Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick and Marin Scorsese all made lauded films in 2011, but their Oscar buzz has been stolen by a brave performer that delivered the year’s most tear-jerking sink defecation moment. Unless something goes terribly wrong — always a possibility when it comes to the Oscars — Melissa McCarthy is a lock to earn a Best Supporting Actress nod for her work in Bridesmaids, and Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo also have a reasonable shot at Best Original Screenplay. To which we say “great, and go ahead and give Wiig a Best Actress nomination while you’re at it, Academy.” Both actresses did commanding work that gave Bridesmaids a solid, emotional core to stack hilarious profane jokes on, and helped turn the movie from a fun summer comedy into a cultural phenomenon.
McCarthy’s nomination would not just be a victory for funny ladies (a subtext valiantly explored throughout 2011 by our nation’s think-piece authors), it would be a victory for all cinematic funny people. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has historically ignored comedic performances, even from big names in hit movies, even when it’s a performance that balances laugh getting with making a character’s journey feel real and hard-earned, no matter how silly. (Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, and everyone in Broadcast News being laudable outliers.) Everyone knows that winning the Best Actor statue is an easy feat for a Serious Dramatic Actor — just emote while in the vicinity of a Nazi. The ten giants in the following list had much harder jobs than any of those “serious actor” wusses could have stepped to. They each made us howl with laughter for nearly an entire movie while still going through a character arc, delivering a performance with earned emotion and all that other thespian stuff, and for that they deserve a list-form tribute.
Steve Martin, The Jerk (1979)
It goes without saying that the Oscars are stupid and no one should take them seriously, and not just because they gave Best Picture to Crash (honestly, we’ve never seen it. Maybe it’s better than its reputation?) but because they’ve never nominated Steve Martin. Not even once. That’s a massive body of work to ignore, and for our money he’s never been better than his first lead role the 1979 idiot opus The Jerk. Martin fully commits to Navin R. Johnson’s childlike innocence and zeal to discover the wider world, and it’s genuinely heartbreaking when that wider world begins to corrupt him. And really, he deserved the nod for “he hates these cans” alone.
Laura Dern, Citizen Ruth (1996)
As currently seen in the HBO series Enlightened, Laura Dern is a uniquely egoless actress, always willing to look as terrible as possible (in all senses) if it will lead to comedy or a greater truth. And she was never braver than in this underrecognized Alexander Payne blacker-than-coal comedy, an absolutely brutal satire of all sides of the abortion debate. As the fume-huffing, oft-pregnant Ruth Stoops, Dern captures the cadence and spirit of her character, a woman worn-down by life but not as dumb as expected, and absolutely nailed one of the greatest “oh shit, she really said that” lines in cinema history.
Roddy McDowall, Lord Love a Duck (1966)
Proof positive that Generation X didn’t create the meta-movie, George Axelrod’s scalding satire of 1950s and ’60s teenager films goes to absurd length to tweak its subject materials (something about beach parties must have really stuck in Axelrod’s craw). But Duck is kept from dissolving into pure mania by Roddy McDowall’s arch yet deeply sad performance as Alan Musgrave, a love-struck loser who do anything, including a bizarrely drawn-out murder attempt, to make Tuesday Weld happy, even as he knows his love will never be reciprocated.
Bill Murray, Groundhog Day (1993)
There’s no shortage of genius Bill Murray performances ignored by the academy, and choosing just one was a Herculian task. But really, it had to be this. Though Phil Connors’s surroundings, appearance and day never change. Murray subtly plays his character’s confusion, growing frustration and eventual transformation of a selfish man that learns to care about others. He also goes big for the most hilarious suicide montage in cinema history.
Myrna Loy, The Thin Man (1934)
As one-half of married detective couple Nick and Nora Charles, Loy set a standard for lightning-fast witty repertoire that has rarely been matched — though outspoken fans Quentin Tarantino and Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino certainly gave it a try. Loy helped define booze-soaked elegance throughout the Thin Man film series, but she also managed the much trickier balance of making her character’s love for her partner seem as exciting as the white-knuckle cases they were trying to crack. Loy was never nominated for her work, but her famous fans and industry peers campaigned for her to get an honorary life-time achievement award in 1991.
Reese Witherspoon, Election, 1999
The greatest role Reese Witherspoon has ever had (on some level even she must know this) sharpens her natural perkiness and poise into a lethal weapon that lays low all in its path, especially poor Matthew Broderick, the only one to see the quiet menace that pulses just beneath Witherspoon’s sunny demeanor. And the scene where she raises her hand to answer every single question is just too damn honest.
Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger, 1999
The last funny Eddie Murphy movie deserves some recognition, doesn’t it? While we’re not sure how he was able to pull deep enough within himself to play a paranoid, deranged movie star, the academy should have given him a Best Supporting Actor nom for his work in Steve Martin and Frank Oz’s witty parody about the movie business, which is notable for being one of the few “inside Hollywood” movies that is actually funny instead of toxically myopic. Though it’s sad that Murphy apparently absorbed none of Bowfinger’s messages about vanity destroying talent, Murphy tears into Kit Ramsey’s paranoid delusions about aliens and the KKK with a gusto that still serves as a reminder of what this man is capable of when he actually gives a shit.
Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 2005
We’re not saying that Carell’s depiction of Andy Spitzer’s not-too-late maturation from man child to adult should have beaten Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote turn, but it’s a crime the best comedy of the first decade of this century didn’t even get some token recognition. While Hoffman’s weight loss was impressive, we’re not sure if even he would have been brave enough to submit to that chest-waxing scene. But beneath all the hilariously boorish behavior, Carell delivered a performance that was as sensitive and well-observed as any “real” acting, and had a lot to say about finding your place in an often terrifying modern world of modern dudedom.
Groucho Marx, Duck Soup, 1933
Groucho Marx, often considered the father of cinematic comedy, was never nominated for an Oscar, instead receiving an honorary award in 1974. If this depresses you, cheer up by watching Duck Soup, a film so famously stuffed with mischief, double entrees, and finely tuned physical comedy that it famously convinced Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters not to kill himself. Groucho and his brother Harpo’s “mirror scene” is one of the most iconic sequences of early Hollywood, and has been paid tribute countless times by everyone from Bugs Bunny to the X-Files, but it still wasn’t enough to earn him some damn respect in his time.