There’s something funny about this year’s prospective Best Actor field. Several of the actors being touted as frontrunners for an Academy Award nomination (or who are at least still in the mix) are primarily known as comic actors.
Unlike the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Motion Picture Academy does not have a separate category for comedies and does not seem to consider comedy equally worthy as drama as witness the dearth of nominations for comedy films and performances through the years. No less than Woody Allen said years ago that making comedies was like sitting at the children’s table (insert your own joke here).
To find a comedy the Academy deemed worthy of Best Picture status, you have to go back to “Shakespeare in Love” in 1999 (it probably helped that Shakespeare was in the title), the end of a more than 20-year drought (Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” in 1977).
As for actors, Jack Nicholson is as close as it gets to an Oscar-winning comedic performance with “As Good as it Gets” in 1997. It had been 20 years since Richard Dreyfuss won for “The Goodbye Girl”
Thus, Bill Murray was not nominated for his performance for “Groundhog Day,” which is now recognized as a profoundly spiritual masterpiece, and Murray’s character’s transformation carried it. But with the Academy’s blind spot toward comedy, he didn’t have a chance for a nomination against Tom Hanks as an AIDS-afflicted lawyer, Daniel Day-Lewis as a falsely-accused prisoner, Anthony Hopkins as a repressed butler, Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler and Lawrence Fishburne as Ike Turner.
Murray is at present very much a part of the Oscar conversation as the misanthropic neighbor in “St. Vincent,” his first starring role in nearly a decade. His performance has been hailed as the film’s saving grace, but once again, he may find himself vulnerable against actors portraying real people in conflicts that are irresistible to Academy voters: Eddie Redmayne as Dr. Stephen Hawking in "Theory of Everything", ?Benedict Cumberbatch as the real-life codebreaker disgraced when it is discovered he is gay in "The Imitation Game," and Steve Carell as the increasingly creepy and sinister millionaire John Du Pont in "Foxcatcher."
The condescension against comedy can be seen in the reviews for “Foxcatcher,” which opens this weekend. Carell has earned ecstatic praise for what many are calling a “revelatory performance,” which loosely translated means, “He’s made us laugh; who knew he could act?” What did they think he had been doing on “The Office” all those years? But he sports a prosthetic nose as DuPont and the Academy loves that (Nicole Kidman won an Oscar with hers for “The Hours”)
Like Bill Murray, Michael Keaton is another actor best known for his work in comedies, but who has shined in more dramatic roles (“Clean and Sober”). He is one of this year’s Cinderella stories for “Birdman” as a washed-up actor seeking redemption on the Broadway stage. Unlike Murray, he has never been nominated. Hollywood can’t resist a good comeback story.
A Best Actor race with Keaton, Murray and Carell in the mix would be a nice reminder to the Academy members that comic actors are actors, too. They shouldn’t have to be cast in films with "heavy" subject matter to be recognized. But that’s what it takes, even for so-called dramatic actors, as Ricky Gervais pointedly noted while hosting the Golden Globes and spotted Kate Winslet, winner for “The Reader”: “Well done, Winslet. I told ya, do a Holocaust movie, the awards come, didn’t I?