Even with this year’s best picture race expanded from five movies to 10, “500 Days of Summer” director Marc Webb wasn’t exactly holding his breath that his critically praised, Golden Globe-nominated movie would snag an Oscar nod.
“The thing about comedy,” Webb says, “is that you don’t know what people will respond to. Everyone has a different idea of what’s funny.”
If you’re a filmmaker specializing in comedy, you’d have to possess a unique sense of humor to appreciate the Academy’s picture slate this year. In one clean sweep, voters put to rest, if only temporarily, long-held biases against science-fiction films and epic fantasies as well as movies examining the Iraq War. It even plugged into its long-term memory bank and nominated two movies released before the Fourth of July.
But Academy members again gave the cold shoulder to flat-out comedies, ignoring “500 Days” and the much-loved exercise in perversity, “The Hangover.”
Yes, some of this year’s picture nominees have comic moments. The Coens’ “A Serious Man” features their trademark black humor, “Up” has a talking dog, “Inglourious Basterds” offers gleeful wish fulfillment, and “Up In the Air” owns a biting wit.
It’s telling, though, that when Paramount submitted “Up in the Air” to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. for Globe consideration, the studio placed it in the drama category. Studio executives understood clearly that the Academy could open up the picture field to 20 nominees and still manage to regard comedy with a whiff of condescension.
Comedies do occasionally punch through the crowd, but the humor in these nominated movies almost always comes with a rueful sensibility. Call it the Fox Searchlight Brand. The only three comedies nominated for best picture in the past decade — “Sideways,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Juno” — all came from the specialty division that traffics in sly slapstick and screw-ups and satire that has a bit of bite but manages to be life-affirming, too.
Searchlight also delivered the last pure comedy to be Oscar-nominated, 1997’s “The Full Monty,” a movie that featured nudity, but unlike the skin in “The Hangover,” the men here bared their bodies — and, yes, dammit, their souls — in a bid for self-respect.
“I think the Academy has an idea of what a best picture looks like, and I’m not sure ‘The Hangover’ is it,” says the movie’s director Todd Phillips, who jokingly asked Warner Bros. to devise an award-season campaign around the catchphrase “C’mon! Make It No. 10!”
And it’s quite possible that a few Academy members followed that advice while marking their ballots. Just as it’s also possible that the inclusion of “District 9,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar” were aberrations themselves and that, next year, the best picture slate will feature 10 indie dramas.
After all, the politics in “The Hurt Locker” were subtle and sandwiched between taut action sequences. It wasn’t your typical Hollywood Iraq movie in either craft or content. “District 9” was sci-fi, yes, but it used the genre to make the sort of savvy social commentary that appeals to Academy members. And “Avatar” has grossed more than $2 billion worldwide, forcing those in the industry to put aside their jealousy of James Cameron (for the moment, at least) and reward his game-changing fantasy epic.
Still, these movies all did break through into the best picture circle. With the Academy getting younger, might there be a chance that Phillips’ comic sensibility could hijack future ceremonies?
“Put it this way,” Phillips laughs. “Not only was ‘Stripes’ not nominated, Preston Sturges’ movies weren’t nominated. This goes back a long way.”