The importance of appearing earnest

It's hard to steer votes from tony treatises

If there is one Oscar prejudice that everybody knows about, it’s that comedies don’t win the grand prize. Comedy might be the great American form, but only three pure comedies have won for best picture.

Yet three is also the number of times that another classic American genre, the Western, has won — and other genres have triumphed even less. Thrillers can only point to “The Silence of the Lambs.” Until a few years ago, no science fiction/fantasy movies had ever won.

So what genres play best when it comes to Oscar?

“The Academy favors a genre called the earnest drama,” film historian David Thomson says. “(The members) want to be taken seriously. That has always been their besetting sin. Their decisions are a reflection of the Academy itself. They are always a little ashamed that they are sitting on a huge moneymaking business. They don’t want to be as vulgar as that, so they search for something to lend them dignity.”

Beyond the earnest drama, Oscar voters have always loved historical epics (“Lawrence of Arabia”), biopics (“The Great Ziegfeld”), war movies (“Patton”) and musicals (“An American in Paris”) — all prestige pictures.

Even though D.W Griffith worked on an epic scale years before, the Academy’s embrace of the event movie was set up by “Mutiny on the Bounty” in 1936 and crystallized with “Gone With the Wind” in 1939.

“That was when the studios got the idea of putting out one or two prestige movies every year,” says Baltimore Sun movie critic Michael Sragow, whose biography of “Wind” director Victor Fleming is due out in 2009. “These pictures were spectacles — the biggest and the best in terms of scope, detail and innovation — movies that stretched the limits of budgets and techniques. You know, showing off what movies can do, whether you are Wyler, Lean or Spielberg.”

So how do smaller movies or genre movies ever get recognition?

“There are genre movies done in epic form, even if it’s just a movie version of a teleplay like ‘Marty,'” Sragow says. “Vincent Canby said that ‘The Godfather’ was the ‘Gone With the Wind’ of gangster movies when it came out. I remember they ran it on the advertisement.”

Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman agrees: “Genre movies traditionally don’t win best picture, but in the case of ‘The Godfather,’ it’s not just a gangster movie, it’s more than that.”

Moreover, the Academy often swoons for the movies that speak to the moment: political dramas like “On the Waterfront” and “In the Heat of the Night” and socially aware dramas like “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Midnight Cowboy.”

This even applies to comedy winners such as Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” and “You Can’t Take It With You” as well as Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.” As much as Capra’s two movies said something about America during the Great Depression, Allen’s “Hall,” which beat “Star Wars,” said something about America during the feminist era.

Oscar’s most diverse decades were the ’30s, ’60s and ’70s. Six different genres won in the ’30s, including the two Capra comedies.

In the ’60s, five genres won — but four musicals took the award, including “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” back to back.

The ’70s had five winning genres as well, despite four crime/gangster movies in a row (liberally stretching “The Sting” into a gangster movie). Before the decade was out, a sports movie, “Rocky,” took the top prize.

In the current decade, voting has been fairly varied.

“‘The Departed’ won last year, and that’s a real genre movie,” Gleiberman says. “‘Chicago’ won a few years ago, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ won, too. We may be moving into an era when traditional genre movies might win more because that’s what people go to see in large numbers.”

“‘Ratatouille’ is my best movie of the year,” says Sragow, “but it would only be nominated as best animation movie. I think the subdivision of things doesn’t always help, because there is that yearning you have for a movie that both critics and audiences will embrace. There is a good reason why people yearn for it, because those that are successful are remembered for years to come.”