Oscar: Comedy Performances and Actors

They don’t recognize comedies. They don’t have a comedy category.I have two Oscars and a plaque and a gold medal from the Academy, but I never won for acting.
Bob Hope, Comedian and Oscar Host

It’s almost a fluke that Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won the 1997 acting Oscars for As Good As It Gets. It’s unusual for two performers to win the lead Oscars in the same film, and even more unusual for both roles to be in a comedy. Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1998 Best Actress for the period comedy, “Shakespeare in Love,” is also the exception to the rule.

The Academy has shown a consistent lack of respect for comedic performances. For some reason, they are considered to be “easier,” more effortless than dramatic performances. Leading actresses have seldom won an Oscar for a role in comedy. It took twenty years after Audrey Hepburn’s Best Actress for Roman Holiday for the next woman to win the Oscar for a comedy, Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class, and Jackson won due to paucity of good female roles that year.

The number of men winning for comedic performances have not been much bigger.  No Best Actor had won for a comedy role between Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story in 1940 and Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, twenty five years later.

Oscar for Supporting Actors in comedies have been more prevalent.

Peter Ustinov won a second supporting Oscar for playing a con man who’s talked into a robbery by Melina Mercouri in Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964). Ustinov’s misadventures as a tour guide afraid of his own shadow provided the most hilarious scenes in the movie.

George Burns excelled in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975), as a veteran vaudevillian reunited with his old partner (Walter Matthau) after decades of hostility.

Of the supporting comediennes, Josephine Hull gave a riotous performance in Harvey (1950), as Jimmy Stewart’s distraught, scatterbrained sister, who ends up in a mental institution she had intended for him. Eileen Heckart received a welldeserved supporting Oscar as the overbearing and overprotective mother of a blind son in Butterflies Are Free (1972).

Overlooking comedy performers is not exclusive to the Academy. Other film associations have also failed to honor comedy films and comedy performers. Neither Cary Grant nor Jack Lemmon have ever won the New York Film Critics Circle, for example. Steve Martin, honored in 1984 by the New York Film Critics and the National Society of Film Critics for his witty slapstick comedy, All of Me, is the exception rather than the rule.

Most performers know when they are cast in comedies that their films may be popular with the public but will not get the Academy’s recognition. When British actress Julie Walters was nominated for Educating Rita, in which she played a hairdresser eager to get higher education, she told reporters: “I won’t win. They don’t give Oscars for comedy.”

The Golden Globes and the Tony Awards distinguish between comedy/musical and drama to ensure that these genres get their fair representation and due respect. However, the Academy has refused to create separate categories, claiming that it will not only increase the number of awards but also diminish their relative prestige.