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Countdown to Oscars

Wednesday, January 2, 2013
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Can ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ Overcome The Oscars’ Comedy Stigma And Win Best Picture?

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor

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Audiences and critics around the globe love a good comedy. Comedies make you feel good inside and provide you with some temporary happiness and respite from the troubles of the world at large. They’re some of the hardest movies to make, and they’re appreciated by almost everyone.

The lone holdouts? The voters of the Academy Awards.

Since 1977, when the Woody Allen comedy Annie Hall won Best Picture, exactly zero full-on comedies have won the Oscar. Yes, Allen’s film had dramedy elements to it, but it was far more of a comedy than last year’s winner, The Artist, which would probably be the closest thing we’ve had since then to a comedic winner. Others in that sort of hybrid realm include American Beauty, Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love and Terms of Endearment.

This year we have an unusually strong comedy contender in the David O. Russell film Silver Linings Playbook. Generally regarded as one of the five Best Picture hopefuls that can actually win the prize, it faces an uphill battle due to its humor, much as Les Miserables does with its low Rotten Tomatoes score (as I recently discussed here) and Argo does with its comparatively early release date.

It’s not like comedies don’t get nominated for Best Picture with some form of regularity — they just never seem to wind up winning. In the years immediately following the Annie Hall victory, there were some strong comedy contenders, but they just couldn’t get over the hump. Most of them are more so dramedies than straight comedies, like Broadcast News, Hannah and Her Sisters and Moonstruck. Other contenders like Heaven Can Wait, Tootsie and Working Girl tried and failed to capture that Oscar.

Getting slightly more recent, hybrids like As Good As It Gets, Babe, The Full Monty, Jerry Maguire and Life is Beautiful managed nominations but nothing more. One of the few real comedies to get a Best Picture nod during that time was Four Weddings and a Funeral. Compared to most other nominees during that period, it’s a downright laugh riot. Not surprisingly, though, Oscar didn’t see fit to honor it.

In the past eight years or so, there’s been a move toward nominating dramedies more often for Best Picture, but wins have still eluded the films. Sideways and The Descendants were probably the flicks with the best chances, which speaks to how the Academy likes Alexander Payne, but he still couldn’t pull it off. The same went for returning champion Allen, who lost just last year for Midnight in Paris.

Lighter contenders like Juno, The Kids Are All Right and Little Miss Sunshine made their unsuccessful plays, while a more offbeat player like A Serious Man never really came close. Oscar voters have no problem nominating the classiest comedies of the year (even if comedy really means dramedy to them), but they can’t ever seem to pull the trigger on giving those genre efforts the win.

The Golden Globes are a slightly different animal, as they have their own Comedy category. They include Musicals in that category, too, which makes the waters even murkier. During the aforementioned period of funny flicks at the Oscars, the Globes have nominated many of the same movies, but they don’t always wind up winning at both ceremonies.

Annie Hall managed to win the Oscar but not the Globe. On the other hand, As Good As It Gets, Babe, Hannah and Her Sisters, Heaven Can Wait, The Kids Are All Right, Shakespeare in Love, Sideways and Working Girl managed the opposite. These got a boost from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the preferences of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Aside from The Artist and Driving Miss Daisy (which aren’t 100 percent comedies), no Comedy winner at the Globes has gone on to win the Oscar, but there’s a chance that we could see that change this year. Silver Linings Playbook would have to upset Les Miserables in the Comedy/Musical category, but if it does … watch out.

Could Russell’s offbeat comedy be the one to break this two-and-a-half-decade trend? Many are already discounting the flick, but I’m somewhat more bullish on its chances. Silver Linings Playbook isn’t the frontrunner by any stretch, but to count it out is pretty foolish in my eyes.

What works in the favor of Silver Linings Playbook this year is the Audience Award it won at the Toronto Film Festival. That’s an important feather in its cap and something to not forget about when considering its chances, as the award is sometimes a bellwether for Best Picture success.

Depending on the mood of voters, they could give more of a look to this comedy than they have in years past. Opinions are very split on where the Academy could go this time around. The early frontrunner Argo has dropped back in the pack, while high-profile contender Les Miserables has been hurt to some degree by a lack of rave reviews. Neither is out, but it’s possible that they’ve fallen behind Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty in the race. This is a ray of hope for Silver Linings Playbook.

The way that we could see Silver Linings Playbook win Best Picture is pretty clear to me. Argo and Les Miserables would have to be overcome by Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, which could then split the vote in a way that allows the comedy to sneak in. It’s not an incredibly likely scenario, but with such an unpredictable race, anything is possible.

I think we’ll see a drama like Lincoln or Zero Dark Thirty win out in the end, but this is a good year for a comedy to make a serious play for Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook might not be able to overcome the comedy stigma at the Oscars, but it’s going to get closer than most contenders ever dream of.

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  • Jamie White

    I know I’m really out of the mainstream with this, but I think SLP is an awful film with a truly bad message. Just me but it is one that I would hate to see win. Love Les Mis but know that’s not likely either, so have to back either Lincoln or Argo. No excitement, but at least they are quality films.

  • OI

    It’s not just you. It’s a mediocre film with good performances but the underlying message is pretty insulting/awful.

  • Jessie

    I’m a big fan of the film, so I’m hoping it has a chance!

  • Dave

    Did you seriously say that Shakespeare in Love didn’t win best picture?
    That’s one of the most notoriously well known best picture winners!

    Side note: I really love Silver Linings Playbook and it’s my favorite of this year’s best picture nominees. It’s unlikely that it will win, but I’m thrilled that it received eight nominations, all of which fall into the seven most important categories, plus what is arguably the most essential technical category (best film editing).