Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dead Mothers and Academy Awards

I brought a hastily-selected stack of books with me on vacation last summer, (technically adult books, although most were about kids and teens, sold in the adult market), and was annoyed to discovered that all the ones about young people featured a dead mother. It was dead-mother overload so -- even though they were all well-written books -- before the week was out, I found myself digging thru my dead GRANDMOTHER's books, settling on a dusty old Michener, just to get away from dead moms.

A few people have mentioned the success of Dickens' titles as proof that dead-(parent) books are a perennial favorite, but Dickens' books don't really fall into the dead-mother, angst-ridden category as today's books. Number one: children were much more likely to be orphaned in Dickens' day, so a preponderance of dead parents was a more realistic ratio, and, two: Dickens and other adventure books of that time used the dead parent more as a device to get the child alone, solving problems in his own, than as a heavy plot-point which would permeate the child's every thought. Those books quickly got the parent out of the way, then proceeded with an adventurous plot rather than making the dead PARENT the plot, if you see what I mean.

Somehow, serious books are considered more literary, winning more awards, in the same way that fabulous comedic actors often do not win the big awards until they make a "serious" movie. Let's take the career of Jack Lemon as a small example of this. (This list is from Wikipedia)...

1955- WON - Best Actor/Supporting Role - Mister Roberts
1959- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - Some Like It Hot
1960- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - The Apartment
1962- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - Days of Wine and Roses
1973- WON - Best Actor/Leading Role - Save the Tiger
1979- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - The China Syndrome
1980- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - Tribute
1982- Nominated - Best Actor/Leading Role - Missing

With the exception of "Some Like It Hot," and "The Apartment" (for which, you will note, he was only nominated and did NOT win), every other nomination--and certainly every WIN--was for serious roles. Many of them deeply DEPRESSING roles, in fact. If there is a more depressing movie than "Days of Wine and Roses," I have yet to see it. If you look up any of those other nominated or winning movies, you'll encounter words like "bleak," "bloody," "terminally ill..." the list goes on and on.

True, Jack Lemon was a fabulous actor, and some of the comedies he made in the 50s really were pure fluff. But to imply that his best work was ONLY in drama is to diminish his contribution to cinema. Probably his most iconic role is as Felix Unger in "The Odd Couple." But is it anywhere on that Academy Awards list? Of course not. Because it wasn't a depressing movie.

I believe writers who produce humor suffer the same stigma. Sure, an occasional "Holes" will win. But there are still more dead moms than laughing moms on any awards list. (It's not surprising to note that Neil Simon, who wrote more than 30 screen plays including "The Odd Couple" mentioned above,
who won the Mark Twain prize and numerous other comedy and lifetime achievement awards, has no Oscar statues on his mantel, either.)

I don't think it's the kids (readers) making those decisions, any more than it was the movie goers making the awards decisions, since Lemon's comedies probably made more money than the dramas, and CERTAINLY Simon's comedies did. (Which brings a whole 'nother prejudice into the voting mix: a reluctance to award prizes to financially successful projects embraced by the "illiterate masses.") It's the prejudice of the grownups on the awards committees. In the minds of many of those judges, "serious" is considered more literary than "funny."

Kim Norman

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