The 87th Annual Oscars are upon us, and with that comes the common debate as to whether the Oscars don’t give comedy their due. The argument can certainly be made that there is a definite type of film which always receives nominations described as “Oscar bait”; the films which seem to have been made with a checklist of “how to get nominated.” But in the 87 years since the Oscars have been around, there have more than a few times that the Oscars genuinely loved comedy. After all, the first film to get nominated in the top five AND the first film to receive nominations in all for acting categories were both comedies (It Happened One Night (1934) & My Man Godfrey (1936)). And despite seeing more than a few times that the Oscars somehow overlooked great comic performances or only nominated comedians when they went serious (Cary Grant’s two nominations were both in dramas), a few times they showed they had a sense of humor.
With that said, here are my picks for the 87 funniest film performances which ever got nominated, ranked.
Hawn already had an Oscar win under her belt for the very funny Cactus Flower, but if there will be a performance the rather selective Hawn will be known for, it is most likely be her tour de force performance as society girl who enlisted in the army is a hilarious take on the military comedy (with more than a few similarities to Stripes). But Goldie is so delightfully self-deprecating as Judy, you completely understand nominated costar Eileen Brennan’s frustration, even while falling in love with Hawn’s character. There have been rumors of remaking the film, but it will be hard to find an actress to take on the role and make it her own.
It is unlikely that we’ll see Norton beat sure thing JK Simmons this year, but it has been good to see one of the best comic actors of his generation getting recognition for his recent career upswing and move towards comedies. After all, he’s in two best picture nominees, as one of the co-stars of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. But of all the performances in Birdman, Norton’s is certainly the film’s funniest (and possibly the film’s best), as a brash star so focused on his performance, he is willing to do and say anything to get into character. It isn’t simply that he’s willing to play unlikable characters in his skivvies, we also love Norton’s willingness to address his less than stellar persona as a perfectionist capable of driving film studios nuts, without winking at the audience.
After a career of giving hilarious, big, often unbelievably sweet performances before her way-too-premature death, Madeline Kahn’s first of two consecutive nominations for supporting actress were a one-two punch of hilarious film parodies. She doesn’t simply channel the ingenue of 1930s films, she captures a type so sell she might as well have been born in another era. With her sparkling performance as the gold-digging Trixie, she is singularly brilliant at switching from dainty sweetheart to trash talker. Her two-and-a-half minute monologue with angry Addie essentially secured her nomination, especially when she nailed one of the all time best movie punchlines.
Albert Brooks could have been nominated for several of his own films, (which have never been nominated, not even for screenplay), but his performance in Broadcast News is no consolation prize. Friend James L. Brooks took all of Brooks’s comic insecurities and allowed him to play the equal parts cocky and insecure Aaron with his own unique rhythm. When asked, he can play serious, like as his two monologues about heartbreak. But his deadpan delivery has never been better, especially when sweating through a broadcast, live on air. No wonder he’s in such high-demand once again as a supporting actor.
Greatest actor of his generation,Hoffman proved that he is as good in comedy as he in drama. And like Norton, took on a role which addressed the actor’s notorious perfectionism without attempting to soften the blows or make himself look better in the process. His working actor martyrdom is hilarious (just the opening montage is a masterclass). But his alter-ego performance as Dorothy Michaels is a stunning transformation to witness in the art of commitment. As ridiculous as it all gets, Hoffman protects his character to ensure she gets laughs, rather than laughing at her expense.
Peter O’Toole may have never won an Oscar, but he had plenty of brilliant performances which will be remembered for decades. But his skills as a comic were never put to such good use than in My Favorite Year, as a notoriously hard drinking actor who has to be dragged through New York before a live television show. Part Errol Flynn and part Sid Caesar, his hilarious performance is one of the biggest performances ever nominated and is an exhaustive watch to take in. But in a rather mediocre movie, O’Toole raises it to the level of being a must watch comedy because of his performance alone.
No pity for an actor who has been nominated as many times as Hanks (not to mention winning two in a row). But his increasing work in drama has robbed us from some of his excellent comedic performances, first among them being Big. Hilarious, energetic, and innocent as a child in an adult’s body, he captures the psyche of a 12 year old better than man child actors. The charm Hanks brought to his early roles is still on screen in his dramas, but rarely is used as well as when doing comedy, disarming audiences as quickly as a ninja.
There was no bigger Oscar myth than the one that claims that Tomei was not the winner for My Cousin Vinny. Some have claimed Jack Palance said the wrong name when announcing the winner. Whoever started the rumors that permeated Hollywood owes Tomei an apology because it would be hard to imagine a better or funnier performance. Like a firecracker on screen, she brings a modern take to the golden age’s great genre of screwball women, in a performance which would have made Judy Holliday and Carol Lombard proud. After all, few women can play the type of character without coming across as dumb caricatures of male fantasies, but Tomei proved she’s more than capable.
MacLaine didn’t win an Oscar for 20 years, but the six time nominee is at her career funniest in Irma La Douce, as a prostitute who finds a new pimp who wants to date her exclusively. MacLaine was originally supposed to play the role styled like the unavailable Marilyn Monroe. But thank goodness Billy Wilder reneged and utilized that special quality only MacLaine could bring to roles. MacLaine’s unusual perky detachment was perfect for the role of an independent, undamaged prostitute. Her remarkable performance, along with costar Jack Lemmon, turn this imperfect film into a classic screwball comedy.
