Does Jonah Hill Have An Awards Disadvantage Being Comic Relief In ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’?

By  · Published on January 12th, 2014

If there’s one thing I’ll feel is missing in tonight’s Golden Globes ceremony (even more than an award for best documentary), it’s Jonah Hill’s name in the supporting actor category. I’ve still not seen a few of the movies represented in that group so I can’t say Hill deserves it more than those nominees, but he is my pick for the best supporting actor of last year and he certainly belongs in the bunch more than Bradley Cooper. The question is whether Hill might earn an Oscar nomination in place of Cooper, or perhaps they’d both be excluded in place of, say, James Gandolfini. Both Cooper and Hill are actors who started out in comedy who have been recognized once each for their moves into dramatic work and who now are basically back with comedic performances in contention for the Academy Award. And that’s a tough nut to crack.

Comedy has always been a tough nut with the Oscars in general. It’s not ignored, not at all, definitely not as much as some would think, but it is true that what slips through is mostly hybrid movies, dramas with a good helping of comedy or drier comedies that have some dramatic elements. More common, actually, is comedic performances, especially in the supporting acting categories. That’s where we tend to find traditionally comedic talents earning nominations and often awards for providing the comic relief in a drama. Think Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Octavia Spencer in The Help and Alan Arkin in Argo. Of course, there are also occasional comedic talents honored for comedy in comedy, a la Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids, Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower, Joan Cusack in both Working Girl and In & Out and Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder (funny that the last two movies parody the Oscars). Maybe also Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine.

More love from the Academy, though, can be found in recognition of comedians who make the leap to dramatic roles/movies. Hill got his first nomination for a straight gig in Moneyball, for example. We’ve also got Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls, Jackie Gleason in The Hustler, Mo’Nique in Precious, Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy. There are plenty more in the lead performance categories, though in those cases the movies are often a mix of comedy and drama, with more of the latter than we’re used to from those actors. Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, Downey in Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Woody Allen in Annie Hall, Tom Hanks in Big, Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, Jean Dujardin in The Artist and Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam.

Is it possible for these performers to be honored again with a return to comedy? That’s what we need to ask while considering Hill’s chances at a nod this Thursday, and to some extent the same goes for Cooper. Is Hill’s work in The Wolf of Wall Street too funny, meaning too close to comfort, for it to be celebrated following Moneyball? If we think about it with the context that this movie isn’t a comedy in the vein of, say, This Is The End, it shouldn’t be. Hanks’s nomination after Big was for a very dramatic and ultimately winning performance in Philadelphia, but he quickly took another Oscar with the hybrid Forrest Gump, for which he received many laughs. Williams also got to be plenty funny in some of his subsequent nominated dramatic roles, including Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. Downey went full blown comedy again with Tropic Thunder. Goldberg had been nominated for her dramatic turn in The Color Purple before her winning comic relief for Ghost. Hawn earned a second nomination for a second comedic performance with Private Benjamin.

If anything, actors with comedic origins who’ve advanced to award-winning dramatic roles should later be recognized for returning to broad work in good movies. Once they’ve made the advance, they’re up on the level of the actors with dramatic origins, right? And the Academy does enjoy a dramatically trained actor doing comedy, so long as it’s a respectable, well-written role. Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, Meryl Streep in a few things, most humorously in Adaptation, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Perhaps DiCaprio’s turn is overshadowing Hill’s too much. The Academy isn’t used to laughing so much with a DiCaprio performance, so it’s a lot more special than laughing with a Hill performance, which is more expected. Unlike his counterpart in Goodfellas, the winning Joe Pesci, Hill is comic relief opposite a comedic lead, which is a bit weird and seemingly impossible, but it’s true.

Standing out in an award-worthy comedic supporting role when others in the same film are also nominated for their comedic work, that’s difficult. But we’ve seen George Burns do it, winningly with The Sunshine Boys. Also Josephine Hull with Harvey. It’s pretty amazing that Jennifer Tilly earned a nod for Bullets Over Broadway next to Dianne Wiest’s performance, in the same category. Even more amazing that Ruth Hussey found recognition with The Philadelphia Story. And it will be interesting if Cooper is recognized next to Christian Bale for American Hustle. Comparatively he’s a straight man for most of the movie, though he does have one or two ridiculously broad moments himself. Still, he doesn’t appear to stretch his acting muscles anywhere near the level that Hill does for The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m stunned that he got the Golden Globe nod over Hill, and I will be very surprised and disappointed if the Academy makes the same mistake.

Not that either would win, not in a year with such strong dramatic supporting performances as last year had. But Hill deserves the recognition. What will really make me laugh, though, is if the Oscars overlook him in favor of honoring another comedic actor who has made his initial jump into more dramatic territory by nominating Will Forte for Nebraska.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.