The Academy Awards have a long history of rewarding the most serious performances in the most high-minded films. As a result, Oscar voters have rarely treated comedy with the respect it deserves. There have been exceptions to be sure, but for every Oscar-winning performance such as Kevin Kline’s in A Fish Called Wanda, there have been dozens of brilliant comedic performances that were not even nominated. While this issue certainly doesn’t have the social significance of the lack of diversity in Oscar nominees the past couple of years, it is still a shame that the Academy treats comedy as an inferior art form. Here are 10 classic comedic performances where Academy voters showed they had no sense of humor.
10. Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Director Wes Anderson wrote the role of Royal Tenenbaum specifically for Gene Hackman, as Anderson put it, “against [Hackman’s] wishes.” Thankfully Hackman accepted the role because he’s absolute gold here. As the disgraced patriarch of a similarly disgraced “family of geniuses,” Hackman makes regret, pain, and anger both funny and emotionally powerful. He’s dry, intimidating, and looks tough in a pink shirt. Hackman appeared in just two more films before retiring in 2004, but The Royal Tenenbaums is the last movie he’ll be remembered for; it’s as fitting a send-off as the fantastic actor could have.
9. Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
As Sheridan Whiteside, an East Coast intellectual stuck in small-town Ohio over Christmas, Monty Woolley is deliciously and hilariously hateful. What keeps Whiteside from simply being mean, however, is the twinkle in the eye Woolley brings to him as well as the way he playfully spars with his assistant, played by the legendary Bette Davis. As it happened, Woolley did receive an Oscar nomination that same year for the drama The Pied Piper. But it’s his brilliant, blisteringly funny performance as Whiteside that makes Woolley an enduring favorite with fans of classic films today. The next time this gem shows up on Turner Classic Movies don’t miss it.
8. Emma Stone in Easy A (2010)
With any other actress in the lead role, Easy A could have been enjoyable enough but it would have ultimately been disposable teen fluff. But with Emma Stone as Olive, the film becomes a comedy showcase for one of the greatest young acting talents of our time. Every acting instinct she has here is spot on and incredibly funny. Olive is cleverer than her peers and Stone shows us the wheels constantly spinning in the character’s mind. It’s not just brilliant acting, it’s a blast to watch.
7. Simon Pegg in The World’s End (2013)
In his first scene as Gary King, Simon Pegg displays the character’s sadness, pain, and devilishness in a single expression. He is hilariously funny by playing the awful reality of Gary’s alcoholism and inability to move past age 18. He’s at once the film’s protagonist and antagonist and makes us see why he was at one time loved by his friends, who now simply view him with pity and disdain. It’s one of the more layered performances of the past few years and had it not been funny the Academy probably would have noticed it.
6. George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Although he’s been nominated four times and won the little golden statue once (for the heavier than heavy Syriana), Clooney has never been better than he was in the Coen Brothers’ Depression-era song-filled comedy. Showing just as much concern for his hair as for avoiding capture by the police, Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill is one of the funnier and more memorable characters of the last couple of decades. Clooney expertly plays the comedy as well as the character’s convincing arc. Clooney should have won as Oscar. Instead he had to settle for a case of Fop.
5. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)
We’ll do two-in-one here because somehow neither of these now legendary performances earned a nomination despite the extraordinary screwball comic interplay. As a divorced pair of news reporters, Grant and Russell make the fast-paced, witty dialogue dance. Their characters discover their need for each other and that same dependence is in these two performances. The two raise each other’s games and despite what is ultimately a rather dull plot, His Girl Friday remains a beloved classic more than 75 years after its release due to the work of its two leads.
4. Amy Adams in Enchanted (2007)
There is no actor today more talented or versatile than Amy Adams. Adams is a five-time Oscar nominee but she didn’t get a nod for this performance that is not only hilarious, it’s one only she could have pulled off. Playing Giselle, an animated princess come to life in the real world, is a high-wire act. Play it just too much one way and it’s cloying and embarrassing. Too much the other way and you’re winking at the audience. Adams knows where the laughs are, yet plays the role with complete sincerity from start to finish. The degree of difficulty here is astonishingly high and Adams is perfect.
3. Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998)
As “quite possibly the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County,” Jeff Bridges’ performance as “The Dude” has become iconic. One wouldn’t imagine that a man whose main passions in life are bowling, drinking white Russians, and well, abiding, would have so much depth, but most characters aren’t written by the Coen Brothers and most are not played by Jeff Bridges. But Bridges is perfectly cast as the Dude — “or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing” — and he makes laziness look like the wisest way to live, “takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners.”
2. Eddie Murphy in Coming to America (1988)
Possibly the most difficult thing for an actor to do is to make an audience laugh. Murphy has made it look easy throughout his film career. He has four roles in this comedy classic, including that of an old Jewish man who spends his days in a barbershop. Primarily though, Murphy stars as Akeem, a young African prince who travels to New York looking for love. What Murphy does so wonderfully in this film is turn the typical fish-out-of-water comedy on its ear. Rather than reacting with disgust or horror at the dirtier and scarier aspects of 1980s New York, he greets them with joy. Murphy went unrecognized by the Academy for his work here but the performance is often cited now as a favorite of film fans and actors alike.
1. Bill Murray in Ghostbusters (1984)
Although he was already a star, it was his performance as hack scientist Peter Venkman that cemented Bill Murray’s deadpan face on the Mount Rushmore of film comedy. Murray isn’t simply funny here, he’s magic. His utter acceptance — usually completely undaunted — of every crazy thing he encounters allows the audience to accept them as well. He also makes a smarmy, womanizing charlatan a genuinely likeable character we identify with and root for. Murray’s charm and effortlessness make it look easy but no one else could have done what he does here. It’s a performance for the ages.