A Comedy Only Wins Best Picture When It Follows These Rules
It’s a funny thing about watching the Oscars: So much of the actual show is devoted to delivering one-liners, and yet the movies being celebrated are often dour affairs. There’s something very telling about that disconnect. When we want to entertain, we go for the joke — but if you want to really be taken seriously as an artist, then you’ve got to tackle dramatic material that isn’t funny at all. And yet, over the years a few comedies have managed to take home Best Picture. As a matter of fact, that may occur this Sunday as well.
So how did these lucky few funny films convince the Academy to look past its comedy bias? I went back through the history of the Oscars to see if I could figure out some rules that explain these odd exceptions. I came up with 10. Overall, the trick seems to be that these winners managed to fool voters into thinking that they were more than “just” comedies. And it turns out, there are several ways to do that.
Have the Movie End on a Bittersweet Note
Classic example: Annie Hall
In the early-to-mid 1970s, Woody Allen produced a series of really funny comedies, like Sleeper and Love and Death. Those movies were completely overlooked by the Academy. Then came Annie Hall, a grown-up story about a chronic misanthrope (Allen) and the optimistic aspiring singer (Diane Keaton) he falls in love with. Gone was the slapstick and zany sight gags — in their place was a more mature perspective on life and love. And just as importantly, Annie Hall didn’t have the typical happy ending you see in most comedies. Instead, the lovers don’t work things out, with our misanthrope learning valuable life lessons in the process, grateful to have ever met Annie. The Academy often responds to comics who show a little seriousness, and Annie Hall marked a transition to a more reflective, bittersweet Allen, who was rewarded with nominations and wins for years to come.
Have the Movie Be a (Sad) Love Story
Classic example: The Apartment
Writer-director Billy Wilder was a master at blending laughter and drama, winning six Oscars along the way. His only Best Picture trophy was for The Apartment, which is primarily a comedy, starring Jack Lemmon as Baxter, an unhappy office drone, and Shirley MacLaine as Fran, the woman who operates the building’s elevator. But as these two start to fall in love, we begin to realize how melancholy their lives are: In a lot of ways, The Apartment anticipates our modern sensitivity to depression and mental health. That emotional depth only strengthened the movie’s Best Picture chances, allowing voters to see it as the opposite of a typically happy-go-lucky rom-com. The Apartment’s characters felt like real people with real problems, their sadness a tart counterpoint to some of Wilder’s funniest-ever lines.
Have the Movie Be a Classy Rom-Com
Classic example: It Happened One Night
If Annie Hall was the last traditional rom-com to win the big prize, it certainly wasn’t the first. By my math, that honor goes to this 1934 gem, directed by Frank Capra, in which a pampered heiress (Claudette Colbert) and a snarky journalist (Clark Gable) cross paths, the romantic sparks flying in all directions. One of the quintessential “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore” movies, It Happened One Night is a more civilized rom-com than the modern variation. I don’t mean that to knock newer romantic-comedies — just to say that this witty, urbane, slyly sexy film comes across as classy (aka “worthy”) of Oscar love in a way that frothier rom-coms don’t. (It also helps that It Happened One Night remains one of the all-time most entertaining films, period.)
Have the Movie Be Connected to Somebody Fancy, Like William Shakespeare
Classic example: Shakespeare in Love
At the 1999 Oscars, this comedy-drama upset Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture: Most assumed Steven Spielberg’s tense World War II drama, the kind of film that usually triumphs at the Academy Awards, would be the big winner. But what helped Shakespeare in Love was that its comedic elements were bolstered by a great premise and a prestigious backdrop. The film’s conceit is that a struggling young Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is having a tough time cracking this play he’s working on — something called Romeo and Juliet — but inspiration hits once he meets the beautiful Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), who helps him figure out how to write that classic. Shakespeare in Love’s setting gave it an artistic heft most comedies don’t have, which lent the film a legitimacy that ultimately led it to an unexpected Oscar victory.
Have the Movie Be About a Societal Issue
Classic example: Parasite
There were plenty of factors working against Parasite’s awards-season chances. Most imposing was what seemed to be a hard-and-fast unwritten Oscar rule: No foreign-language movie was ever going to win Best Picture. But this gem from South Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho became the first, which overlooks another crucial barrier the movie overcame, which is that it’s primarily a comedy — albeit a pretty dark one. But maybe Parasite surmounted both obstacles for the same reason: Its hip indie distributor Neon cleverly sold the film as a commentary on economic inequality, a growing issue in an age of Occupy Wall Street activism and anti-One-Percenter sentiment. Of course, Bong’s film was about more than that, but its zeitgeist-y quality struck a chord. (And although Get Out didn’t win Best Picture the year it was nominated, you could argue that Jordan Peele’s screenplay victory came from the same impulse: Both horror and comedy get more respect when the Academy thinks those movies are “about” something.)
