Oscar: Hanks, Tom–from Comedy to Drama

Tom Hanks has won two Best Actor Oscars for dramas, for Philadelphia (1993) and for Forrest Gump (1994).

In the former, he plays an AIDS-stricken lawyer named Andrew Beckett who fights for his human rights when he is fired from his job. Historically, Hollywood’s top stars have steered clear from portraying gay characters for fear that it would harm their careers. When Hanks accepted Jonathan Demme’s offer to play the lead in Philadelphia, his choice represented a bold departure for him, because he was then best known for his comedy skills in Big, Sleepless in Seattle, and A League of Their Own.

Hanks was nominated again for Saving Private Ryan, for a role in which he delivered, as Variety wrote, “the kind of mature, thinking man’s blend of guts and heart that the Academy loves.” Lauren ShulerDonner, who produced the Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail, released in the same year as Saving Private Ryan, said she would cast her vote for this comedy, because “Tom deserves another Oscar.” But she conceded that out of the two pictures, Hanks would be nominated for Saving Private Ryan, because “the Academy goes for drama over comedy most of the time.”

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 has 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 categories, claiming that it will not only increase the number of awards but also diminish their relative prestige.