Laughter may be the best medicine, but to Academy voters it is often greeted around Oscar time like a dose of castor oil. Rare is the comedy or comic performance that is honored with a nomination, let alone a win. Drama rules.
Sure, there are films that mix the two genres well: Picture nominee “Little Miss Sunshine” earlier this year had its share of laughs, for sure, and 2004 pic “Sideways” was often uncomfortably funny, but few are the raucous comedies or slapstick performances that get acknowledged come awards time.
For an actor, there’s usually little distinction between the genres, at least when it comes to the process. Finding the truth in a character is the ultimate goal, whether the end result is recognized with a statuette or not.
“This is always a tricky subject,” Richard Gere says, “because there’s a certain voodoo involved, and I’m not sure I can articulate it. Your initial approach, at least mine, is not different. You’re looking for the reality. If we’re not working from a reality base, it doesn’t work for me. Maybe it does for some, I don’t know. I try to find the reality in a situation and maybe heighten it slightly.”
Gere sparkled this year as Clifford Irving in “The Hoax,” the true story of how the desperate author attempted to scam the world by claiming to have collaborated with reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes on an autobiography. The film straddles genres, but the portrayal of Irving offers more than its share of chuckles.
“He certainly had a buffoonesque quality,” Gere explains. “There was a quirky quality to the movie, and to all the characters.”
After a grueling schedule for seven seasons on the Emmy-winning drama “The West Wing,” Allison Janney continues to stay busy — and branching out into comedy. She appeared as an overprotective mom in “Hairspray” this summer, and will be seen again soon as a feisty but grounded stepmother in the indie comedy “Juno.”
She isn’t quite sure why Oscar often turns a cold shoulder to comedy.
“I guess there’s more gravitas and tears in drama,” she says. “It may seem like there’s more of a cost to shed tears rather than fall down, but it’s exactly the same, to me. I approach every script the same way, trying to find the truth, and I’m always tempted to go for a laugh, but it’s usually funnier when you try not to be funny.”
In “Hairspray,” she played Prudy Pingleton, a religious zealot with some very firm beliefs on parenting. One of the benefits of comedy, she says, is that sometimes you can “go out on a limb and saw it off,” a process that often allows for some improvisation.
“They (director Adam Shankman and the producers) gave me so much freedom. In the ‘devil child, devil child’ sequence (in which Prudy condemns her daughter’s behavior in her bedroom), I just kept making up stuff to say,” Janney remembers. “That was real for my character.”
On the same picture, an inspired bit of casting saw two-time Academy Award nominee John Travolta play Edna Turn-blad, a rather hefty housewife who irons a lot and is terrified of the outside world. Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan say Travolta contemplated the hilarious but sometimes touching role with the same conisderation he does with any dramatic part.
“He took one year and two months to give us an answer,” Zadan says. “At first we thought the reason was because he was concerned about playing a woman. As it turned out, we were wrong. He was fine with that; he just had to find the character before he would agree.”
Says Meron: “‘Hairspray’ is an unusual musical comedy insofar as it also deals with important issues on a comedic level. It helps get the point across if you use comedy. We needed John to bring that for us.”
One of the budding comedic talents on the scene today is Michael Cera, who appeared in hit comedy “Superbad” and will also be seen in “Juno.” Cera, who lists “Annie Hall,” “Rushmore” and “Spinal Tap” among his all-time favorites, says he was helped on his pictures by strong scripts and gifted directors.
“In ‘Juno,’ I just played what was written,” Cera says of his turn as Paulie Bleeker, the sweet best friend who impregnates the title character. “They were all well-written characters, all very dimensional, and it was really clear.”
Ellen Page, who plays Juno, says helmer Jason Reitman’s help in navigating her through the comedic landscape was invaluable. “Working with someone like Jason, who I adore and who is really wonderful at creating tone, it enables humor in a more genuine way,” she says.
“He knows what he’s doing, and I’m just trying to make this character as organic as possible, and he’s brilliant at guiding the way to that, but in a subtle manner. It’s never, ‘Let’s look at this joke page 19, line 4.’ It’s never like that at all. It’s more about taking this amazing script and creating a genuine tone and just rocking out.”
Still, it sometimes takes a bop over the head with a rubber chicken to remind Academy voters of that old saw that dying is easy but comedy is hard.
“Maybe the Academy feels that you have to deal with subject matter that is important to the world, something more important than a comedy,” Janney says. “I don’t know why the dramas get most of the awards. I think people who make people laugh should be recognized.
“It’s like when I did theater in New York and wondered why the Brits would come in at the last minute before the Tonys and sweep our awards. Why do they think the Brits are better actors?
“There are just some things that are very difficult to explain.”