Do you remember the last time a comedic film won a Best Picture Oscar?
By official record, you’d have to go back to 2011’s silent tribute, The Artist, a film that in many ways defines genre but gets to be classified as a comedy because it’s a little bit funny. Before that? 1977, when Woody Allen’s Annie Hall took the top honor. In total, the Best Picture Academy Award has only gone to a comedy six times in the show’s ninety-year history. And the introduction of a new category this year, Best Popular Film, all but assures it won’t happen again any time soon.
On August 8th, The Academy shared a tweet letting the world know that “Change is coming to the #Oscars.” First announced of these changes? “A new category is being designed around achievement in popular film.” For someone who watched with some combination of skepticism, horror, and frustration during the La La Land/Moonlight snafu, and again with the boring pick of The Shape of Water last year, even as Get Out shone in far more ways than just its stellar direction, I have a lot of questions about how this category came about.
Chief among them: what does a Best Picture look like? Mounting criticism in years past has answered that question with traits like male-driven, historical or nostalgic – and yes, dramatic. Seth MacFarlane made this note earlier this year, praising the inclusion of a seemingly offbeat choice like Get Out but otherwise noting a serious lack of humor in the night’s biggest honor. “It’s 99% drama,” MacFarlane said. “Until a movie like Bridesmaids or Airplane! gets a Best Picture win or even a nomination, it’s all conspicuously incomplete.” Individual comedic performances get nominated often, but the Academy falls short at deeming any whole film an achievement. I think of Melissa McCarthy for the aforementioned Bridesmaids, or June Squibb’s hysterical supporting turn in 2014’s Nebraska, even as I mourn the lack of one for Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip. Do you feel compelled to respond, “but is Girls Trip an ‘Oscar movie’?” Well, that’s my point.
In a larger sense, I have to think about whose cinematic achievements are hurt by this narrow definition of “best,” as pitted against “popular.” Increasingly it will be genre films, horror and hero most commonly, but in a larger sense that could mean any film that doesn’t fit the narrow mold of staid biopic or dimly lit allegory. It’s hard to consider this category’s timing without looking to the both wildly popular and beautifully made Black Panther – a film that, while not a comedy, certainly has its moments. I think also of other movies that are making strong moves toward recognition this year, like Blindspotting, Sorry to Bother You, and Eighth Grade. All of these films have strong comedic elements, are causing a considerable degree of buzz, and absent any clear idea on how “best” or “popular” are defined, run a major risk of being shoehorned into the latter category. Why? Because they don’t look the part for the big award.
My biggest worry about the forthcoming category is the implication that popular movies can’t also be good. Why must Best and Popular be separate at all? Lest we forget, a great many popular movies have also gotten the big award. Sweeping historical fiction tales like Gone with the Wind and Titanic have nabbed the award previously- by box office take, it’s hard to think of two more popular movies. The same could be said for otherwise genre films like The Sound of Music (musical) and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (fantasy). Fueling the discord between comedies and “Best’ designation: comedies often do big numbers at the box office, as friend groups and social circles gather to share laughs. I imagine this contributes to the idea that this many people can’t possibly be good arbiters of taste. But the box office has changed wildly over the years, and the Academy really hasn’t – until very recently, as the most recent classes of Academy members has shifted. Their rapidly diversifying (in both age and background) of their membership means movies that previously weren’t seen or known by the voting body, are now being mentioned more and more often. What’s popular with this current bloc of voters, is – make no mistake – also worthy of high honor. And I’m deeply concerned that the timing and placement of this award is designed to appease newer members, while ultimately preserving the traditional “look” of a Best Picture winner: predictable, primarily white, and largely absent humor. An unfortunate side effect of that will be the continued sidelining of comedy as an Academy-recognized form of art.