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So who will clean up at the Oscars? Nobody, most likely

If I had my way, David O Russell's complex, sublime American Hustle would sweep the board - but the fact is no single film is likely to take the whole haul, and the smart money's on the earnest and populist.

Oscars.
Preparation is underway for Sunday's Oscars ceremony. Image: Matt Petit / AMPAS.

Which film is going to clean up at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday? I would guess that the answer would be: no single title. It’s one of those years in which quality and affection seems evenly spread. I’ve come to accept that the movie I would dearly love to see sweep the board (American Hustle) has less chance of doing so than 12 Years a Slave has of being adapted into a feel-good Broadway musical. On ice.

It will be five, maybe even ten, years before the complex beauty of David O. Russell’s rom-com-con movie is properly appreciated, so all Oscar bets are on the prestigious and the popular. For once those qualities overlap in the two frontrunners for the Best Picture prize: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. A win for either one would be neither a disgrace nor a controversy but I think the former should nab it, while Alfonso Cuarón will likely take the Best Director award for the latter. To plunge further into the mug’s game of calling the winners, I reckon Dallas Buyers Club will repeat its Golden Globes double-whammy of acting awards (Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor, Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor) while Luputa Nyong’o, who played the stoically suffering Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, will probably take Best Supporting Actress. Moderate uncertainty continues to surround the outcome of the “Best Actress Named Cate Blanchett in a Film Called Blue Jasmine” award. We’ll keep you posted on that one.

None of these outcomes would be contentious. But as ever with awards season, it is the case that whoever wins, comedy loses. It’s a truism that humour is routinely shut out whenever the statuettes are being passed around, with only the Best Supporting categories regularly proving receptive to comic work—think of John Gielgud in Arthur, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine, or the multiple wins for actresses in Woody Allen movies (Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). It is in the Best Supporting Actress category this year that comedy (and American Hustle) has its most plausible chance of muscling in—in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, for whom a win here would make her one of those rare performers to have taken home a prize two years in a row (she won Best Actress last year for Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook).

It is unusual for the Academy Awards ceremony not to be hosted by a comic—Billy Crystal was a particularly cherished host, while this year Ellen DeGeneres will occupy that role for the second time. (I’ll throw in Seth MacFarlane, the Family Guy and Ted creator, who hosted last year, just for the benefit of anyone who finds him amusing.) But when it comes to rewarding the films themselves, funny just isn’t synonymous with quality in the minds of Oscar voters. (And it only gets a look-in at the Golden Globes because that body has its own Musical or Comedy categories.) Perhaps they feel that the laughter which arises in the cinema is its own reward, whereas the sombre silence which greets a more serious work has to be ratified with the handing out of silverware.

But an awards body that didn’t see fit even to nominate Alicia Silverstone for Clueless, Kristen Wiig for Bridesmaids or Sacha Baron-Cohen for Borat or Bruno is, well, having a laugh. Generally the feeling pervades culturally that comedy is secondary to drama. Even Woody Allen, speaking in 1978 to Newsweek magazine about his move into drama with Interiors, said: “When you do comedy you’re not sitting at the grown-ups’ table, you’re sitting at the children’s table.” 

The prickliest riposte to this prejudice came at the Oscars ceremony in 2007, when Will Ferrell, John C Reilly and Jack Black performed a jaunty number on the subject. You can read the full lyrics here and watch the performance here, but you’ll get the gist from this excerpt:

“A comedian at the Oscars
The saddest man of all
Your movies may make millions
But your name they'll never call
I guess you don't like laughter
And a smile brings you down
A comedian at the Oscars
Is the saddest, bitterest alcoholic clown.”

The song ended with Ferrell resolving to play “a guy with no arms and legs/Who teaches gang-bangers Hamlet.” As with most comedy, it was deadly serious in intent. “I don’t think the producers of the show even got what we were doing,” he told me the following year. “They were backstage saying, ‘Oh, that was lovely. Very funny.’ They didn’t realise every word was true.”