Comedy, drama receive differing amounts of respect

When it comes to film awards, comedy is no laughing matter. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. creates separate awards for movie dramas and comedies/musicals. And every year, the war cry goes up: Why doesn’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences do the same thing?

Maybe someday the Academy will do that. Maybe even this year. Uh-huh, it’s almost inevitable.

Oh, I’m kidding. The Academy will never do this — and it’s not the only one. With all the critics groups giving awards, you’ll notice that few make a distinction between comedy and drama.

As one kudofest veteran observes, “A film should be great no matter how it’s defined — so why should it compete only against films in the same genre, rather than against all films?”

Certainly, most best pic Oscar winners are dramas. But that’s not necessarily a comment on AMPAS members. Despite the perceptions of the general public, Academy members and critics actually are human beings. And for some reason, humans love comedy, but don’t respect it.

At any gathering, of industryites or non-pros, ask people to name the great performances of all time and you’ll get answers like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront,” Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind.”

But if you mention Peter Sellers in the “Pink Panther” movies, Eddie Bracken in “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” or Whoopi Goldberg in “Sister Act,” you’ll get a look as if you’d just suggested membership in the Flat Earth Society. But, ladies and gentlemen, those are great performances.

“We think it’s fairer” to separate drama and comedy, says Marianne Ruuth, longtime member and one-time president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which hands out the Golden Globes. “It’s not fair to compare ‘Gandhi’ to ‘Some Like It Hot.’ When dramas and comedies compete, the drama nearly always wins. Comedy is something that ‘just makes you laugh.’ Maybe this attitude is ingrained since the Pilgrims,” Ruuth chuckles.

She may be right. Despite the adage that dying is easy but comedy is hard, people in general don’t acknowledge the talent it takes to make us laugh. Look at Jim Carrey. What was the performance that the Academy “snubbed” that raised the hackles of the public in op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and phone calls to radio talkshows? “The Truman Show,” his most serious bigscreen role at that point. Very few seemed outraged that he was not nominated for “Dumb & Dumber” or “The Mask.”

And when Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for a comic performance in “My Cousin Vinny,” beating out her dramatic competitors, the rumor cropped up that it was a mistake.

Given this history, DreamWorks, MGM/UA and Miramax have their work cut out for them as they campaign for the performances of Eddie Murphy in “Shrek,” Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde,” and Renee Zellweger in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

On the other hand, they may be on to something. The leading actor race this year is crowded with possibilities, but there are few “sure things” in the actress and supporting actor races.

Murphy certainly added a lot to “Shrek.” But a few years back, there was a movement to nominate Robin Williams for “Aladdin.” However, some people argued, he was in a recording studio, it’s only half a performance. You hear his voice, but don’t see him.

Yes, but many actors have won Oscars for non-speaking roles: Holly Hunter, Jane Wyman, John Mills and Marlee Matlin, etc. Were those only “half a performance”?

Terry Press, head of marketing at DreamWorks, says of Murphy: “A performance in an animated film is no less a performance because you do not see the actor; in fact, the challenge of creating a character without the benefit of visuals is enormous. This year, no character in films fits the definition of a classically memorable supporting performance than this.”

And, in Murphy’s favor, the Oscars often embrace comedies, despite the org’s reputation. In the past five years, original screenplay honors, for example, have gone to “Fargo,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “American Beauty” and “Almost Famous.”

But as most of those films point out, one other factor may deter the separation of comedy and drama: how to characterize certain films. Some people think “The Graduate” is a drama. Some consider “Forrest Gump” a comedy. How would you define “American Beauty,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Chocolat”? Comedies? Yeah, kinda, sorta, not really.

When submitting a film to the Golden Globe, the studio defines the pic as comedy or drama. In some cases, the lines blur. “Then we have a lengthy — and believe me it’s lengthy — discussion to see if we agree with them,” says Ruuth. Ultimately the HFPA decides.

Of course, if it’s any consolation, awards-givers often tend to dismiss other genres, such as sci-fi (“Forbidden Planet,” “Blade Runner”), adventure (the “Indiana Jones” films) and animation (“Pinocchio,” anyone?) as “just” entertaining.

On the other hand, even at this late date, all the races are wide open. Which means that if ever a year was designed to break the rules, this is it.

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