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Comic performances overlooked again

Bill Murray and Johnny Depp lost out to the more serious work of Sean Penn. By Christopher Bahn

When Sean Penn won this year's best actor Oscar for his role in the crime drama "Mystic River," it was a vindication for an actor whose great talent had never been officially recognized by a statue from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. But this year's crop of nominees featured a rarity in not one but two nominations for comic roles — “Lost in Translation's” Bill Murray and Johnny Depp of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The award almost always goes to a dramatic actor (and Penn's roaringly intense Jimmy Marcus certainly qualifies). Only a very small subset of the winners in any of the acting categories have won for funny roles.

There's an old story, possibly apocryphal, about an aging and sickly vaudeville actor  who was asked if he was afraid of death. "Of course not," he said. "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." But the truth is, it's easier for an actor to win if his character is mentally challenged or dies tragically than if he makes us laugh.

Though the Oscars have been around for three-quarters of a century, only five comedies have won best picture.  And of roughly 300 acting awards, only about 30 have gone to performances whose power derives mostly from the actor or actresses' ability to make us laugh. And even there, I'm stretching the definition to include roles like Jack Nicholson in “As Good as It Gets” and Roberto Benigni for “Life is Beautiful,” with considerable tragic weightiness to them.

In fact, neither Murray nor Depp were nominated for purely funny roles: Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow is at least half action hero in the Errol Flynn/Indiana Jones mode, and Murray's lonely Bob Harris is largely a portrait of the melancholy side of a clown that only shows when nobody's looking.

Oscar not in the funny businessHowever broadly you define it, though, multiple comedy nominations in one year are very rare. It's happened, by my count, only eight times in best actor history. There have been plenty of years that serious roles have completely crowded out funny ones from the nominations, but we have to go back all the way to 1934 to find an all-comedic list — and only three actors, not five, were honored that year. (The winner was “It Happened One Night's” Clark Gable, over William Powell and Frank Morgan.) In 1932, Alfred Lunt's comic role in “The Guardsmen lost to both the other nominees when Wallace Beery and Fredric March tied.

It isn't just Rodney Dangerfield that doesn't get any respect. Comic actors have always had a hard time shaking the notion that skill as a dramatic actor is more difficult and more worthy of reward.

Is that really true? Maybe so. Great comedies are often very thin as stories, no matter if you laugh every time you see them. Think of “Airplane,” “Blazing Saddles,” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” They're really sketch collections, not coherent narratives. A great dramatic role can really put you through the emotional wringer, and gets to use laughter as just one emotional hook for the audience, along with sadness, anger, and the rest. But comic actors usually need to stick to just being funny, because it's so easy to break that mood and be unable to get it back — tell a joke at a funeral and you'll see what I mean.

Ignored funny men from the pastWith the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to find instances where a really memorable role wasn't rewarded with a statue. Case in point: Peter Sellers. His gift for immersing himself into a character was acting talent of the highest order, and had its best showcase in “Dr. Strangelove,” the 1965 nuclear-war satire where he played three roles. It's now recognized as a work of genius, but the Oscar that year went to a blander candidate, Rex Harrison for his grumpy Professor Higgins in “My Fair Lady.” Fifteen years later, Sellers was robbed again for his brilliant turn in “Being There.”

Often, though not in Sellers' case, the Academy will rectify such errors with an honorary Oscar in an actor's old age, their version of a gold watch to the retiree for years of service. That's what happened to Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Cary Grant. Buster Keaton, at least, got his honorary statue in part because many of his best films were shot before the awards were even around; his greatest, “The General,” is two years older than Oscar.

Sometimes, Academy voters seem to recognize a misfire by giving an Oscar for what's essentially the wrong film. Jack Lemmon, for instance, won for the weak drama “Save the Tiger,” not the movies he's remembered for today, “The Apartment” and “Some Like It Hot.”

But at least those guys got some official recognition. W.C. Fields has zippo nominations despite great work in “The Bank Dick” and “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” Many great comic actors have never had film roles worthy of being nominated in the first place. Hugh Laurie, brilliant on the BBC's televised “Jeeves & Wooster series, has been stuck thanklessly in “Spice World” and the “Stuart Little” films. The only Oscar nomination for any member of Monty Python is Terry Gilliam's writing nod for “Brazil,” and “Saturday Night Live” alumni fare little better.

Woody Allen's 20 nominations are almost all for writing and directing; his lone acting nomination was for “Annie Hall.” And some very good comic performances still deserved to lose. Marcello Mastroianni was marvelous in “Divorce, Italian Style,” but he had the misfortune of going up against one of the century's iconic performances, Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Beating the oddsSo how can comedians improve their Oscar chances? For actresses, being in a Woody Allen film has been lucky, with four awards for funny roles. (Michael Caine also won for a dramatic role in “Hannah and Her Sisters.”) For men, it helps to get a role heavy on either romance (Dreyfus, Gable and “The Philadelphia Story's” Jimmy Stewart) or pathos (Benigni, Nicholson, and “Forrest Gump's” Tom Hanks). The only two best actor wins that, to my mind, were almost entirely dependent on comic ability were Lee Marvin's dual role in the Western farce “Cat Ballou and Peter Finch's posthumous win as the insane newscaster in “Network.”

The surest way is to cross over, like Pinocchio transforming into a real boy, and get yourself taken seriously by taking serious roles. That's not easy. For instance, though his comic genius is undeniable, Jim Carrey has struggled to be accepted outside the “Ace Ventura ghetto. But it worked for Lemmon, Hanks, Robin Williams and Art Carney (“Harry & Tonto), and won nominations for actors like Will Smith, Dan Aykroyd and Woody Harrelson.

Is it even fair to compare the two kinds of performances? After all, even among purely dramatic roles, some are meatier than others. Humphrey Bogart once suggested that the only fair way to pick the year's best actor was to have them all play Hamlet. Perhaps the solution is for the Academy to recognize the fundamental difference between a comic and dramatic performance by splitting the award into two different categories, as the Golden Globes do. If that doesn't happen, the message to actors is clear: Don't make me laugh.