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Oscar chances for Juno

Can a teenage pregger flick win it all? It depends on how you look at comedy

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Now that the writers' strike is over, we can focus on what's really important — the Oscars.

Forget about labor contracts, profit sharing, and the Golden Globes (most have already). We want to know who's bringing whom to the glamorama, whose nipple slips, and if Jen and Angie will finally — please, baby, please — come to blows over Brad.

What's more important, however, is this: Is Juno going to take it all on Sunday?

This brilliant comedy, you'll recall, stars Ellen Page as the adorable and wise-cracking Juno MacGuff, 16, who gets pregnant.

She's horrified by abortion, decides on equally horrifying adoption, falls in love with her child's father, but then gives the kid up anyway, the pain of unredeemed motherhood and all. Along the way, you experience comedy gold like this, when Juno informs her parents:

Mac MacGuff (Juno's dad): Did you see that coming?

Bren (her stepmom): Yeah, but I was hop-

ing she was expelled or into hard drugs.

Mac MacGuff: That was my first instinct too. Or a DUI. Anything but this.

But competition is fierce. Juno is the lone comedy among films that in retrospect might mark 2007 as the Year of Drear.

For best picture, we also have: No Country for Old Men (basically about greed, blood, murder) and There Will Be Blood (oil, greed, hate) vie for the best picture Oscar.

Atonement (guilt, shame) and Michael Clayton (more greed, white collar crime, lawyers, George Clooney) also have a shot given that they are, respectively, a) a literary gem with gorgeous cinematography and plummy English accents and b) a socio-political thriller taking on big issues, stuff that really geeks aging Hollywood hippies.

So the smart money ain't on Juno.

But stiff competition aside, there might be another reason Juno is the underdog.

Comedy doesn't get much respect.

Dude, Where's My Oscar?

Mel Brooks once said tragedy is about getting a paper cut while comedy is about walking into an open sewer and dying.

In other words, it's more complex than it seems. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the history of the Academy Awards.

Of all the winners of the best picture category, very few have been comedies. Some have been comedic like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and American Beauty. But few have been outright comedies like Annie Hall (1977) and Tom Jones (1963) — but even those, it might be argued, are not really comedies.

If they are, then Woody Allen, a former writer for Sid Caesar's TV variety show, is the last director of comic sensibility to have won that little androgynous highly-coveted golden statuette. Otherwise, the vast majority have gone to big, dramatic, epic movies with titles like The Greatest Show on Earth, From Here to Eternity, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emperor, The Lord of the Rings.

Why?

Brandy Sullivan, co-founder of Theatre 99 and the improv comedy troupe The Have Nots! thinks the reason stems from the nature of comedy.

"The Academy picks whatever hits a nerve that year," she says. "Besides, comedy looks easy on film."

Dayton Colie, a Charleston art teacher and director of short comic films like Voodoo Love Brush and Action Figure Dance Party says the reason lies in the difference between comedy and drama as forms of storytelling.

"The central element of drama is conflict and with comedy, the conflict isn't very dramatic," Colie says. "In Brokeback Mountain, the conflict was taboo. In Dumb and Dumber, there's conflict, but it's not that compelling."

Colie says winning films have to demonstrate a range of human emotion. Dramas do that, but comedies typically don't, unless they are hybrids like Forrest Gump.

"That was a very funny, very tender film," Colie says. "The conflict is an underdog hero trying to be a good man for his mama and his childhood sweetheart. I loved Dude, Where's My Car?, too, but what's the conflict? They got wasted and forget where they parked. Not exactly Oscar-winning material."

What if Sullivan is right, though, about comedy looking easy? Comedy is about humor, making people laugh. What's so serious, and difficult, about that?

If you took the jokes out of Juno, it wouldn't get a nomination, says Rodney Lee Rogers, co-founder of PURE Theatre and author of The Tragedian, the critically acclaimed monologue about 19th-century actor Edwin Booth.

The movie's humor accentuates its dramatic elements and propels it to greater heights, he says. At the same time, Juno deals with everyday situations that people find commonplace, which tends to make us believe that the movie is less grand, less spectacular. And we don't pay attention to things like costumes.

"The costumes are really wonderful," Rogers says, noting the charming track suits worn by Juno's love interest, Paulie Bleeker (played by Michael Cera). "But they're not as obvious as they are in drama, because you're too busy laughing."

Why Are You Laughing?

If there's a theoretician of comedy, someone who can explain why comedy as a form tends to get the short shrift on Oscar Night, it's Greg Tavares, director of Charleston Stage's recent production of The Santaland Diaries and co-creator of Theatre 99's A Complete History of Charleston for Morons.

If art is supposed to be something that challenges your world-view, he says, then comedy is more disarming. But because most comedy is about discovery and surprise, and drama is more about determinism and ritual, then comedy is more likely to be consumed and forgotten while drama is more likely to be appreciated and discussed.

"Movies that win the Oscar are movies that take themselves seriously," Tavares says. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind took itself seriously, but very few comedies do that."

Comedy also creates a world that seems less than real, Tavares says, while drama fools you, so to speak, into suspending your sense of disbelief. Comedy makes you aware of its artifice. Good drama makes you forget you're watching a movie.

At the same time, Tavares asks, what is the intent of the humor in the film? Why does the screenwriter want to make you laugh? The reasons matter.

If the objective is to make you laugh, then that's as far as a comedy's significance can go. If the objective, however, is achieved by means distinct from laughter, then the comedy has achieved something akin to drama.

"Movies get nominated because they speak to our lives," Tavares says. "Laughter is a means to an end, to illuminating our shared experience."

If that's the case, maybe Juno has a chance after all.

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