We are reaching the pinnacle of award season; The Academy Awards are the summit and the rest of the hill is littered with Globes, SAG Awards and regret. If there are any guarantees each year with the Oscars it is that comedy will largely be overlooked. In our culture, comedy is viewed as a lesser art to drama. Actors rarely get recognized in award season for comedic efforts and if they are, it’s usually for comic relief in a drama (like Jonah Hill in Moneyball, for example).
While my writing spans comedy and drama, my instincts are to always find the funny in a situation, and good comedy can make good drama even stronger and more poignant. I’d like to dedicate the rest of today’s column to some talented men and women and what I believe are incredible, Oscar-worthy performances. If I had my way they would be nominees. Keep in mind this list includes only a fraction of performances I believe are worthy. However, the following names are definitely very influential in shaping my art and comic sensibility.
Best Actress, Diane Keaton, Sleeper (1973)
Of course, Diane Keaton has been widely praised for her comic acting. I mean, she actually WON an Oscar for comedy (Best Actress in Annie Hall, lest you heathens forget). She has been nominated a number of other times for comedy and drama. Like many of Woody Allen’s early movies, Sleeper is a broad comedy which deftly dances between slapstick and political highbrow humor. Not many actors are capable of handling both the gravity of Chekhovian comedy along with the fast paced antics of a Marx Brothers movie, but she does it very well. Plus, her impression of Marlon Brando in Streetcar is pitch-perfect and hilarious. She plays Luna Schlosser, a socialite and sublimely shitty poet in the year 2173 who is pampered, upper class, and oblivious to the totalitarian state she lives in. After she is kidnapped and dragged from her comfortable home, she falls in with revolutionaries and embraces the life without fully understanding the politics.
Favorite moment: New rebel Luna proudly sings her truly godawful song of rebellion: “Rebels are WEEE…born to be FREEEE…just like the FISH in the SEA…” And that Brando impression.
Best Actor: Steve Martin, The Jerk (1979)
I have a soft spot for The Jerk, and not just because it was the first R-rated movie I saw. As a kid I found Steve Martin’s idiot character Navin hilarious. Plus, his dog (and this is spoiler to people who have only seen this movie on network or basic cable) is named “Shithead!” As I got older I find it a subversively masterful performance. In any other hands, the white man who was born the son of a black sharecropper would be insulting or, at best, a political statement. Race barely comes into play in this script, other than when told that he was adopted, Navin screams “you mean I’m gonna STAY this color?” It’s just an element that objectively colors his world. And what a fantastical, oddball world that has not existed before or since. A perfect universe of bizarre kooks, with Steve Martin at the center of the orbit.
Favorite line: Navin gently speaks to his new love Marie, as she sleeps: “I know we’ve only known each other four weeks and three days, but to me it seems like nine weeks and five days. The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days. And the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day, and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in the evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.”
Best Actress: Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Ellen Green was primarily a theater actress with few movie credits when she starred in the off-Broadway production of the the musical Little Shop of Horrors. As it can be in Hollywood, when the film was greenlit they didn’t offer the part to her because she wasn’t famous enough. Fortunately, after Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Barbra Streisand turned it down, she was given a chance. She elevates the role of Audrey, that of a typical 50s era battered girlfriend who is just wanting to live “somewhere that’s green.” Her relationship with Rick Moranis’ Seymour is sweet, tender and the opposite of her abusive relationship with Steve Martin’s Dentist. What really earns her a spot on my list is her vocal prowess, and how she uses the wide range of her singing voice to maximum comic effect. In “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour” her voice seamlessly transitions from baby doll girlie voice to full-bodied soul belter. It’s unexpected and hilarious, telling us that with a little love and respect, we can all grow up from a sheltered child to a sensual and passionate adult in an instant.
Favorite line: Not really a line, but when Audrey hears that the plant is named after her, she emits a barely audible squeak of pleasure.
Best Supporting Actor: John Amos, Coming to America (1988)
If the Oscars truly honored comedy the same way they honored drama, Coming to America would be up for many awards (it was actually nominated for two Oscars, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup). Traditionally, Eddie Murphy would be up for Best Actor, and Arsenio Hall would be up for Supporting. But, these are my awards and this is my blog, so I can honor whomever I want. John Amos has had a varied career playing drama and comedy, but in Coming to America he plays Cleo McDowell, an up-from-your-bootstraps father who worked hard, opened his own small business, became very successful, and will be damn sure that his daughter marries well. It’s a blueprint for a cliche stock character, but John Amos makes him hilarious, tough, and even sympathetic. All he wants is for his daughter to marry the wealthy asshole Darryl and stay away from poor immigrant Hakim. Cleo McDowell maintains high status throughout the movie…until the end, when he discovers Hakim’s true identity. Instantly his perma-scowl turns into an enormous shit-eating grin. His fall from grace is especially rewarding as he more than earned his hubris. We delight in watching him fail, mostly because he is such a delightful foil. The grande finale plays out like a classic farce, complete with slamming doors, deception, and hidden intentions. Cleo needs to keep Hakim and his daughter in the house, and will stop at nothing to make sure his daughter marries her true love (now that he is rich). As it unravels, it is a joy to watch, and a textbook lesson in playing the status in comedy.
