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Academy, You Can Take Comedy Actors Seriously

Who remembers watching Philadelphia for the first time and being blown away by the performance of Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett? And not just because he was playing someone with AIDS. Or because he was actually brilliant. Or that he held his own and beyond opposite the incredible Denzel Washington. Part of the impact was Hanks’ transition from comedy to drama. And we are talking about an actor who was built on the diverse spectrum, from Splash or Sleepless In Seattle, to the The Money Pit or The ‘Burbs. Let’s not go any further without mentioned the enduring and terrific Big.


I remember the buzz around Hanks’ performance in Philadelphia. I was writing a college movie magazine for a while at the time, and my healthy review of the movie resulted in a flat-out five-star rating – largely due to that engulfing central performance. I am talking about Oscar buzz though, that this role appeared to gallop to the Best Actor award finish line. That is no disrespect to the other nominees of course (which was a diverse bunch: a prisoner who can get you things, a mad king, an ageing rascal, and a twist-dancing crook).

Without searching for facts and figures (or, say, the People’s Choice Favorite Movies of Tom Hanks poll), the actor’s biggest / most successful roles / movies over the next decade included Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, and Cast Away. Very dramatic roles. Hanks also dappled in playing the anti-hero, a bad guy we like you might say, in the excellent Road to Perdition. If you are not convinced of Hank’s dramatic presence twenty years on from Philadelphia, then watch last year’s Captain Phillips. He is so good as someone who’s life is in ultimate danger, Hanks somehow has something left in the tank to overwhelm you further when the character he plays comes to terms with this frightening scenario in the heart-breaking final sequence. Incredibly, he was snubbed for Best Actor this time.

That transition from comedy to drama, and even back again, has perhaps, though, never been so extraordinarily impressive as when demonstrated by the late, great Robin Williams. The Academy chose never to nominate him his great comedy work, like Mrs Doubtfire or The Birdcage. And I want to say Aladdin, but even today, there is still unjustly no merit Oscar-wise for a role like that. Just ask Andy Serkis. Williams also missed out on nominations for Awakenings, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo – but earned (rightly so) nods for Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, and won Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting. I am sure I will write about him again, soon.


You could argue Robert Downey Jr transitioned with his incredible role as Chaplin – but did not really follow the dramatic route. Woody from Cheers eventually became Larry Flynt, and earned Mr Harrelson a Best Actor nomination. If you haven’t seen that yet, stop reading and go do it now. The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air also earned drama plaudits for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness. Though he seems much more intent on the action / comedy genre for the most part.


Surprisingly perhaps, Bill Murray has never really been a contender apart from that time Sean Penn stole his Oscar for Lost in Translation. Listening to a podcast about that Oscar race recently I laughed when it was claimed Murray lost his Oscar because of how he comes across and his general attitude towards that sort of success (I am not quoting word for word here). What I found funny was that they failed to mention how many people and industry folk Sean Penn has pissed off over the years. Billy Crystal joked, when hosting that year, that he could read actor’s thoughts and that Penn was thinking (about the venue) “This is a nice place, I don’t think I have ever been thrown out of here”. Similarly, Crystal joked about his own omission from Oscar contention, the year his Mr Saturday Night co-star David Paymer was nominated (and after his City Slickers co-star Jack Palance had won the Oscar), that from now on he was going to play his own brother.
My own personal pain, deriving from a rant that started so positively, is Jim Carrey’s Oscar history. In that he does not have one. Roberto Benigni not only got nominated for Best Actor (alongside Hanks, Ian McKellen, Nick Nolte, and Edward Norton) – but he won! There was no room apparently for Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. What?! Ed Harris got a Supporting nod, but I am not sure if that makes me feel a tiny bit better, or just makes even less sense. Nothing too for Man On The Moon, or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Bonkers. As he said when receiving the Golden Globe for Best Actor Drama (the year before he won the same award for Man On The Moon) “This is serious, it’s going to be so hard to speak out of my ass after this”. He went on to thank the Academy, a joke that most of the room got. Carrey did attend the Oscars the year of The Truman show, and could not resist bringing this mishap up again.


Coming soon: Good luck Steve Carell…


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