Comic tales make small Oscar inroads
While the Academy often leans toward sober dramas, there are some bright spots among past nominees, winners
By David Germain
The Academy Awards typically are a gloomy Sunday, ending with a heavy drama crowned as best picture.
Yet there's good news for this year's exhilarating romp, "Little Miss Sunshine": Over the past decade, voters have lightened up and handed the top trophy to the occasional comic frolic rather than a big, tragic pageant.
Granted, the Oscars went down with the ship on 1998 awards king "Titanic," died in the arena with Russell Crowe in 2000's champion "Gladiator," and reveled in wholesale carnage in 2003's victor "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
But they also caroused with the Bard in 1998's best-picture recipient "Shakespeare in Love," wisecracked through stifling suburbia with Kevin Spacey in 1999's winner "American Beauty," and tapped their toes along with Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2002's triumphant "Chicago."
OK, so Spacey gets blown away by a neighbor in the end, and Zellweger and Zeta-Jones are conniving killers in prison. They're FUN victims and perps, though.
Do Oscar voters need to lighten up more often?
"Absolutely. This has been a sticking point for me as long as I've been a fan of movies," said critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and TV's "Ebert and Roeper and the Movies." "People in the industry know better than anyone else that comedy is incredibly hard to do. Crap like 'Norbit' can make millions of dollars, and it's absolute garbage, but people still don't want to reward a GOOD action film or comedy."
In their early decades, the Oscars mixed it up, the bonny 1934 romance "It Happened One Night" taking best picture and the tyrant tale "Mutiny on the Bounty" winning the next year, the stark war saga "The Bridge on the River Kwai" prevailing for 1957, the musical charmer "Gigi" earning top honors a year later.
After a string of merrier best-picture winners in the 1970s ("The Sting," "Rocky," "Annie Hall"), the Oscars largely became an exercise in gloom and doom as films such as "The Deer Hunter," "Ordinary People," "Terms of Endearment," "Platoon" "Unforgiven" and "Schindler's List" took the main prize.
The best-picture field the past 10 years still has been dominated by somber stories, with lighter tales such as "The Full Monty," "Jerry Maguire" and "Sideways" among the just-happy-to-be- nominated crowd.
With comedy-tinged films winning three of the past 10 times, though, the Oscars are looking cheerier than they have in decades. Here's the gloomy-vs.- sunny scorecard for best-picture winners over the last decade (WARNING: Spoilers ahead):
"The English Patient," 1996
Gloomy. Ralph Fiennes' lover dies alone in a cave, and he gets most of his skin burned off before croaking in an act of assisted suicide. On the sunny side, his nurse, Juliette Binoche, gets a new boyfriend.
Gloomy. Everybody dies (except Kate Winslet and some insignificant others). On the sunny side, girls and women are hooked on heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to the tune of $1.8 billion in worldwide grosses.
"Shakespeare in Love," 1998
Sunny. Gwyneth Paltrow wears a fake mustache to make good in a man's world and gets to sleep with the playwright (Joseph Fiennes). On the gloomy side, Shakespeare's a married man, and Paltrow winds up hitched to a mercenary creep.
"American Beauty," 1999
Partly sunny. Kevin Spacey goes from tubby to buff while mercilessly mocking everything in his life. On the gloomy side, a homophobic military man puts a bullet in him, but Spacey lives on in eternity as a disembodied narrator.
Gloomy. Good soldier Russell Crowe is forced into gladiatorial slavery, and his wife and son are burned and hanged by Rome's wicked new ruler. On the sunny side, before dying, Crowe gets to butcher the sniveling emperor in front of a full house.
"A Beautiful Mind," 2001
Gloomy. Good mathematician Russell Crowe loses his marbles and hangs out with sinister imaginary friends. On the sunny side, he wins a Nobel Prize.
Sunny. Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones sing, dance, beat murder raps then take their act on the road. On the gloomy side, it's curtains for the no-good, two-timing men of the world.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," 2003
Gloomy. Probably the biggest body count ever in a best-picture winner, even if most of them are digitally crafted fantasy creatures. On the sunny side, good kicks evil's butt.
"Million Dollar Baby," 2004
Gloomy. Spunky Hilary Swank overcomes the odds to become a star boxer, only to be paralyzed and have Clint Eastwood pitch in with another act of assisted suicide. On the sunny side, Eastwood winds up at a diner that has really good pie.
Gloomy. Seemingly everyone in Los Angeles interacts with everyone else over one tragedy-filled 36-hour stretch. On the sunny side, it's the funniest movie ever in which an off-duty policeman kills a hitchhiker, a vengeful store owner nearly shoots a little girl and a bigoted white cop (Matt Dillon) terrorizes a black woman then rescues her from a car wreck.
This year's best-picture race is uncharacteristically wide open, with the winner anyone's guess among four heavy dramas - "Babel," "The Departed," "Letters From Iwo Jima" and "The Queen" - and the comic "Little Miss Sunshine."
The latter has pulled upsets by beating its darker competition for top awards from the Producers and Screen Actors guilds.
Critic Roeper leans toward the somber "Babel" to win best picture, saying the film seems to have picked up momentum, while "Little Miss Sunshine" is simply this year's token comedy.
"There's no doubt with the last generation of academy voters, the more serious, the better, in terms of your chances of winning. Which I think is actually leading to this late wave of predictions that 'Babel' is going to win," Roeper said.
"The academy feels like they want to feel good when voting for best picture, which means voting for something that's not going to make you feel good when you leave the theater."