Favorite moment (outside of the big finale, of course): Hakim tries to get in good with Cleo by discussing football even though he has no grasp of the game. Cleo deadpans: “Son, if you want to keep working here, stay off the drugs.”
Best Supporting Actress: Glenne Headley, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
If you’ve seen this movie, then you are aware of the masterful comedic battle royale between American Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) and Frenchman Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) as they vie to be the best con artist in a small, seaside French town. But, it’s Glenne Headley as Janet Colgate, the “Soap Queen” from America that elevates the game. Like Ellen Greene in Little Shop and probably most movies in the world, Headley was not the first choice for the role. Imagine if Sean Young had taken the part! Steve Martin carries the lion’s share of the comedy in this movie; his performance is delightful, and Michael Caine certainly holds his own. As much as comedy is underrated, the role of straight man to the comic foil (or foils, in this movie) is woefully under appreciated. Not many people can pull it off. Enter Janet Colgate.
She is the perfect foil: innocent and lovely, and she makes up for her lack of intelligence with the biggest heart on the Mediterranean. To go into too much detail about her character would reveal too much about the plot, which continually twists, turns and reinvents itself. Janet Colgate does not enter the movie until nearly halfway through, but once she does she deftly plays the ping pong ball between the two con artists, a continual yet hilarious straight man. And she makes you root for her all the while.
Best moment: The final scene. She gets to deliver her own laughs…and gets to use three different accents.
Best Actor: Bill Murray, Groundhog Day (1993)
One of my all time favorite films. It’s probably on your short list as well. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egocentric bored Pittsburgh weatherman who somehow is forced to relieve the same day, Groundhogs Day, in Punxsutawney. Trapped in a snow globe of a small town, he tries to figure out how to get out of the rut and along the way, becomes as powerful as a god and discovers enlightenment and love. A complicated philosophical movie which requires a juggernaut performance, and Bill Murray gives it. He showcases a wide range of emotions, and is the deepest shallow character you will ever see. And he’s hilarious. Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Philadelphia that year giving a nuanced, deep performance that was emotionally taxing…and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day did the same.
Favorite line: “I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. THAT was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get THAT day over, and over, and over?”
Best Supporting Actress: Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo (2003)
When acting in animated movies, it’s all about the voice. Sure, the animators may base some of the character on the physicality of the actor, but at the end of the day it’s an actor, alone in a padded black box, with a microphone. Not the most organic method of acting. Ellen DeGeneres is fine actor. She has certainly found her niche as a talk show host, but we forget that for years she had a decent career, but never really shone as an actor…until Finding Nemo. Her performance as Dory, a Pacific Regal Blue Tang with short-term memory loss, is RELENTLESS. She is all energy, positivity, and simultaneously an annoyance and savior to Albert Brooks’ nebbishy Marlin. The amount of dialogue rattled off in quick time, combined with the complete and constant change in direction (she has a REAL short-term memory) is staggering to comprehend, and takes multiple viewings to really appreciate what she does. Many people have great comic timing. Many people are extremely smart. Ellen DeGeneres is both.
Favorite scene: when Dory believes she can speak whale.
Best Actress: Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids (2011)
It is very difficult to create a likeable asshole. It fails often (see most Jim Belushi and Charlie Sheen roles), but when it hits, it’s magical. The three leads of the Larry Sanders show are self-serving assholes, but they are so well written and acted that you root for them always. You root for them to fail and you root for them to succeed. Same goes for the four women in Girls; all are entitled, selfish assholes, but I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Kristen Wiig knew what she was getting into with self-absorbed and miserable Annie Walker; after all, she co-wrote the script (which was nominated for an Oscar, as well as best supporting actress for Melissa McCarthy). Annie, jealous of her best friend’s engagement and new life, slides bitterly down a hole of despair, anguish, and depression…and it’s hilarious. She pushes the envelope of likability so far that one of my friends turned off the movie because she hated Annie so much. It’s bold and not easy to pull off, but because Kristen Wiig is so capable at expressing herself through these horrible comic moments, we continue to root for her and her happy ending.
Best scene: I could watch the airplane meltdown and the bridal shower meltdown on loop for hours.
Lifetime achievement award: Christopher Guest
There are many brilliant comedic performers who have created excellent characters in movie after movie, and Christopher Guest should be recognized for his entire canon of films. He completely loses himself in each character, and continually portrays wildly different yet extremely detailed personas. And in my world, the Lifetime Achievement Oscar isn’t a consolation prize, it’s truly an award for a lifetime of excellent work…so far. Keep making movies, please.
So that wraps up my Oscar comedy awards. I omitted a ton of people just to keep this as short as it is; who are some of your favorites?
And best of luck to all the nominees in the serious Oscars on Sunday.