The Comedies (and Comedic Performances) That Shouldn’t Have Won an Oscar
It’s bad enough that the Oscars rarely honor comedies — even worse is that, when they do, they tend to pick the wrong films and performances. For every inspired selection — Diane Keaton for Best Actress for Annie Hall, Kevin Kline for Best Supporting Actor for A Fish Called Wanda, Jack Palance for Best Supporting Actor for City Slickers — you get a couple headscratchers. Or, more accurately, the five bad Oscar wins chronicled below.
Best Picture: ‘Green Book’
Road movies tend not to take home Oscar’s biggest prize. Ditto comedies. And yet, in 2019 Green Book defied the odds (and defeated the far superior Roma) to claim Best Picture. The movie’s surprise success should have been a feel-good underdog story: how Peter Farrelly (one half of the Farrelly brothers, masters of crass comedy) decided to tell the touching true story of Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an accomplished pianist who hires an ignorant bouncer, Tony Lip, (Viggo Mortensen), to be his driver in 1962, the white man coming to appreciate the racism this Black musician must endure.
Heartwarming but also fatally unsophisticated in its depiction of bigotry, Green Book was the filmmaker equivalent of a comedian doing a serious role in order to win plaudits. Farrelly is exceptionally well-intentioned in his message, but his genial tone and hamfisted approach is too clumsy for a story that requires far more complexity than he can bring to it. That this would-be crowd-pleaser is actually not as good as Peter and Bobby’s previous broad comedies is both an indictment of Green Book and the Academy that lavished it with prizes. But the movie’s win did give us this iconic moment, with the late Chadwick Boseman speaking for all of us:
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, ‘The Artist’
George Valentin is a perfect Jean Dujardin figure: a preening egomaniac whose self-confidence is unearned. Arthouse audiences knew Dujardin’s work from OSS 117, a spy spoof in which his sexist secret agent thinks he’s god’s gift to women. His character in The Artist is slightly classier — George is an elegant movie star during the silent era — but that same smug satisfaction is evident.
To be sure, Dujardin had the matinee-handsome good looks for the role, and he portrays the right amount of clueless self-absorption. But just like The Artist, which won Best Picture, Dujardin’s performance eventually turns one-note, the affectionate digs at silent movies ultimately pretty toothless. Truth is, Dujardin is a far better actor than The Artist suggests: If you need proof, check out 2019’s Deerskin, a twisted dark comedy about a man who impulsively buys a deerskin jacket, which slowly turns him into a serial killer. Seriously, it’s pretty wild.
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, ‘I, Tonya’
Two things can be true: Allison Janney is a national treasure, and her Oscar-winning performance in the dark comedy I, Tonya is merely okay. She plays LaVona, the witheringly unsupportive mother of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), an insecure figure skater who will become infamous when her rival Nancy Kerrigan is assaulted.
Janney is a smart, nuanced actor, but too often in I, Tonya she takes her cue from the filmmakers, who tend to treat their working-class characters like caricatures. Consequently, LaVona is more quirky than human — an exaggerated version of The Oddball Mom From Hell. What’s even more disappointing is that another veteran actress was nominated in the same category for playing a similar character: Laurie Metcalf, whose portrayal of the beleaguered mother in Lady Bird was a lot better.
Best Actor: Roberto Benigni, ‘Life Is Beautiful’
Italian director/actor Roberto Benigni wanted to do a daring thing: make a comedy about the Holocaust. When it was released in the U.S. in 1998, Life Is Beautiful was mostly hailed for its audacity, the film depicting a happy-go-lucky everyman (Benigni) who marries a beautiful local girl (Nicoletta Braschi) and has a son (Giorgio Cantarini) — only for the onset of World War II to change their lives completely. When they’re sent to a concentration camp, the man tries to convince his boy that they’re actually playing an elaborate game in order to keep him from being scared — a ruse that proves increasingly difficult to sustain.
Life Is Beautiful provoked plenty of criticism for supposedly soft-pedaling the horrors of the Holocaust, treating them as the backdrop for a cloyingly feel-good fable. I wouldn’t go that far, but Benigni’s win for Best Actor still seems terribly misguided. As he’s done often in his career, Benigni is far too enamored by his own adorableness, resulting in a performance that’s poisonously cutesy. There’s no mistaking the heart and serious intention underneath the film’s comedy — it’s a movie about a dad who loves his son so much he’ll go to any length to protect him from the cruelty around them — but the preciousness of Benigni’s mugging portrayal ends up being rather grating.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Taika Waititi, ‘Jojo Rabbit’
Speaking of audacious Nazi comedies… Before 2019, Taika Waititi was on a hot streak. Over the span of five years, he’d been part of a terrific vampire mockumentary (What We Do in the Shadows), made a great family movie (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and then pulled off the near impossible by directing an actually cool Marvel film (Thor: Ragnarok). For his next trick, he set his sights on writing and directing a dark period comedy about a Hitler Youth kid (Roman Griffin Davis) who finds himself getting attached to a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his home. Oh, and Waititi played an imaginary Adolf Hitler who talks to the kid.
The wit and subversiveness the New Zealand filmmaker brought to his earlier work mostly abandoned him on Jojo Rabbit, resulting in a glib satire that unconvincingly doubled as a life-affirming tearjerker. Not that any of that mattered: The movie was a hit, netting six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Waititi’s screenplay, which adapted Christine Leunens’ novel, won, even though it’s the fourth-best film he produced during that period.
Like the others on this list, Waititi’s crime isn’t that he’s untalented — it’s that the Academy isn’t smart enough to distinguish his best work from his mediocre efforts. Sometimes, people will argue that comedy should have its own Oscar category. Considering how badly the voters get it wrong when they do honor comedy, maybe it’s best that they generally ignore the genre altogether.