Golden Globes Contenders Blur Drama, Comedy, Musical Lines

Birdman Still 2 - H 2014
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Birdman Still 2 - H 2014

A version of this story first appeared in the November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Birdman is a dark, brooding portrait of an actor suffering a midlife crisis. Inherent Vice follows a private eye's search for a missing person. Begin Again examines the cold and unforgiving world of the recording industry.

Naturally, each of these films — and many others like them — are vying for spots in the musical-comedy categories at the 72nd Golden Globes, the nominations for which will be announced on Dec. 11.

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Unlike the Oscars, where films of all genres compete for the same trophies, the Globes split films into two types when it comes to its picture and acting awards — musicals and comedies on one side, straight-up dramas on the other. But sometimes — often, in fact — the border between the two gets pretty porous, making for odd cinematic bedfellows. Every year, at least a couple of dramas that don't have a lot of laughs or many tunes somehow end up competing in the musical or comedy category. Take, for example, Almost Famous (2000), Lost in Translation (2003), Sideways (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), all relatively serious fare, yet all submitted by their distributors in the musical-comedy competition. All of them ended up winning.

It generally is considered a smarter bet to push a film in the musical or comedy category if one can get away with it. There might be more prestige on the drama side, which probably is why The Weinstein Co. entered Quentin Tarantino's darkly funny Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) in the drama race.

But ticket buyers and Oscar voters don't tend to make fine distinctions between categories: An advertisement emblazoned with the words "BEST PICTURE NOMINEE" works the very same profile-raising magic whether the small print underneath says "musical or comedy" or "drama." More to the point, in the musical or comedy contest, there often is a clearer path to getting nominated — and winning — than in the drama competition, which tends to be stiffer and weighted to heavier-themed films. Case in point: The Kids Are All Right (2010) won best musical or comedy film over weak competition comprising Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, Red and The Tourist. If it had entered as a drama, it would have found itself up against Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King's Speech and The Social Network and might not even have been nominated.

This year, along with Birdman and Inherent Vice, the musical or comedy field will include such dramedies as Tim Burton's Big Eyes (giving Amy Adams a chance at a best actress nom), Jon Favreau's Chef, Michael Radford's Elsa & Fred (a vehicle for Globes favorites Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer), Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (his Moonrise Kingdom was nominated in the category two years ago), Lasse Hallstrom's The Hundred-Foot Journey (look out for Helen Mirren), Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight (a year after his Blue Jasmine competed on the drama side), Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child (Jenny Slate is a real best actress threat), Matthew Warchus' Pride, Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins (a strong play for SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who portray suicidal siblings), Theodore Melfi's St. Vincent (expect a best actor nom for Bill Murray), Shawn Levy's This Is Where I Leave You and Chris Rock's Top Five.

Nobody would mistake John Carney's Begin Again for a musical, but it does have songs in it, so it has been accepted into the musical or comedy race, meaning that Mark Ruffalo (who plays an out-of-work record executive) and Keira Knightley (a down-on-her-luck singer) have strong shots at best actor and best actress nominations, respectively. (A similar argument could have been made for Whiplash, another music-centric pic with some very dark elements, but Sony Classics didn't even try it.)

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Begin Again will be competing with such straight-up musicals as Into the Woods, Annie, The Last 5 Years and Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys (though the three-time Globe winner for directing probably has a better shot in the drama category with American Sniper). And in the past, strangely enough, musicals have frequently won the musical or comedy award — among them Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002), Dreamgirls (2006), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Les Miserables (2012). There also are several true comedies in the mix, including 22 Jump Street, Dumb and Dumber To and Guardians of the Galaxy, the year's biggest hit, which happens to be packed with a lot of great classic rock. Past LOL-comedy winners of the musical or comedy category include The Hangover (2009).

There is, it turns out, only so far all this cross-genre strategizing can take you, and it's possible to overplay your hand. Four years ago, Paramount tried to submit True Grit as a musical or comedy, and Columbia tried to submit The Tourist as a drama, but, in both instances, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association waved a finger and said, "Not so fast." The same thing happened this year when Universal entered its James Brown biopic Get On Up and Cinelou entered its Jennifer Aniston vehicle Cake in the musical or comedy races.

But, in light of the aforementioned history, can you really blame them for trying?

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg