Eye on the Oscars: The Director

Everyone knows pure comedy gets little AMPAS love. That fact was apparent in Year One, 1927-28, when a one-time-only “Comedy Picture” directing award elbowed out a certified comic genius. Chaplin’s nom for “The Circus” was noted and then officially nullified, leaving the field clear for a semi-serious buddy romp from heavyweight Lewis Milestone. (Charlie had to make do with an honorary award, like so many mirthmakers who followed him, and that was the end of that category.)

Counting the flat-out laffers blessed with directing trophies requires a single hand. “The Awful Truth” in ’37. “Annie Hall” in ’78. Maybe two or three of Capra’s wins in the ’30s.

Otherwise, whenever voters have favored helmers who walk on the light side, they’ve tapped pix with a decided mix of comic and serious elements. In short, they’ve been drawn to dramedies. (And even those hilarious Capra comedies boast as much social conscience as gagwork.)

Those directorial achievements, numbered among many of cinema’s most cherished gems, helped to shape the dramedy concept as we know it today. Buffs fondly recall Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s wry wit in “A Letter to Three Wives” and “All About Eve,” or Leo McCarey gently teasing the human condition in “Going My Way,” or Billy Wilder’s rare mix of the cynical and poignant in “The Apartment.”

Mike Nichols triumphed for weaving the unique brand of biting, brittle satire he pioneered with Elaine May into the melancholy fabric of “The Graduate.” James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” keeps ricocheting between knockabout farce and melodrama without ever spiraling out of control.

This year, for the first time ever, four of the five pics up for the director prize qualify for the hybrid distinction of dramedy, balancing serious themes with comedic elements. 2011’s nominated filmmakers have located the bittersweet tears and smiles within one man’s midlife voyage of discovery (“The Descendants”) and another’s magical voyage to a bygone era (“Midnight in Paris”). Laughter leavens two rueful journeys through cinema history, whether in silence (“The Artist”) or in 3-D (“Hugo”). Only the cerebral, allusive “The Tree of Life” can be seen as representative of the highly serious fare traditionally honored over Oscar’s 83 years.

Why serious comedies would earn more Oscar capital than pure farce isn’t difficult to piece out. Academy members clearly want their top trophies to honor the industry, thus the bias toward pics of substance and stature. In the absence of a dominant clear-cut dramatic entry, then, something that wraps some depth into its funny could be seen as the next level of prestige. (Directing awards between 1945 and 1958 consistently went to somber adult fare. The only exceptions were the Mankiewicz films, “Marty” and “The Quiet Man” — both dramedies.)

But why their predominance this year? In part, it’s likely a reaction to recent years’ disappointing parade of stuffy biopics and self-consciously prestigious literary adaptations, seemingly tailored for awards attention but failing to impress. Enough with the pretentious behemoths, goes that way of thinking. How about looking at life more in miniature?

Moreover, today’s filmmakers have been brought up on a sophisticated diet of classics that stretch genre definitions and challenge preconceptions about tonal and thematic consistency, including work by directors such as Stanley Donen and Blake Edwards, Oscar-honored only at career’s end, or the frequently hilarious Hal Ashby (whose only directing nom came for his ultra-serious feature, “Coming Home”). The cineaste who OD’d on the work of Howard Hawks when in college is going to have a wide-open lens on the possibilities of blending raucous comedy into life-and-death narratives.

As the man said, dying is hard, whereas comedy is harder. But making people laugh without compromising their capacity to simultaneously think and feel could be the hardest of all. And by extension, the most award-worthy.

Eye on the Oscars: The Director
It’s a matter of ‘life’ and mirth
And the nominees are:
Woody Allen | Michel Hazanavicius | Terrence Malick | Alexander Payne | Martin Scorsese

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