It started so well; two of Hollywood’s hottest properties making self-deprecating jokes about how they were the perfect age to snare a younger demographic of viewer for a ceremony which had been shedding ratings faster than it added minutes to its running time. For Anne Hathaway and James Franco, that would be as good as it got, the remainder of their hosting duties for the 83rd Academy Awards was made up of unintelligible ramblings and a Western’s worth of tumbleweeds.

They weren’t really to blame, well Hathaway anyway, because this had been one of the few times that the Academy had opted for a non-comedian occupying the Kodak Theatre stage. There was 2009’s soft-focus Hugh Jackman sing-along, and in 1995 David Letterman gave us the cringe-worthy “Oprah. Uma. Uma. Oprah” moment of infamy. Both examples underline that the appeal of the host, and by proxy their laugh quota, is integral to the success of the Oscar ceremony.

On U.K. shores more than any, we understand the importance of that injection of comedic adrenalin during the opening gambit, mainly to ensure that our bleary eyes open that little bit wider before four hours of orchestrated back-slapping unfolds into the morning. Stephen Fry, our customary host for the BAFTAs usually does a fine job.

Most synonymous with the gig, in contemporary terms at least, is Billy Crystal, having notched up eight appearances between 1990 and 2012, all featuring his signature song-and-dance number to introduce the Best Picture nominees, and zingers such as 2004’s “today Peter Jackson woke up with Seabiscuit’s head in his bed”.

Billy Crystal hosting his 8th ceremony in 2012
Billy Crystal hosting his 8th ceremony in 2012


Only Steve Martin, who admitted in 2009 that “hosting the Oscars is like making love to a beautiful woman, it’s something I only get to do when Billy Crystal is out of town”, comes close to Crystal’s hit rate. “I took a 9 year old to see Gladiator and he cried through the entire film, now maybe it’s because he didn’t know who I was….”

Context established; the Academy Awards couldn’t function without the presence of comedy. So why then, when it’s a genre which has given so much to the establishment, is the cruelest joke of all, the one which results in comedic films and performers being continually snubbed for their art?

Being a comedy performer is something of a poisoned chalice, with actors having to prove their dramatic chops, despite proven box office credentials and a mastering of their chosen art. Adam Sandler, so often the justified target of critical vitriol, gave a career best performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, but in terms of his acting ability, is he any worse in the likes of Happy Gilmore or The Wedding Singer? It might be an extreme hypothesis, but could you imagine Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio having the chops to convincingly play The Waterboy? Not to suggest anything Sandler has done within the genre is Oscar worthy; it’s just an example to highlight how difficult the art is.

Oscar once let its funny bones do the voting by awarding the Best Actor award to Charlie Chaplin for 1940’s The Great Dictator, Jack Lemmon in 1955’s Mister Roberts, and Marisa Tomei’s shock 1992 Best Supporting win with My Cousin Vinny. But these are all anomalies, and the issue at hand is probably best supported by highlighting the performances which perhaps should have been rewarded.

The most apposite case study for this argument is to take a look at Jim Carrey, who during the late 90’s went through a serious phase in order to gain recognition for his performances, but for whom when he finally achieved the perfect balance between comedy and drama in Michel Gondry’s wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) irreparable damage had already been done between him and the Academy.

Carrey has always seemed aware that playing the clown would mean he would never be taken seriously as an actor, and when he was ignored for what is undoubtedly the role of his career in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, he maintained his sense of humour about it, despite the voters losing theirs.

Asked to present the Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing award in 1999, a year in which he should have been sat amongst the nominees, he delivered a speech of pointedly hilarious self-deprecation, one which could very well have caused the same empty handed fate a year later with the equally impressive, Man on the Moon (1999).

It’s bad enough that these semi-serious roles are ignored by the voters, but what about Carrey’s turn in Dumb & Dumber, or Liar Liar, or even Ace Venture: Pet Detective? Say what you like about the movies, plenty of acting awards have been given out for performances in terrible films, but these are turns of such superb physical transformation, in commercially successful ventures, that are as impressive as any dramatic method acting.

Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

For every Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, there’s a Kristin Wiig from the same movie, Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat, Steve Carrell in The 40-Year Old Virgin, and Will Ferrell in Elf. Reading this might prompt howls of derision at the mere suggestion that they should share a stage with Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington et al. But why not? Why the elitism towards a genre which accounts for not only a fair chunk of the worldwide box office, but for whom a lot of our own personal favourite, and repeat value films, are in fact comedies.

Any argument that dramatic roles carry more weight because they have the power to move you becomes redundant when you consider how many times an actor has made you cry tears of joy. The emotion might be different, but roaring with laughter as Steve Coogan sings Cuddly Toy is as powerful as Steve Coogan confronting an evil nun in Philomena, but you can rest assured that only one of them would ever get close to being under the spotlight on a stage.

Perhaps there is no explanation beyond snobbery, you certainly wouldn’t want the Oscars to create a sub-category to accommodate comedy actors, and the Golden Globes do a good enough job of screwing that up with their muddled allocations. Without a definitive conclusion, it’s perhaps best summarised by this triumvirate, here seen bemoaning their chosen profession during the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Send in the Clowns…….

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