyone?’ and they thought he was just playing himself and not really acting. That’s why they didn’t take him seriously.”

And Grant isn’t the only comedian to be overlooked. Other laughmeisters, such as the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were never honored for their work and had to settle for honorary awards handed out by the Academy.

Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Golden Globes, which hand out awards in a separate comedy/musical category, when it comes to the Oscars, all the films are thrown into the same pot. Unable to compete with the serious pix, lighter fare goes home empty-handed. And this year, there seems to be even more quality, “heavy” films in the running — “Schindler’s List,””The Piano” and “In the Name of the Father”– making it even harder for this year’s comedies.

“This is a rough year for directors to come in with anything that isn’t major ,” asserts Gelbart.

Lighten up, please

“There’s hardly any room for a lighter film,” adds Ivan Reitman, who directed “Dave.””The Academy doesn’t seem that impressed with comedies. When you come out of a strong drama like ‘Schindler’s List,’ you’ve gone to some very deep places, you want to be thankful for going through that experience.”

Historically, screenwriting categories are the only areas that do seem to garner statuettes. Academy voters seem to bend over backwards handing out Oscars to the writers of comedies.

Maybe the makers of comedies should lighten up.

“It is true that comedies are often overlooked by the Academy,” says Nora Ephron, who co-wrote and directed last year’s “Sleepless in Seattle,””but on the list of injustices of the world this doesn’t make the top 3 million.”

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