The biggest gripe every year at Academy Awards time — besides there are no good roles for women — is that Hollywood’s Golden Boy doesn’t have a sense of humor. Not only don’t comedies win best picture, they’re usually not even nominated. Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” from 1977 was the last pure comedy to win (although it can be argued that “Shakespeare in Love” from 1998 was essentially a comedy, or dramedy.)
The American Film Institute named Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” from 1959 as the funniest American movie ever made (which is subject to debate) and it didn’t get a best picture Oscar nomination. Of course that was the year of the epic and “Ben-Hur” swept the awards. It used to be any movie long enough that it needed an intermission was a lock for best picture (“West Side Story” in 1961 and “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962, for example.)
Oscar is a sucker for movies with scope and opulence (“Gandhi,” “Amadeus,” and “The Last Emperor”) and likely consider that comedies aren’t that difficult to pull off. Still, comedies aren’t the only act that the Academy seldom books. If comedies are a punchline with Oscar, then Westerns are tinhorns. It wasn’t until the 1990s when that genre got some respect — with Kevin Costner’s overly-revisionist “Dances With Wolves” (1990) and Clint Eastwood’s uncompromising and stark “Unforgiven” (1992).
But great Westerns like Howard Hawks’ “Red River” (1948) and John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) didn’t even receive best picture nods. And Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” the template for tense, psychological Westerns about the lone hero facing down gunslingers out for revenge, lost the 1952 best picture Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille’s circus malarkey “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Send in the clowns. Even “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the affable buddy picture on horseback with the anachronistic Burt Bacharach music score, lost for best picture in 1969 to “Midnight Cowboy,” which, despite its title, is about as far removed from a Western as Britney Spears is from her panties.
If comedies and Westerns are lost on Oscar, then science fiction and space non-fiction movies are not of this earth. It all started in 1968 when Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic, baffling and enigmatic imagination of civilization from the dawn of man to the final frontier, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” failed to launch at Oscar Mission Control. From fantasy to fact, “The Right Stuff,” the record of the Mercury Seven astronauts at the infancy of the U.S. space race with those dern Ruskies lost the 1983 best picture to the four-hanky tear-jerker “Terms of Endearment.” In 1995, Ron Howard navigated the tense, true story of “the successful failure” that was “Apollo 13.” Howard took the famous incident in U.S. space-race history and kept us on the edge of our seats, even though we were aware of how it did turn out. It lost to Mel Gibson’s “They’ll not take our freedom!” biopic of William Wallace, Scotland and men in kilts, “Braveheart.”
Then of course there’s “Star Wars,” the ultimate space fantasy that pays homage not only to Westerns but to “The Wizard of Oz” (C3PO is the Tin Man, R2D2 is Toto, Luke Skywalker is Dorothy, etc.) Next time you watch the film, notice the scene that tips it’s space helmet to “The Searchers”: When Luke rushes home to find his Aunt and Uncle dead and their home destroyed reflects the scene in the 1956 classic when John Wayne rides back to find his brother and his wife and kids killed and their home burned by Indians.
Things seem to come full circle a lot in movies — and so it does here: “Star Wars” lost the 1977 best picture Oscar to “Annie Hall.” Woody Allen, no fan of Oscar is he, even whined about awards in the Oscar-winner: “Awards! They do nothing but give out awards! I can’t believe it. Greatest fascist dictator. Adolph Hitler!”
Oscar has never gone that far — but apparently some directors who were dictatorial existed. And some great movies ridiculed der Furher — Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), a movie way ahead of its time warning of the oncoming Nazi madness that fell on deaf ears in Hollywood and the rest of the country. And Mel Brooks’ incredibly hilarious “The Producers” with its insane musical number “Springtime for Hitler.”
But it’s the original “Producers” from 1968 with the overbearing Zero Mostel and the nebbish Gene Wilder you want to check out. Not Brooks’ unfortunate remake of his own classic comedy as a musical.
Don’t get me started on how many musicals won best picture Oscars. Then again, maybe if Han Solo and Princess Leia sang a Gershwin tune ….