Golden Globes film actors preview

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The Golden Globes returns to television screens with one of the most interesting and competitive races in years.

Unusually, while the actor (drama) race is strong, the other two actor categories seem less competitive. With few comedies -- and even fewer musicals -- the Globes may actually have trouble filling five slots for best actor (comedy/musical).

At the same time, despite a slew of sterling performances in supporting roles, few of them have had the breathtaking boldness of last year's contenders, who included Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" and Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton."

Aware of the striking difference between the categories' competitiveness, studios have jostled to have some actors acknowledged for support or comedy work, rather than place them in the lead drama category. Ultimately, that is a decision the HFPA will have to make.

What follows is a breakdown of the major contenders:



Actor (Drama)

Acting competitions are like gymnastics: Showmanship and level of difficulty are important factors.

For this reason, Sean Penn's turn as pioneering gay politician Harvey Milk in Focus Features' "Milk" has to be seen as a lock for a nomination. A character actor with leading man juice, he doesn't just give a powerful, nuanced performance, he transforms himself, dropping weight, altering his hairline and adopting a Long Island accent.

Frank Langella takes on a similar level of difficulty with his performance as former President Richard M. Nixon in Universal's "Frost/Nixon," with an extra difficulty factor in that every twitch and tick of Tricky Dick has been documented for decades. That could both help and hurt Langella, who conspicuously chose to avoid false prosthetics and any attempt to mimic the disgraced president. His weighty presence may make it harder for Michael Sheen to get recognized -- one reason why insiders are pushing him more for consideration in support. Langella hasn't been on the Globes radar since he was nominated for most promising newcomer (male) for 1970's "Diary of a Mad Housewife."

Hardly a newcomer is Will Smith, who drew kudos for his last dramatic role in "The Pursuit of Happyness" and may repeat with Sony's "Seven Pounds."

Smith's persona is one of the most familiar and comfortable in film. In contrast, Brad Pitt gives voters something they've never seen before in Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button": A man aging backward. Seeing Pitt old and ugly may have enough shock value to vault him to a nomination.

Shock value may also help Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" (Fox Searchlight). The contrast between this Rourke, his body battered and carrying several dozen pounds of extra muscle (which he was still trying to lose at press time), and the golden boy we remember from the 1980s makes him another near-lock -- if the sheer brutality of Darren Aronofsky's film doesn't alienate voters. But everyone loves a comeback, and Rourke has received rave reviews for his art-parallels-life performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson.

Leonardo DiCaprio is also a strong contender with work as a 1950s suburban family man coming to terms with his personal problems in DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage's "Revolutionary Road." The Globes have shown him a lot of love over the years, with a total of six nominations (including two in 2007 for "Blood Diamond" and "The Departed") and one win (2004's "The Aviator"). That puts him two up on Penn, who's had four nominations and one win (2003's "Mystic River").

Among other stars, Hugh Jackman is up for Fox's "Australia." And one should never count out Clint Eastwood. The 78-year-old has won five Globes -- from world film favorite (male) in 1971 to best director for "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005 -- and voters may decide Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino" is another great chance to pay tribute to the screen legend.

In this most competitive of categories, also factor in a lesser-known performer, Richard Jenkins, a Rhode Island-based actor who has earned the best reviews of his life for Overture Films' "The Visitor." Overture has been quietly battling to get Jenkins attention, and he could be the one near-unknown who gets recognition in this category.



Actor (Comedy/Musical)

Competitive as the actor (drama) category is, this category is a mess. Warm, thoughtful dramedies like last year's "Juno" are in short supply, and there are only two musicals of note -- Universal's "Mamma Mia!" and Disney's "High School Musical 3" -- neither of which boasts standout male performances.

Because of that, it's hard to argue with Lionsgate's decision to push "W." in the comedy category, giving Josh Brolin a terrific chance at a nomination.

Equally likely to lock up a nomination is three-time Globe nominee and one-time winner (last year's "No Country for Old Men") Javier Bardem for his performance as a painter caught in a love quadrangle in MGM/Weinstein Co.'s "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

As far as flat-out comedies go, the most award-worthy performances are all of the supporting variety in films such as DreamWorks/Paramount's "Tropic Thunder" and Focus Features' "Burn After Reading." But it's possible that Ben Stiller could be nominated for the former and George Clooney for the latter as leads.

The balance of the nominees could come via Judd Apatow regulars Seth Rogen (in a non-Apatow film -- Kevin Smith's "Zack and Miri Make a Porno" for the Weinstein Co.) or Jason Segel for his vulnerable performance in Universal's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." There's also Sony's "Pineapple Express," in which James Franco plays a convincing stoner. Did we mention this is a weak category?

The dark horse: Paul Rudd in Universal's "Role Models," which works the silly-but-sensitive vein mined by last year's Apatow productions "Knocked Up" and "Superbad," neither of which, it's worth noting, were recognized by the Globes.



Supporting Actor

Everyone from the most austere critics to the crassest comic book geeks has been wowed by the late Heath Ledger's frightening turn as the Joker in Warner Bros.' "The Dark Knight," and there's no reason to believe that Globe voters feel any differently. Superhero movies are never strong awards contenders, but this -- like Jack Nicholson's performance in 1989's "Batman" -- looks to be an exception to the rule.

If Ledger seems like a lock, he's likely to be joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the maligned priest of John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt." Miramax has shrewdly pushed to have Hoffman recognized in support rather than lead (just like "Frost/Nixon's" Sheen). The company argues he's in less than 50% of the film, in large part because this is a far less competitive category.

There was some uncertainty whether Ralph Fiennes would figure as lead or support for the Weinstein Co.'s "The Reader." Now the mini-major is touting him in support, which means he'll compete with himself in Paramount Vantage's "The Duchess."

A left-field favorite is Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in "Tropic Thunder" as Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian "five-time Oscar winner" who takes his role as a black soldier way too seriously. Also in with a chance for their comedic work are Brad Pitt and John Malkovich for "Burn After Reading."

The biggest question mark comes with the ensemble cast of "Milk," including Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco. Brolin seems to have an edge, helped by having the showiest role -- which means he could be a double nominee this year.
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