The plight of comedy motion pictures at Oscar time is always the same. It’s hard to break through the bias toward more serious fare when Academy members choose the five nominees for best picture. Save for such funny romances as “It Happened One Night” and “Annie Hall,” comedies rarely make the grade. Frank Oz’s direction may get credit for making gay subject matter palatable to a mainstream audience — not an easy task. However, recognition for that may accrue to screenwriter Paul Rudnick, since the writers’ branch is much more solicitous of the difficulties inherent in crafting a good comedy.
If any comic actor can pull a leading actor nomination it’s Kevin Kline, who has proved his comedic screen mettle in his Oscar-winning supporting turn in “A Fish Called Wanda” as well as his above-the-title roles in “Soapdish” and “Dave,” among others. But if Oscar voting tradition holds true, fellow thesps may have an easier time lumping this work in with his dramatic performance in “The Ice Storm.” Even though the nomination is ostensibly for a single performance, other good work during the same year can’t hurt. On the downside, the one performance could also cancel out the other.
As Kline himself has proven, however, comedy is not as big an impediment in the supporting actor or actress categories. He’s been nominated and won there, as have actors such as Jack Palance and Marisa Tomei in recent years. The actor with the best chance here is Joan Cusack, whose work as the frustrated would-be spouse of a man who suddenly decides to play on the other team leaves her in quite a comic pickle. Cusack has herself been recognized for her funny business in “Working Girl” and also gave admirable comic support to brother John in this year’s “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
Of the supporting males in “In & Out” don’t count out either Tom Selleck as the gay entertainment journalist or Bob Newhart as a befuddled principal. Playing against type, Selleck rode a fine line in a role that could have been just plain tasteless. As for Newhart, his return to the bigscreen was a potent reminder of a comedic talent all too rarely used to good effect in movies.
Marc Shaiman’s score also has a strong shot. As one of the busiest musicians in movies today, he’s already picked up three nominations, two for his scores on “An American President” and last year’s “The First Wives Club,” and one for his original song, “A Wink and a Smile,” from “Sleepless in Seattle.” Having been invited to the dance before is one good way to ensure being invited again — especially where the Academy is concerned.
Classic Oscar credentials: 0
Cause celebre: 7 (Gay is Holly-good)
Vanity element: 0
The David vs. Goliath syndrome: 5 (Comedy, gay, early = David)
The feel-good movie of the year factor: 6 (Tolerance triumphs)
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz pic: 3
Idiot savants have more fun: 3 (See “David” appeal)
Timing is everything: 3 (Early fall, dim memories)
O.Q. total: 27