up_in_the_air_georgeclooney2By Michaela Zanello

Movies started out as a comic medium. With the birth of film around the turn of the 20th century, the first movies to ever be made were silent films, which relied heavily on comedic methods, such as slapstick and burlesque. Silent movie comic icons like Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin pantomimed their way into the hearts of Americans with their clownish, Keystone chase scenes and their charming characters like “The Tramp.”

When reliable, synchronized sound was introduced into movies in the 1920’s, comedy films could take humor to new levels. Jokes could now be incorporated into the dialogue and complex farces could be crafted. This would lead to the development of the comedy subgenre called the screwball comedy, which gained prominence in the 1930’s with films like “The Awful Truth“ and “It Happened One Night.” Other groundbreaking screwball comedians, such as the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, also emerged during this time period.

Since it is pretty clear that laughter has played a significant role in both the birth and the sustained popularity of film as an entertainment medium, why is it then that when it comes to the Oscars, comedies tend to get the cold shoulder?

The Oscars have been around for more than three quarters of a century, yet only a handful of true comedies have managed to snag the big tuna best picture prize. The most recent of which is Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” which won the best picture trophy in 1977. You do the math. That’s more than 30 years ago! While it’s true that 1998’s Oscar champ, “Shakespeare in Love,” can be classified as a comedy, this film is one of those sphinx-like, hybrid movies that is part comedy, part biopic, and part romance. Plus, it carries considerable tragic weightiness with it as well.

So after 30 solemn years, it would seem that the Oscars are long overdue to award an outstanding comedy film. Perhaps, 2010 will be the year that the Academy turns that frown upside down and once again embraces humor as a creditable means of compelling storytelling, seeing as that certainly wasn’t the case with 2009’s Oscar lineup, which the Academy apparently had fumigated for any trace of laughtermites.

With storylines ranging from the heartbreaking journey of a young orphan from the slums of Mumbai in “Slumdog Millionaire” to an account of the tragically brief career of the first openly gay, American politician in “Milk,” the films nominated in 2009 definitely did not have their audiences hooting or guffawing. While these dramatic films may be wrought with emotional weightiness that tugs on heart strings, let’s not forget that it is often comedic works that present the most lucid analysis of a society’s idiosyncrasies and apprehensions.

Some fine comedy films to go unrecognized by the 2009 Oscars include, “In Bruges,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Two other noteworthy comedies that were at least nominated for Oscars are 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” and 2007’s “Juno.” These two films may not have been able to snag the best picture trophy, but they represent two of the more original and charismatic films to have hit American theaters in a long time.

At the Oscars, it’s not just the best picture category that is typically anti-comedy. The best actor/actress categories also usually favor dramatic performances over comedic ones. Of the more than 300 acting Oscars that have been awarded, fewer than 30 of them have been handed out for performances whose emotional muscle was flexed mostly from the actor or actresses aptitude for tickling the audience’s funny bone.

It is likely that this disparity exists on account of the perception that dramatic roles are more challenging to perform and are therefore more award-worthy. It may be true that for many comedies and comedic roles the level of emotionality is about as weighty as Nicole Ritchie tied to a flotilla of helium balloons (take “City Slickers” or “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” for example).

Dramas and dramatic acting roles are capable of tapping into a broader and deeper range of emotions, which can include laughter and happiness, along with anger, and sadness, and the rest of the emoticon gang. Whereas comedies and comedic acting roles tend to be restricted to communicating funniness, lest the humorific mood curdle like a tomato juice and cream cocktail. But this is by no means to say that dramas and dramatic roles truly are more laudable than comedic ones. The skill set used to craft commendable comedic performances is just different, that’s all. In fact, there is a saying that goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

For the 2010 Oscars, there are a few comedies that stand out from among the rest as potential Best Picture contenders. They are: “Up in the Air,” “A Serious Man,” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

“Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, may be more of a drama than a comedy, but this adaptation of Walter Kirn’s comic novel still dishes out plenty of amusing moments, especially from Clooney, who plays Ryan Bingham, a business man whose goals associated with reaching 5 million frequent flyer miles are thwarted when his company decides to cut back on travel.

“A Serious Man” is the latest and most personal film to be delivered from the imaginative minds of the Coen brothers. This film expertly uses deadpan style, dark comedy to tell the story of an ordinary man and his pursuit of cosmic clarity as he grapples with issues concerning familial responsibility, mortality, and faith.

“Inglourious Basterds,” which features a band of badass, Jewish soldiers lead by a mustache-clad Brad Pitt, is an exceptional piece of filmmaking on the part of writer and director Quentin Tarantino, which takes the audience on an engrossing thrill wide jam-packed with gory violence, offbeat comedy, and tragic melodrama.

Other noteworthy comedies of 2009 include: Disney-Pixar’s “Up,” with a voice cast including Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, and Jordan Nagai; Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant” starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, and Joel McHale; and Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” with collaborators George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Bill Murray.

Perhaps the Oscars should take a lesson from the Golden Globes and create a separate category for comedies. After all, a distinct category for best animated film was made when it became apparent that animated films didn’t have a shot in hell of taking home an overall best picture prize.

So why not do the same for comedies? When Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein presented the suggestion to the motion picture academy president, Sid Ganis, Mr. Ganis dismissed the idea, saying that if comedies have won the Oscar for best picture in the past, then why wouldn’t a deserving comedy be able to do so in the future?

Well, Mr. Ganis, your response wreaks of cop out fumes. It seems pretty obvious that the message here is clear: Oscar is a drama queen.