Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Harold Ramis in "Groundhog Day" (1993)

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day
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: Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin
Film: Groundhog Day (1993)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Original Screenplay category (1993):
-The Piano *WINNER
-In the Line of Fire
-Sleepless in Seattle

For many, the original Ghostbusters is a title that warrants plenty of fondness. So much so that there was an unnecessary controversy surrounding the remake, which got flack for being "all female." This is a ridiculous issue, and one that may unfairly shift blame of any quality issue from the lazy reboot nature to an entire gender letting men down. Instead of focusing on sexual politics, I thought that I would take this time to look at the main cast: the central three who start the film as the titular Ghostbusters. What's pretty impressive in hindsight is that most of the main cast are disqualified from The Runner-Up series. To briefly refresh: Bill Murray was nominated for Best Actor (Lost in Translation); Dan Aykroyd was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Driving Miss Daisy); and even Sigourney Weaver has three to her credit. Yet if one were to look at the main talents, there's a certain person left on the list that's more than worthy of having at least a few nominations over his career: Harold Ramis.

While Ghostbusters saw him act in front of the camera, one could argue that Ramis was better behind the camera. This was apparent if you look at his resume, which included: Animal HouseCaddyshackVacation, and Analyze This to name a scant few. He is one of those definitive voices in comedy that spanned several decades and whose career pretty much defined a certain generation's sensibilities. This is most apparent in his collaborations with Murray, of whom he worked with from the 70's through the 90's on a variety of projects in a variety of positions. Ramis wrote, directed, and sometimes starred in films. He was a huge threat to comedy, and his talent was definitely appreciated in his lifetime. However, the presence of comedy at The Oscars hasn't always been the most friendly. In fact, it only makes the absence of Groundhog Day in any facet as an Oscar nominee a little more baffling.

There's a variety of nominations that this could've received, even if it would've been overshadowed by the extra heavy dramas Schindler's List, The Piano, and even Philadelphia. Yet there's one thing that becomes apparent every February 2. Groundhog Day is a masterpiece. It's not just one of Bill Murray's defining performances. It's a film full of existential conflict that explores narcissism and romance in grand detail with a plot so clever that it has since entered modern colloquialism. It's a film so rich with details that the essays for the film have been almost nonstop in the 20+ years since its release. While Murray deserved more credit (read: Oscar nomination), there's something to the very fabric of the story that makes you have to ask a serious question: why wasn't this nominated for a Best Original Screenplay nomination? 

In the history of film, it is one of the few cases where having a story that's "redundant" is actually a compliment. While this entry very well may qualify Ramis for a Best Director nod, I choose to focus on screenplay because of the fact that the writers had to be able to change slight details without basically repeating a scene or making it seem disconnected. It comes in the way that Murray goes about his morning routine by taking cold showers, running into the reliable Stephen Tobolowsky as an old friend, falling into a puddle, or yes - even Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe." It's a tale that mixes sentimentality with Murray's reliable form of delusion, wishing to break a cycle that isn't just familiar: it's frustrating. The cure isn't ever directly explained, but Murray's transformation as he finally covers more than 24 hours is a great philosophical tale that makes the audience wonder about their personal experiences. It may make you laugh, but it will also make you think.

While one could make arguments for every Oscar category to become more interesting, I do believe that the screenplay fields have the best advantage of achieving it regularly. After all, these are categories that have seen films like Crocodile Dundee, Borat, and Into the Loop get nominated. These are films that define the common notion "It's not like it'll win any Oscars." These are harmless films that take you a second to process as actually having. I'm not saying that Groundhog Day is as lowbrow or crass as some of these nominees, but it does reflect an advantage that I wish it had been given. The screenplay categories reward creativity, and I doubt that any film really expressed creativity in 1993 as well as Groundhog Day. It was a novel premise that hadn't been done to death before with a memorable execution. As charming as Sleepless in Seattle is, it does seem egregious to see it on this list, if just because it's far more saccharine and familiar once you recognize that Nora Ephron did it better in When Harry Met Sally a few years prior.

I don't intend this to be an insult to the other films nominated, but the final test that makes a strong argument is legacy. How often do people talk about Dave or In the Line of Fire? While The Piano is definitely a film that has withstood the test of time, none of these films compare to the overall impact that Groundhog Day has had. It would be one thing if the film was bad, but Ramis' script with Danny Rubin is something special. In a career full of comedy highs, none of them are as well balanced and accessible as Groundhog Day. While it unfortunately marked the final collaboration between Ramis and Murray, it also marked a certain maturity that comedy outside of types like James L. Brooks would rarely get recognized. 

If this seems like a stretch, try and go the next year without thinking in the slightest about Groundhog Day. Besides the actual holiday by which this film is based, most modern references are to the film. This can be found in those recognizing how repetitive their lives are. This can be found when people approach February 2 and unconsciously turn to the film. It is something that is considered a literal touchstone of American cinema of the 90's, and continues to resonate with audiences. Most of all, it can at times be a ribald comedy without going too far or being repulsive. It always balances it with heart and a story that works in slight ways. Small details change, and it reflects life in ways that others like Sleepless in Seattle often fail at. I admit that the later things get for Ramis, the harder it is to find a redemptive Oscar nomination (Year Zero anyone?). Still, it shouldn't have been an issue in the first place. He was a talent worthy of more than what he got. It only seems right to recognize him on this weekend.

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