It’s time for the Oscars to take comedy seriously, starting with ‘Borat 2’ and Maria Bakalova

In Amazon’s “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” Maria Bakalova bravely engineered a meeting with Rudy Giuliani and shocked a group of pearl-clutching conservatives. But unamused Oscar voters could be her toughest mark yet. 

Earlier this month, the 24-year-old Bulgarian breakout earned an unlikely best supporting actress nomination for her star-making role in “Borat 2,” a sequel to Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 mockumentary hit. Wildly dancing and “swallowing” plastic babies as Borat’s unrefined teenage daughter, Tutar, Bakalova brought oddball charm and surprising depth to the ultimately empowered young woman – and helped defy what traditionally constitutes an “Oscar-worthy” performance. 

“It would be great for Oscar to break out of its comfort zone and award something outside of the ‘typical Oscar bait,’ ” says Matt Neglia, founder of awards site NextBestPicture. As Bakalova started winning critics’ prizes late last year, “a lot of major pundits were saying, ‘Oh, this is nice and all, but I don’t think it’s gonna go the distance.’ She has surprised and surpassed our wildest expectations, so it’s really cool to see that (Oscar nod) happen, because it’s so rare that it does.”

But even as Twitter users root for a Bakalova Oscar win come April 25, history isn’t necessarily on her side. 

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Tutar (Maria Bakalova) learns to embrace her beauty and power in Amazon's unexpected Oscar contender "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios, Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Comedies need ‘gravitas’ or they get overlooked

Oscar voters have long turned up their noses at straight comedies, which generally feature clever plots, memorable characters and “jokes that can be taken out of context and they’re still funny,” says Tim Dirks, creator of movie history website FilmSite. 

When they do recognize comedies, they’re often films with serious subject matters or themes such as mental health (“Little Miss Sunshine”), race relations (“Green Book”), teen pregnancy (“Juno”) or class warfare (“Parasite”). Even a buddy movie like “Sideways,” which won best adapted screenplay in 2005, is “basically a drama with some romance and comedy woven into the story,” Dirks says. 

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Melissa McCarthy's scene-stealing work in "Bridesmaids" netted her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination in 2012. (Photo: Suzanne Hanover, Universal Studios)

He notes that some light comedies have won best picture before, including Frank Capra’s 1934 screwball classic “It Happened One Night” and Woody Allen’s razor-sharp 1977 rom-com “Annie Hall.” But for the most part, “comedy films don’t win because they’re up against films that give more gravitas,” Dirks says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not worth watching,” but “dramas just have a little more weight in terms of mood and overall value.” 

Most Academy members have the same attitudes towards performances, too. Melissa McCarthy (“Bridesmaids”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”) and Renee Zellweger (“Bridget Jones’s Diary”) received acting nods for irreverent R-rated comedies in the last two decades, but it’s still uncommon for broad comedic turns to actually clinch gold. In fact, you’d have to look back to the late ’80s and early ’90s to find the last true comedy winners, when Marisa Tomei (“My Cousin Vinny”), Jack Palance (“City Slickers”) and Kevin Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”) all took home supporting Oscars. 

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Marisa Tomei was a surprise Oscar winner in 1993 for "My Cousin Vinny." (Photo: Douglas C. Pizac, AP)

Maria Bakalova could end the Oscars’ comedic dry spell 

The up-and-comer has racked up more than two dozen awards this season, and is the only supporting actress Oscar nominee to earn nods from every other major awards show, including the upcoming Screen Actors Guild Awards, British Academy Film Awards, Critics Choice Awards (which she won) and Golden Globes (where she was placed in the lead comedy actress category, but lost to Rosmand Pike for “I Care a Lot”). 

And yet, only three out of 20 experts on awards site GoldDerby predict Bakalova will win the Oscar over eight-time nominee Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) or South Korean screen veteran Yuh-jung Youn (“Minari”).

Similarly, only one of 19 pundits has “Borat 2” pegged to win best adapted screenplay at the Oscars, favoring higher-brow contenders “Nomadland” or “The Father.” The first “Borat” was nominated in the same category in 2007 but lost to “The Departed.” Its sequel recently won best adapted screenplay from the Writers Guild of America, usually a bellwether for future glory. (In the last decade, the WGA winner for best adapted screenplay has lined up with the eventual Oscar winner seven times.) 

Working against “Borat 2” is its lack of a best picture nomination, given that many Academy members will only watch the best picture nominees before voting, Neglia says. As for Bakalova’s uncertain odds, “it has to do with precedent and how little the Oscars have in the past rewarded comedic performances, let alone nominated them.” 

Disguised Kazakh journalist Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen, left) and his daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova) perform a traditional fertility dance in a scene from "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm." (Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios, Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

But with the Academy’s recent efforts to expand and diversify its membership, that’s also made it possible for more genre movies like “Get Out,” “Joker,” and now “Borat 2” and “Promising Young Woman” to break through. 

“I would be ecstatic to see Maria win because performances like that have gone overlooked way too many times, a recent example being Tiffany Haddish for ‘Girls Trip,’ ” Neglia says. “If Maria can kick open this door, it will hopefully allow for more comedic performances to get that level of recognition, and then we can move onto other genres like horror, which is another genre that Academy members tend to look down upon as not being ‘worthy.’

We’re hoping to see Maria break that ceiling so that it can open up more possibilities in the future.” 

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