Have the Movie Defeat Racism
Classic example: Green Book
The Farrelly brothers were among the biggest comedy filmmakers of the 1990s, with movies such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary defining an era. But those were broad, gross-out laughers, not the sort of thing the Academy goes for. Then, Peter Farrelly went off on his own to make Green Book, a period film about the real-life friendship between a bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) and an accomplished pianist (Mahershala Ali) traveling across the South. Much like Driving Miss Daisy before it, Green Book put a white and Black character together, with the white person coming to learn about racism’s corrosiveness along the way. Peter Farrelly eschewed the wondrous puerility of he and his brother’s earlier movies, but he held onto the feel-good tone, making bigotry feel like a mild malady you can lick if you just have some laughs with that one Black guy you know.
Have the Movie Be a Musical
Classic example: Chicago
The reason why most thought La La Land would take home Best Picture in 2017 was that it fit a familiar model for a comedy winner: It was disguised as a musical. Films like An American in Paris, My Fair Lady and Gigi are funny, but we think of them primarily as song-and-dance affairs, which have often been catnip to the Academy. The most recent Best Picture musical winner was 20 years ago, with director Rob Marshall’s big-screen adaptation of the Bob Fosse Broadway show taking home six Oscars. Chicago is a cutting satire about ambition and the media, but those classic tunes are really its chief selling point. Why is it that voters don’t mind their laughs when they’re wrapped up in this genre? I think it’s because musicals have a certain amount of spectacle and pageantry, which makes them feel significant, whereas comedies are seen as being flimsy and ordinary.
Have the Movie Be Based on a Literary Classic
Classic example: Tom Jones
Not many comedies are adapted from books, which frequently are the inspiration behind searing dramas — you know, the kind that win Oscars. But the 18th century novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, considered one of the greatest of all time, was the basis for Tom Jones, a comedy that starred Albert Finney as the titular young man who’s looking for love and adventure. Among the purest comedies to take home Best Picture, this 1963 film was a sensation, especially in how it portrayed sexual desire at a time when such subject matter was still considered very taboo. Tom Jones boasted a freewheeling, youthful spirit — it’s a spiritual cousin to the following year’s A Hard Day’s Night — but the fact that it was based on a classic book no doubt helped its Oscar cause. The Academy considered this high-class bawdiness, not just some random tale of an English horndog.
Have the Movie Celebrate Hollywood
Classic example: The Artist
Parodies rarely get much love from the Academy, and while The Artist isn’t technically a sendup, it is a winking homage to the bygone silent era. French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, who’d previously spoofed spy films with the OSS 117 movies, reunited with that series’ star, Jean Dujardin, to tell the story of a 1920s silent actor who struggles once the talkies arrive. This lighthearted comedy gets many of its laughs from aping the style of silent films, especially their conventions and now-outdated gimmicks. But it’s clear that Hazanavicius and his cast aren’t making fun of silents, instead using the film to celebrate the glamor and romantic aura of Hollywood’s earliest days. That The Artist’s love story and gags are all rather superficial didn’t matter to Academy voters: They were too busy responding to the movie’s cheerful, nostalgic tone to notice.
Make Sure the Movie Has a Ton of Heart
Classic example: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Am I jumping the gun by assuming Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s sophomore feature is going to win the Oscar on Sunday? I don’t think so considering it’s a heavy favorite. That might be a surprise to some: After all, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a pretty zany comedy about a family, led by Michelle Yeoh’s weary matriarch. This is usually not the sort of thing that the Academy deigns to honor. But even though EEAAO features jokes about dildos and butt plugs — not to mention parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ratatouille — the film’s quirky, absurdist humor is offset by an emotional maximalism that preaches the importance of kindness, valuing the life you have and remembering how much your loved ones mean to you. Sure, EEAAO’s humor is often outrageous, but the movie is ultimately a tearjerker in which a mother and daughter (Stephanie Hsu) repair their relationship. If you get Oscar voters to feel something, they’ll give you Best Picture — no matter how unconventional (and funny) your movie is.