Eclectic company

Can funny fairly compete against a lavish studio musical? This year's best comedies are about to find out.

At the end of last year, nearly any awards-show prognosticator could've glanced at the 2006 release calendar and guessed that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. would give heavy Golden Globes consideration to Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" in the best motion picture -- musical or comedy category. So few musicals get made these days that just about any new one is an event, and "Dreamgirls" has all the awards-season trappings with stars Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx, as well as director Bill Condon, who was nominated at the Globes and the Oscars for his screenplay for 2002's "Chicago."

Thanks largely to a splashy preview at May's Festival de Cannes and its glitzy pedigree, "Dreamgirls" has, for the most part, retained its front-runner status heading into December. But, insiders say, some unlikely competition seems to be cruising up alongside the film -- coasting alone inside the confines of a dilapidated Volkswagon bus.

One of the year's unmitigated success stories, Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" made headlines with its record-breaking sale at January's Sundance Film Festival, and the film has managed to do what few Sundance sensations ever do -- live up to the hype. So far, the movie, from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, has raked in nearly $60 million at the domestic boxoffice since its release in July, and Searchlight is pushing hard to make sure that the movie is not overlooked now that awards season is here.


There are a number of other strong contenders in the race, too.

Certainly, Fox's June release "The Devil Wears Prada" is a strong candidate, given its origins as a best-selling novel and the presence of star Meryl Streep. Sony's current offering "Stranger Than Fiction" has been on the radar screen for a while as well, thanks to its quirky premise and positivist message, and then there's "Borat," Fox's outrageous faux documentary, released earlier this month. The comedy, which stars Sacha Baron Cohen, has morphed quickly from an anticipated cult item to a cultural juggernaut.

Of course, capturing the pop culture zeitgeist might not impress the HFPA in quite the same way as pulling together all of the myriad components required to stage a lavish Broadway musical for the screen. And really, how does one fairly compare the virtues of "Borat" with those of "Dreamgirls" anyway? In today's entertainment landscape, does it still make sense for the HFPA to automatically slot musicals in with comedies, rather than filing them with dramas when they're dramatic (like, for example, last year's winner "Walk the Line")?

"This was something that was decided 50 years ago," HFPA president Philip Berk says. "For about 10 years, we only had one best picture, and then we decided to split the award. Since a common genre is 'musical comedy,' it's not inconceivable that the earlier Hollywood Foreign Press members framed the award that way. Now, it happens that musicals have a dramatic context and go on to win. It's not such an easily defined category."

In fact, for the first decade of the category's existence, it was dominated by musicals -- so much so that the award was briefly subdivided further in the early 1960s, allowing, for example, both "The Music Man" and "That Touch of Mink" to be honored in 1963. Then the category remerged and continued to be more an award for musicals than comedies up to "Cabaret's" victory in 1973, after which the "musical" side of the equation diminished.

Aside from rare awards for the likes of 1980's "Coal Miner's Daughter" and 1983's "Yentl," not until Buena Vista sparked a backdoor revival of the musical with "Beauty and the Beast" (the winner in 1992) did the Globes have much occasion to give a musical the top prize. In the '90s, three musicals won (including 1994's "The Lion King" and 1996's "Evita"), and so far this decade, three out of the seven best musical/comedy awards have gone to musicals (and that's not counting 1999's "Toy Story 2" and 2000's "Almost Famous," both of which feature music prominently).

"Having a category for comedy or musical has been greatly appreciated by actors who realize that when they're in a comedy as opposed to a drama, the chances of getting recognition (at the Oscars) are slim," Berk says. "They've welcomed the Hollywood Foreign Press making that distinction."

The producers of "Sunshine" and "Devil" agree. "I often think it's preposterous to put a contemporary comedy up against a period drama," says David T. Friendly, a producer on "Sunshine" along with Albert Berger, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub and Ron Yerxa. "From the (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences') standpoint, it's the five best movies of the year, and I get that. But from an opportunistic standpoint, the Golden Globes gives us a much better chance at success."

"Devil" producer Wendy Finerman is especially happy to see what the split might do for Streep. "What's really satisfying is for Meryl to get all this attention for working in a comedy," she says, "because she does it so brilliantly and so restrained, and it's something we haven't seen her do in a very long time."

Streep is a front-runner in the best musical/comedy actress category (though some have argued that she belongs in the supporting slot), and chances are she'll share the red carpet with a handful of other veterans, including Annette Bening, whose performance in Sony's "Running With Scissors" is getting far more acclaim than the movie itself.

Oddly enough, while the Golden Globes' comedy category is intended to allow for greater recognition of comedic actors, comedians who connect with mass audiences rarely have won the top acting award. Jim Carrey won his only Golden Globe for 1999's "Man on the Moon," and though Robin Williams has won in the leading category three times, each one of those performances -- in 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam," 1991's "The Fisher King and even 1993's "Mrs. Doubtfire" -- balanced wackiness with pathos. Which means if Will Ferrell's ever going to have a chance to become an awards presence, it might have to be in a movie like "Fiction."

And there's a fair chance that "Fiction" might earn Ferrell a nom, for a role that, while funny, is more subdued and nuanced than the work he did this year in Sony's August comedy "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." According to "Fiction" director Marc Forster, when he first met Ferrell, "I immediately connected with him. He's done all these broad things, but he's actually a very good actor. He understood the comedic as well as the dramatic parts and the subtlety of this kind of comedy."

Unfortunately, Forster hasn't been around to follow firsthand what's happening with his movie and his star. The director has entered the end-of-the-year awards rush while in the thick of preproduction on Paramount's tentative 2007 release "The Kite Runner," which had him stuck in China just as "Fiction" was about to open. "It's sad," Forster says. "When you have a film that audiences seem to embrace, you want to be part of that journey."

On the flip side, the makers of "Sunshine" and "Devil" -- while also busy on their next projects -- can relax a little, knowing that their movies already have survived their most crucial test: performing well in the marketplace. According to Saraf, whose movie came out in the relative dead zone of late summer: "It's a lot less nerve-racking having your movie released on a weekend when only two or three movies are opening, instead of 12. Right now, there are almost too many movies I want to see."

Now that the 2006 finish line is approaching, are those with a head start scrutinizing their competition and maybe hoping for the kind of unexpected fumbles that have characterized the 2006 awards season so far? Do the makers of "Devil" and "Sunshine" especially hope that "Dreamgirls" proves less spectacular than it looks?

"Not at all," Finerman says, "because we all help each other. The more movies succeed, the better for our industry. You can't root against anybody because you're in this little world for a while. You see everybody every weekend for weeks and weeks, and it becomes almost like a little family."

Turtletaub says that rooting for other movies to flop "would be antithetical to the theme of our movie, which is about doing things you love because you love them."

His partner Saraf agrees: "Our movie celebrates transcending competition. Movies are so hard to get made and so hard to get seen. It's a hard medium in terms of achieving success, so for films to get into competition with each other is kind of unfortunate."

Saraf adds with a chuckle, "That's not to say that we wouldn't enjoy being honored."