The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Could 'The Hangover' actually get a best picture nomination?

June 25, 2009 |  1:07 pm

It's always a jolt to the system to come back from vacation and see Hollywood in full hand-wringing mode, this time over the academy's canny decision to expand the Oscar best picture category.

Perhaps the strangest paroxysm of concern comes from the Wrap's Michael Speier, who is worried that the academy will water down the prestige of its best picture nods by spreading the wealth around. Or as he puts it: "Think about it. For Your Consideration: 'The Hangover.' " He goes on to add: "Can you imagine a year in which 'Schindler's List' goes up against 'Knocked Up'? That's not an unlikely possibility. A 10-movie list means well-reviewed things like 'Wedding Crashers' could be a contender for best picture. Say that out loud."

Hangover_ver4 OK, I'll say it out loud: That would be fantastic. Why shouldn't the best comedy (or comedies) of the year get a chance to soak up some Oscar glory?

For years, the academy has roundly ignored comedy, even though it is an art form with perhaps the deepest bloodlines in Hollywood. Where would the movies have been without Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd, not to mention the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and the dozens of brilliant 1930s and 1940s screwball comedies that allowed audiences to not only laugh but marvel at the dazzling precision and wit of top-notch filmmaking?

I'm not saying that "The Hangover" is in the same league with "His Girl Friday" or "My Man Godfrey," but nothing would've made the Oscars seem more relevant than to have made room in the best picture category for such smart and sassy films as "Role Models" or "Knocked Up." I hate to break it to you, but they were both better films than "The Reader." Ask any comic filmmaker: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

But what bothers me the most about the naysayers is their lack of historical perspective. If you even casually study Oscar history, you'd realize that our era, with its rigid, Kremlin-like obsession with high art, is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to best picture status.

For decades, the Oscars were a populist award, happily given to films that earned both commercial and critical distinction. The 1934 winner was "It Happened One Night," a delightful screwball comedy that didn't aim any higher than "The Proposal" (it was simply more inspired). In 1943, the best picture was "Casablanca," an inspired marvel of studio perfectionism without a snooty bone in its body. In 1951, the winner was "An American in Paris," a frothy, but beautifully constructed musical. In 1971, the winner was "The French Connection," a brilliant piece of genre filmmaking, but a movie that is no better or no worse than any of the wonderful "Bourne Identity" films that have been roundly ignored by academy voters in recent years. 

I could go on, but you get the point. In fact, you could argue that for a broad stretch of time, especially in the late 1950s and 1960s, the Oscars went overboard in the wrong direction, giving best picture statuettes to a string of largely forgettable blockbusters, notably "Ben-Hur," "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" and "Oliver!" Have you tried to watch any of those movies lately? I mean -- yikes!

So before there is anymore moaning and groaning about the dilution of Oscar prestige, please take a look back in time. For most of their 80 years, the Academy Awards have consistently valued commercial appeal and studio craft as much as high art. It's true that there is a lot less studio craft today, but there's no better way to encourage good mainstream movies than to have a best picture list that makes room for projects from cinema's most inspired genres -- in particular comedy, animation and thrillers.

If nothing else, the best picture expansion plan is a noble experiment. It's time the academy reclaimed the populist spirit of the Oscars.