But seriously, folks

Comedies, action get little respect but often deliver big-time in yucks & bucks

A few years ago, the idea seemed absurd: Academy Awards being given to a gladiator pic, a kung-fu movie or a musical set in a women’s prison.

But “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Chicago” proved that artistry can surface in unexpected places.

Other articles in this issue of Variety can attest to the fact that many of 2003’s films are stirring up Oscar buzz because they sound lofty and serious and important and pretty damn terrific.

But what about the great work in films with less exalted pedigrees?

Look at Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Imagine another actor in that role. Any other actor. Even a really good actor. The film was rollicking fun, but wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable with a different star.

Same is true of Geoffrey Rush; not many others could be bloodthirsty and hilarious at the same time. Or, as Variety chief film critic Todd McCarthy exclaimed in his review, “Thesp single-handedly makes all his scenes more delicious than they would be without him.”

And speaking of Disney, what about Ellen DeGeneres’ work in “Finding Nemo”? Hey, if actors can win an Oscar without speaking (Jane Wyman, John Mills, Holly Hunter, etc.), why can’t an actor win without being seen?

Conventional wisdom says that theps, who comprise nearly one-fourth of Academy voters, like movies that are actor-driven (“Chocolat,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Gosford Park”) and generally don’t take toons seriously. Hmm. Interesting theory. But the fact is, actors provide the voices and the heart to animated features.

This argument has come up before (Robin Williams, “Aladdin”; Eddie Murphy, “Shrek”). And those actors missed out on nominations. But never say never. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s see a show of hands — no, let’s hear a chorus of voices — in favor of Ms. DeGeneres!

These are not traditional “awards” performances. But, hey, once Eminem became an Oscar winner, all bets were off.

Paul Giamatti (“American Splendor”) and Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) have already inspired awards talk, which is totally understandable.

But don’t forget other performances in those films, such as Hope Davis or Scarlett Johansson. “Splendor,” which also boasts a laugh-out-loud performance by Judah Friedlander as Giamatti’s geeky “pina colada gourmet jellybeans” guy.

Speaking of funny: Eugene Levy in “Bringing Down the House.” He’s done great work in the “American Pie” movies and in pics like “A Mighty Wind,” but he brings down the house in “House.” Could anyone else pull off lines like “You got me straight trippin’, Boo”?

And then there are Jack Black (“School of Rock”), Jamie Lee Curtis (“Freaky Friday”), Will Farrell (“Elf”), Mike Myers (“Cat in the Hat”), Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde 2”) as well as George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Intolerable Cruelty”), Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman (“Bruce Almighty”) and nearly everybody in “Love Actually.”

These films have something in common: They are comedies. Which means that the Golden Globes have a wealth of possible contenders in its comedy categories, but what about other awards? Again, never say never. When Cameron Diaz won a best actress award for “Something About Mary” from the N.Y. Film Critics, it became clear that people can break free of the “no-comedy-on-our-awards-show!” bias.

But this year, all bets are off! Take comedy out of the ghetto! Take the little films, the unexpected films, or the great work in bad films, out of their ghetto too!

There was great acting in actioners: Kristanna Loken in “T3,” Hugh Jackman in “X2: X-Men United,” for example.

And, speaking of great work: God knows, “Hulk” was not exactly embraced by Hollywood, but the tech work is first-rate. And the production and costume designs were sublime in “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” another work inspired by a comicbook (sorry, a graphic novel). The tech work was also first-rate in the vidgame-inspired “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” (so sue me, I think the first two-thirds of that film are terrific).

Clearly, good works comes from unexpected places. But there are also some blank spots in expected spaces. Who could ignore the visual effects in “The Matrix: Reloaded”? Well, the Academy voters will. Warner Bros. didn’t submit the film for eligibility (not wanting the two “Matrix” films this year to cannibalize each other in tech categories). So it won’t be nominated. But, never fear, “Matrix Revolutions” is on the way.

And maybe there will be other revolutions in Oscar voting.

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