A Fish Called Biopic

As I floated around the web recently, I found myself struck by a pair of (on the surface) unrelated articles on The Guardian‘s culture site. One dealt with John Cleese taking steps to transform his dream of staging an “A Fish Called Wanda” musical into a manifest reality and the other with the possibility of Aaron Sorkin penning a Steve Jobs biopic. Alright, they are unrelated. And yet I could not help but remember how much I loved “A Fish Called Wanda” and think to myself, ‘Hmmm, Sorkin, Jobs, biopic: Oscar bait.’

It occurs to me that comedies are often given a perfunctory pat on the head in the form of a nomination, or altogether ignored by the Academy. To be fair, “Wanda” was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director and Kevin Klein won for Best Supporting actor — but the film itself was not given a Best Picture nod (though “Working Girl” was). The revolutionary, enduring and entertaining “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” also failed to make the cut. The reality is that these films are unlikely to secure a Best Picture win against something like “Rain Man.” Oscar overwhelmingly favors drama. Which brings me to a query: Has the time come for the Academy to take a page from the HFPA’s book and introduce a new category?

Is it fair to say that “A Fish Called Wanda” was a better film than “Rain Man?” Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the more salient question is do they belong in the same category? If we break it down to the most human elements, how is a person going to feel about themselves if they (with their vote) effectively say a movie about a group of wacky con artists is better than the story of a man overcoming his greed and prejudice to find the beauty and wisdom his autistic brother has to offer?

It is a bit limited and dismissive, but the term “Oscar bait” exists for a reason. There are certain cinematic endeavors that one gets the sense the Academy is “supposed” to like. They indicate a level of gravitas by virtue of the individual and combined talent attached to the project and/or the subject matter. A Sorkin biopic about one of the past century’s most influential and innovative leaders of industry (Steve Jobs) would, by virtue of its very existence, be an awards contender, even in its most nascent stage. By that I mean, we would assume on some level that source material and the skill of the man adapting it will necessarily equate to some form of genius. If and when a film with all the “right” ingredients does not produce a transcendent final product (which happens), denial sometimes comes into play. We are meant to believe that the “weightier” films are necessarily also the worthier films. Where, then, does that leave the films that critics and audiences alike really do favor (whether we are meant to or not)?

Statistically speaking Oscar says that dramas are worthier and more challenging films. Only two comedies have won Best Picture in the last 34 years, “Annie Hall” in 1977 and “Shakespeare In Love” in 1998, which happens to be the same year that “Rushmore” (a film that deserved a bit of recognition in its own right) was released. Certainly, it is a delicate thing to bring a story that expresses the darker elements of the human experience to life, but as any stand-up comedian will tell you, it’s no small thing to make someone laugh. And as the Muppets would say, laughter is the third greatest gift in the world.

Let’s take a snapshot of the Best Picture field for 2000. The nominees: “Chocolat,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” and the winner, “Gladiator.” First I would say that there were two dramas more deserving of recognition than four out of those five in the form of “Memento” and “Requiem for a Dream.” I would also say that “Almost Famous” and “Best In Show” are far better films than “Chocolat,” for example. (I could write a three-page article that addresses the multiple tiers of my disdain for “Chocolat.” But then I’d have to watch it again. So, no.)

In 2004 Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” won Best Picture, a selection we may or may not agree with. Some may feel that the dramedies “Sideways” or “Finding Neverland” were more deserving. Whatever your take on “Million Dollar Baby”‘s win, it becomes clear that there was a strong enough field that year to warrant a separate category for comedy or musical. I would argue that “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Mean Girls” and “Shaun of the Dead” were all worthy contenders.

1999, the year of “American Beauty” (which happens to be a film I really enjoyed) also represents a great year for comedy. “Toy Story 2,” “Election,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Galaxy Quest” and oh yes, “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” could have constituted the nominees for Best Picture Comedy or Musical that year. I’d likely say “South Park” deserved it. I love “Being John Malkovich” and “Election” and “Malkovich” offered the most nuanced exploration of human nature, but “South Park” had the most to say about society at large. Also, I busted a gut watching it.

Of course the door has been opened recently for a broader spectrum of films to be nominated. But let’s face it: nominated isn’t winning.

There have been plenty of films over the past several decades that deserved the attention of the Academy and/or the box office boost said attention may provide. Just a few examples: “Stranger Than Fiction,” “Fanboys,” “Office Space,” “This Is Spinal Tap,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Bad Santa” and “The Princess Bride.” All right, there does need to be a line. The fact remains, there are comedies deserving of the industry’s awards attention.

Is the Academy always going to “get it right” as far as we are concerned? No, clearly not. Nor are we all going to agree on what “getting it right” is. The creation of a separate category for comedy, however, would in essence force Oscar to take making with the funny seriously. That’s a step in the right direction.

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