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

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.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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