Now that we’re over the shock of “Green Book” winning the Producers Guild Award on Jan. 19 and the aftershock of director Peter Farrelly not getting an Oscar nomination for directing it, what are its chances of scoring the big prize next month?
Looking back at the academy’s history with pure “feel-good” movies, which “Green Book” is, the answer is. . .not great.
That PGA win, following a Directors Guild nomination for Farrelly, made “Green Book” the race’s front-runner for all of two days, but now, with just five nominations to 10 each for “Roma” and “The Favourite” and eight each for “A Star is Born” and “Vice,” it’s a dark horse.
We’ll never know if the Farrelly snub is due to revelations that he’d had a habit of flashing his junk at crew and cast members years ago, but even in those pre-Me Too dark ages, I don’t know who besides him would have found that funny, and his pressured apology was a little lame.
The writers branch, however, did nominate “Green Book” for adapted screenplay, despite the equally damning revelation that co-writer Nick Vallelonga had tweeted his agreement with Donald Trump that Muslims were dancing on Jersey rooftops while watching the Twin Towers fall.
Setting aside those transgressions, “Green Book” was swimming against the Oscar tide anyway. The academy has a long history of ignoring feel-good movies and though “Green Book” has sufficient gravitas through its dealing with racism, it was about the most fun you could have at the movies last year (and now that’s it in wide release).
That’s largely thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s hilarious performance as an otherwise good-hearted New York bouncer overcoming his prejudice to drive and protect a black pianist (Mahershala Ali) on a tour through the segregationist South. But it’s the evolving relationship between the odd couple, and the Oscar-nominated actors, that make us feel really good.
There’s nothing wrong with a movie that so earnestly and successfully aims to please. It’s just rare to see one crowned with an Oscar. In fact, it’s fairly rare for more than one comedy to even make the best picture ballot and though the academy lapsed in its appreciation for “Green Book,” it did nominate two other comedies with “Vice” and “The Favourite.”
But neither “Vice,” a political parody, nor “The Favourite,” a dark period comedy, qualify as feel-good movies, the sort of entertainment that you walk out of the theater feeling lighter than you went in. Without giving anything away, I’d vote for the last line of dialogue in “Green Book” to be a moment of inspired perfection.
That little bow on the end of a feel-good movie is seldom conceived and it brings to mind what many film buffs and scholars believe to be the best comedy ever made, Billy Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like it Hot.” That Depression Era mob comedy certainly has one of the most famous last lines, spoken by comedian Joe E. Brown in response to the admission of his fiancé that she’s a man: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
There is no direct comparison between the two movies, other than each did about as well with nominations. “Hot” had six, “Book” has five. The former is both more of a lark and more structurally complex than the latter, but they speak to different times.
In the late ‘50s, Hollywood was consumed by musicals and widescreen epics, of which the ‘59 Oscar winner, William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur,” is a prime example. At the same time, Wilder got away with a comedy about two musicians who go drag to join an all-girls band, with all the gender entendres and shaky high-heeled pratfalls you would imagine.
I don’t know if that picture could be made today. And I’m not sure “Green Book” could have been made in 1959, years before the Civil Rights Movement gained steam.
But for all that has changed in society, industry attitudes toward feel-good movies have stayed pretty much the same. Less than two dozen have been nominated for best picture and one of those, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” ends with a mass shotgun wedding. Try pitching that one today.
It’s easier to find great feel-good movies that weren’t even nominated than those that won. Among the gravely neglected: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “Groundhog Day,” “A Shot in the Dark,” “Love Actually,” “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally.”
I’m making a distinction between comedies and feel-good movies, by the way. Wilder’s “The Apartment” and James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment,” both Oscar winners, are regarded as comedies but one ends with the hero comforting a suicidal co-worker, and the other with a mother dealing with her daughter’s death.
In the seven years between 1958 and 1965, when rock and roll was taking over the American jukebox, Hollywood went big with old-fashioned musicals, claiming a Best Picture Oscar five times — for “An American in Paris,” “Gigi,” “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Sound of Music.”
Of those, only “My Fair Lady” qualifies as a feel-good comedy, and though Professor Higgins would be an irredeemable dick in a modern setting, the movie is still a riot.
There are two musicals on the best picture ballot announced today, but since both end with their protagonist’s death, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine in “A Star is Born,” nothing feels good about them except the music. And like “Green Book,” their directors were snubbed.
With the exceptions noted above, here are the movies that “Green Book” will be hoping to join in the pantheon of Oscar-winning feel-good movies:
“It Happened One Night” (1934). Frank Capra’s road comedy about a snooty heiress (Claudette Colbert) thrown into a survival partnership with a scoop-hunting reporter (Clark Gable) follows a direct and predictable path toward an opposites-attract romantic ending.
“You Can’t Take it With You” (1938). Capra again with this rich man/poor girl love story that pits his family against hers until they all make peace and come together to sing “Polly Wolly Doodle all the Day.” Fare thee well, fare thee well.
“Going My Way” (1944). In the first year that the academy went to a five-nominee ballot, this dated Bing Crosby film about singing priest Father O’Malley (“Too-ra-loo-la-loo-ra”) is short on belly laughs but big on spiritual uplift. (The academy got dead serious the next three years with wins for “The Lost Weekend,” about alcoholism, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” about returning vets with traumatic stress syndrome, and “Gentlemen’s Agreement,”about anti-Semitism. )
“Tom Jones” (1963). This Pythonesque period adventure-comedy sends our philandering hero to the gallows before his last-second rescue and reunion with the real love of his life.
“The Sting” (1973). From one of the best scripts ever written, George Roy Hill leads an amazing ensemble cast headed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford through a thicket of twists and turns to a deliriously euphoric ending.
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998). Compared to that year’s Oscar favorite, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” this period romantic comedy was a slight bagatelle, but damn was it fun.
“Chicago” (2002). Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the stage musical is brilliantly staged and acted by its leads Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, but it barely held on against the hard-charging “The Pianist,” which earned the fugitive Roman Polanski a directing nomination.
I don’t see any qualifiers since, unless the underwater climax to last year’s winner “The Shape of Water” rocked your boat.