Films like ‘The Big Sick’ highlight the glaring blind spot the Academy has towards the lighthearted genre.
Awards season is finally over and film fans are likely enjoying the quiet reprieve before the onslaught of festivals begins once more. As comforting as this period can be with only a precious few films’ awards potential being discussed, I have not been able to appreciate it. Something is holding me back. I still cannot believe The Big Sick did not receive a Best Picture nomination.
The Academy has always been stingy with the attention they give to romantic comedies. Unless you’re Woody Allen, it’s incredibly hard to receive any recognition. Regardless, I had hope, and I wasn’t the only one to keep the sweet film in the running until the very end. It’s culturally relevant, dealing with intercultural relationships and tapping into the evergreen US healthcare discussion. The film takes a fresh look at some popular tropes while avoiding traps of the genre. It was the main film Amazon had for an awards push after Wonderstruck, Last Flag Flying, and Wonder Wheel were not universally well-received, to say the least. Although a summer release date can feel like ancient history by the time awards season begins, the film had a strong performance at the box office, similar to other films able to garner a best picture nomination.
Most importantly, The Big Sick is an amazing film and wholly deserving of the 10th possible nomination spot. It was responsible for some of the most memorable movie moments of the year, from the hysterically dark 9/11 joke to the painful fast food freakout. The main couple, Kumail and Emily (played by co-writer Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan), as well the latter’s worried parents (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) deliver complex yet charming performances. So, why did the movie only get recognized for its screenplay?
The Academy will almost always favor the “serious,” message movies.
1977. That was the last year an out-and-out comedy—and a romantic comedy at that!—won Best Picture at the Oscars. Films with a comedic kick have won since (see: Birdman and The Artist) but those were greatly helped by additional factors I will later address. Annie Hall won four of the Big Five with only Allen losing out on his Best Actor nomination. Incidentally, the iconic romantic comedy was up against Star Wars that year. If anyone was wondering where this genre ranks in the Academy’s eyes, it might still be higher than science fiction.
The Golden Globes tend to be a strong precursor to an Oscar nomination as well as an indicator to critical acclaim, though some questionable films slip through (see: The Tourist). While the Academy does not split categories based on drama or comedy, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association does. Since 2010, 37 out of the 41 nominations for Best Picture – Drama have gone on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. However, only 16 out of the 40 nominations from the Comedy/Musical category went on to be Oscar-nominated. That small number also includes the musicals Les Miserables and La La Land as well as the confusingly categorized The Martian and Get Out.
Dramas are consistently favored over films classified as comedies, especially the happy-ending focused romantic comedies. In a recent podcast by Tess Morris and Billy Mernit, who literally wrote the book on romantic comedies, the duo discusses their picks for romantic comedies overlooked by the Academy over the years. Along the way, they coin the term The Zola Complex, referring to when the serious film The Life of Emile Zola beat the endlessly re-watchable screwball comedy The Awful Truth in 1937. It can be applied to many instances, like Gandhi winning for Best Screenplay over Tootsie in 1982 or The Last Emperor winning Best Picture over Moonstruck. Of course, taste plays a huge part in their discussion, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic is more than deserving. But if forced to choose between only watching one movie ever again, Cher and Nicolas Cage seem more appealing.
Have you heard that the Oscars love an ingenue? Well, they also love an auteur.
Easiest way to get your romantic comedy any attention? Be a famous, respected auteur. Woody Allen is easily the most recognizable of the genre. However you choose to reckon with the allegations against Allen, his writing was hugely influential on film and was a clear favorite of the Academy. Nominated 16 times for Best Original Screenplay and another 7 times for Best Director, many of his films, including Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Hannah and Her Sisters, are often included in lists of the best romantic comedies of all time.
Other writer-directors who brought respect and attention to their passes at the genre are David O. Russell and James L. Brooks. Russell received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for the 2012 Silver Linings Playbook. The film is ultimately a pretty straightforward romantic comedy in which boy meets girl and they eventually fall in love. There is the special addition of psychiatric hospitals, mental illnesses, and football fanatics. Brooks, of Terms of Endearment fame, made two of the most well-respected romantic comedies: Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. Both garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. While he may not be viewed as an auteur the way heavyweights like Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick are, Brooks brings a distinct sensibility to his films, changing the way a straightforward story may be received. Similarly, Alejandro G. Iñárritu elevates the previously mentioned black comedy Birdman. Not only by these male auteurs’ masterful execution and unique vision, but through the elevation of the project and genre their participation provides.
Filmmakers who blend the romantic comedy with another genre are often pleasantly rewarded.
Sure, there are instances where a romantic comedy mash-up ended disastrously, such as the spy-flavored This Means War. The combo can also be incredibly successful if handled properly. La La Land, The Artist, and Shakespeare in Love were Best Picture nominees, two of them even winners of the coveted award. The inherent qualities of romantic comedies, the DNA of the genre, require two people to meet, fall for each other, break up, and maybe come back together. It’s a simple tale, but the skeleton of a romantic comedy plot is predominantly true to life. Adding in the additional layer of musical, silent picture, period piece, or some future iteration of this fusion again elevates a genre that is widely looked down upon. This way, La La Land and The Artist aren’t just love stories. They’re also odes to old Hollywood and the magic of movies! By diluting the essence of the romantic comedy, it can be made palatable for more “sophisticated” audiences who scoff at a simple love story.
When overlooked for Best Picture nominations, romantic comedies receive compensation elsewhere.
Critically acclaimed romantic comedies may not always make the ticket for Best Picture. However, they do attract a lot of attention in other categories. Writing and acting are the most concentrated areas for this genre to receive recognition. Notable films of the genre like Pretty Woman, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Mighty Aphrodite garnered Best Actress attention for their leading ladies. The classics Sleepless in Seattle, Amelie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and When Harry Met Sally all received nominations for Best Original Screenplay and little or nothing else. Making any movie is difficult, but making a competent, likable romantic comedy is incredibly hard. The story has inherent limitations, character development is rare, and dialogue and plot can so easily become unrealistic or implausible. Films that sidestep all of those issues are rare. When one does avoid all of the common missteps and is buoyed by stellar performances, why do these films consistently get overlooked for the grand prize?
The Big Sick doesn’t meet any of the qualifications that attract extra attention. While it takes itself seriously and earns its dramatic moments, it is by no means a drama. The film enjoys its humor, joking and riffing like your professionally funny friends might. Director Michael Showalter has shown he is an extremely capable director, able to balance comedy with darkness. However, he is no auteur. It doesn’t try on any other genres either, fitting squarely and unabashedly in the romantic comedy zone. Perhaps this is why Nanjiani and his wife/writing partner Emily V. Gordon were the film’s only nominees at the Oscars broadcast.
At times, it may seem hardwired into awards bodies that a film has to be of epic proportions in order to be worthy of merit. It’s not surprising that biopics of larger than life figures, war stories, and incredibly tense dramas populate voter’s ballots. However, a movie being enjoyable or comforting doesn’t make it lesser. Hopefully, the Academy will figure that out sooner rather than later. For now, The Big Sick is in good company.