Few actors had the range of Alec Guinness over the course of his career, or his ability to play multiple characters in a single film. But his performance as a meek bank teller who masterminds a heist is one of his funniest performances among many. There is a sheer joyfulness he brought to his performance which permeates the film, especially when assembling the crew. But what is so remarkable about his hilarious performance, is the realism he brings to what could be completely one- note character.
Lemmon has plenty of roles which were absolutely hilarious (many opposite Walter Matthau). But in only his fifth film, Lemmon earned his Oscar nomination (and win) as the scheming, young Ens. Pulver driving his superior officers insane. Lemmon even shows his talents for physical comedy (a talent he too rarely had the opportunity to utilize on screen). Lemmon essentially overshadowed his iconic costars and turned the light drama into a flat-out comedy; which ultimately made the film’s tragic ending seem even less expected.
It is true that Moore’s costar John Gielgud deserved his supporting actor Oscar for Arthur, but Moore’s performance couldn’t have been better. Moore isn’t just hilarious as the drunk playboy, he is heartbreakingly empathetic. With every laugh, you can feel the sad clown coming through, something only Moore brought to a script which while strong, doesn’t itself contain the sadness which his performance brings to the role. When remade, the one thing lost in translation was the overwhelming loneliness which permeates the screen with Moore, despite that hilarious big laugh.
The only thing troubling about mentioning The Awful Truth is the fact that Dunne’s costar, Cary Grant, wasn’t nominated along with his costars. But of all of Dunne’s screwball performances, her relentless, woman-scorned Lucy was her signature role. As a divorcee who can’t quit the philandering the love of her life, her comedy came from maintaining a level of class, no matter the chaos surrounding her. And Dunne is classy from start to finish, even while almost flashing an audience and pretending to get drunk. Cool and smart, Dunne’s was the mistress of elegant, “french-farce” slapstick comedy in the Hollywood Golden Age.
It can be hard to appear in a film developed with another actor in mind. And by 1951, being asked to take a role written with Judy Holliday in mind had to be a pretty daunting task. But the sultry Asphalt Jungle star Hagen made Lena Lamont into her own character, creating one of the most hateful, unrelenting comic “bitch” characters in screen history. While the voice certainly makes you laugh (just listen to the dubbing scene to hear her beautiful real voice), she gives far more than that. Hagen acted from the tips of her toes to the end of her finger tips, and is completely unafraid to go big and be unlikable. It’s hard to believe this was the only nomination the cast of Singin’ in the Rain received, but she certainly deserved all the praise she got.
Chaplin was only nominated for best actor once (for The Great Dictator), but he was removed as a nominee so the Oscar could give him a “special best performance” honor for The Circus, in order to recognize his physical comedy and acrobatic skills, along with his performance, in 1929. Although perhaps his least known “classic” silent film, The Circus’s affectionate look at life under the big top deserved a place as one of the best in Chaplin’s exceptional career. It includes an impressive high-wire act (literally) with monkeys on his back (again literally) as he tries to win the girl. His performance in The Circus was one of Chaplin’s best and most sympathetic performances, despite being the kind of guy who would steal candy from a baby (again, literally, he does that).
Holliday winning for just her second film performance is proof that sometimes Oscar has a sense of humor. Lemmon’s It Should Happen to You costar Judy Holliday took the classic “dumb blonde stereotype” Hollywood had used for decades, and turned in a hilarious and heartbreaking performance as a girl called dumb and unmannered so long, she has started to believe it. And while the stage to screen adaptation is certainly a brilliant piece of writing, and Holliday had solid costars to play off of, it was Holliday’s signature light touch and lovable personality that elevated the material into something that endures to this day…and has made it impossible to remake and re-stage without drawing comparisons.
No, we aren’t cheating (no #4). But when you watch My Man Godfrey,asking audiences to rate Lombard or Powell over each other is just impossible. Not only because they were two of the best comic actors of their era, but this real-life divorced couple’s on-screen chemistry is the reason the film was such an incredible success. It’s tragic that this was Lombard’s only nomination in her relatively short career which deserved far more recognition than she received by the industry that supposedly loved her. But her dizzy Irene Bullock is one of the great screwball heroines to ever appear on screen who made a lasting impact on film history, literally creating a “type” (just look at the actresses who came after). Powell’s performance as Godfrey doesn’t just include one of the great drunk performances, but proved that Powell could play the gentleman no matter the circumstances…even if transplanted to a garbage dump. It says a lot about Powell that he had four films nominated in categories that year (After The Thin Man, Libeled Lady, and winner The Great Zeigfield), and while My Man Godfrey was robbed of a best picture nomination, Lombard and Powell’s performance remain two of the greatest and funniest from the Hollywood Golden Age.
Of all the performances Kline has given over his long and varied career, his incredible performances in the capper comedy A Fish Called Wanda is proof that only smart people can play really dumb guys. Nominating A Fish Called Wanda for any nomination was somewhat unexpected, as it is one of those rare movies which aspires simply to be silly. Kline’s scenery chewing Otto is loud, crass, and unlikable. But he is never anything less than hilarious and totally committed. Despite the high praise he received at the time, to win for one of the most ridiculous characters put to screen was nothing less than shocking.
Occasionally, nominating an actor for playing multiple roles seems like a gimmick. But Peter Sellers’s performance in Dr. Strangelove isn’t just one of the greatest performances in his love, varied career, but anyone of his big, hilarious performances could have earned a nomination if played by a single person. And the remarkable aspect of his performance isn’t that he managed to give so many different performances, but at a certain point you also start to forget he plays all the characters and just watch the film and believe in every character.
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