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.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times