Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Bernadette Peters in "The Jerk" (1979)

Bernadette Peters in The Jerk
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Bernadette Peters
Film: The Jerk (1979)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category (1979):
- Meryl Streep (Kramer vs. Kramer) *Winner
- Jane Alexander  (Kramer vs. Kramer)
- Barbara Barrie (Breaking Away)
- Candice Bergen (Starting Over)
- Mariel Hemingway (Manhattan)

In general, the most interesting thing that could be applied to The Runner-Ups' selections is hopefully a sense of bafflement. A lot of talented people have not received a single Oscar nomination for what is arguably some of cinema's most lasting works. While I have tried to balance this list by focusing on acting, directing, as well as various technical fields; I will admit that it's easier and more beneficial to achieving an audience to do an awful lot of actors. In general, the list has focused on icons that have pretty much defined archetypes in cinema and have even not gotten their due (an Honorary Oscar) within their lifetime. I admit that the idea of dwindling down from five to one winner is a challenge, but I do believe that there's enough room and enough talented people to warrant those five getting mixed up every now and then. I think that, with each passing year, it becomes harder not to make the point explicitly for comedies - the genre that seems to be ignored the most.

It is why I present to you director Carl Reiner's The Jerk. I admit that if judged from the 1979 standpoint, it would be difficult to see this associated with an Oscar nomination. Even if it remains Steve Martin's purest film as a comedic auteur, it also didn't get the highest amount of praise at the time. Roger Ebert famously hated it. Considering that Martin was coming from stand-up comedy and Saturday Night Live hosting gigs, there wasn't as much hype for it as there later would be for Planes Trains and Automobiles or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels - films that are arguably tighter, but not as manic exclusively in the way that Martin is. The film's legacy continues to linger as one of the great 1970's comedies. It even spawned a sequel, of which is better left not in discussion of this film's merits. 

While I do intend to do Martin one of these days (specifically for L.A. Story), this week's entry is actually for Bernadette Peters. In a comedy that is largely Martin doing gag after gag, there is something to Peters' appearance midway through at the love interest Marie. She ends up as the straight man in the routine, trying to keep the scene from veering too far off track. This isn't to say that she's stiff as a board, instead presenting humor in more of a deadpan way like some of the best comedy duos. In fact, it's part of what makes the chemistry works. Martin is a naive lower class buffoon who gets into trouble, and Peters is the hopeless romantic who finds something attractive about it. She is introduced in the film as a woman babysitting a rambunctious kid at an amusement part with a "Bullsh*t" shirt. It starts off subtle, with Martin doing his best to impress her. Things build and soon they are a far more tragic couple.

As the plot's tagline famously goes, it's a movie about going from "rags to riches to rags." Martin's struggle is often financial, and there's always a sense that money solves happiness. He works too hard at a gas station, getting excited at the arrival of a phone book, only to live in a back room full of debris. He isn't exactly wealthy by the time he meets Peters, who goes along for the ride while singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" on a ukulele, and shortly getting married in an absurd ceremony. They are the naive couple who believe that money solves everything, but Martin doesn't get money until rather late in the film with the invention of the Opti-Grab: glasses with a useful handle over the nose, which becomes a magnet for the eyes. The issue is treated with dour seriousness, even as Martin creates over the top routines that reflect his character's insecurity. 

Then there's the magic of Peters. She is the straight person for sure, often setting up punchlines for Martin. As the relationship develops, she slowly unravels into a far more complex character that explains why the film works so well. She's also driven by money, but it's the love that is secondary. She loves Martin when he's rich and living in a ridiculously overcompensating mansion. She loves having a private disco. When she loses it all, she complains that the worst part of getting into a lawsuit is losing all the stuff. Her character shortly becomes dark, choosing to chastise Martin for his bad investments. There's a vulnerability that feels real so that by the time the film gets to the second "rags" of the tagline, there's a certain depressing undertone. It only works because Peters also feels loss, and that she was actually a far more compelling character with wants and desires. It helps that Peters is arguably one of the best comedic actresses of her era - though her transition into stage work is equally impressive, if not more indicative of her versatility.

So, why her? Why should there be any concern of getting Peters an Oscar nomination for her work in The Jerk? In all honesty, there's a handful of films that should be considered and are maybe more in line with Oscar material. I chose this one simply because it emphasizes why I love her as a performer. Her comedic timing is impeccable. The way that she says "balloon" is infectious. She is nuanced and awkward with intent. True, it's not like comedies weren't getting Oscar nominations at the time. A few years prior, Madeline Kahn received Best Supporting Actress nominations for Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. Even Mel Brooks seemed to be racking up a handful for each of his films. However, it seems like a rare trend that rarely forms, never being allowed to recognize more than a few for a long stretch of time. I know that The Jerk may be "divisive" for 1979, but the fact that Peters didn't get an Oscar nomination once is a little disappointing.

I'll admit that this stems in part from my disdain towards more recent comedy nominees, such as Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids. She is memorable, but she lacks the depth and charisma of a Peters in her ability to be both over the top as well as the comforting sidekick who works through grief. Comedy is hard, and Peters makes it looks too easy. It could be that by the next decade with films like Pennies From Heaven and Annie, she made it seem familiar to the type of role she played. So what? Harpo Marx never played anything but Harpo Marx, and he's quite possibly one of the funniest talents of the 1930's. Peters definitely had that vaudeville undertone to her style, sometimes going bombastic. You almost came to expect her to break out into a wild joke just by showing up. However, it doesn't mean that she doesn't deserve something. She's played a lot of charismatic roles, and I feel like this was a good starting point for recognizing what that was.

Many can easily complain that The Oscars should do like The Golden Globes and have a split genre category. Best Picture should have one for drama, and another for comedy. To me, that's one of the perks of the HFPA's lackluster production that makes it feel inessential. I also am not with the rare few who suggest that all actors should be in a gender neutral field. I do believe that the set-up as it is now is just fine. The matter really is actually making an effort to recognize quality work in every genre. After all, nobody mentions the lack of horror (or that it took until The Exorcist - and not many times since - for a genre film to have a Best Picture nod). I believe that it will only raise conflict to recognize multiple genres. Instead, just make an effort to see comedies and understand that there can be nuance and craft that makes the average gag far more compelling.

Peters is one of the most talented actresses still working, and it's weird to note that she doesn't have an Oscar nomination. Considering the fuss over Leonardo DiCaprio being "hated" by The Oscars for not winning, it makes no sense why people ignore those who weren't even considered - especially those of talent. Peters is a talent whose work demands to be seen, and is often better than her male counterparts. She is capable of being funny within a great, charismatic performance. She makes the small tics resonate in memorable ways. This may be a bit of a redundant column this week, but one must note the absence of humor sometimes at these award shows. I'm not expecting The Jerk to show up in every field, but it wouldn't hurt to at least consider it and its overall craft of memorable jokes. Martin definitely deserved something for his work. So did Peters.

No comments:

Post a Comment