Golden Globes: Drama or Musical/Comedy? A Look at the HFPA's Tough Choices (Analysis)

I cannot recall an awards season with more contenders that straddle the line between drama and comedy -- dark comedies or light dramas -- than this one. Already we've seen August: Osage County, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska and Philomena. Still to come: American Hustle, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and even The Wolf of Wall Street, which New York magazine recently characterized as a "black comedy."

All of this makes this year's Golden Globes race incredibly hard to predict, since the Globes famously split the best picture, actor and actress awards in two: drama and musical or comedy. Without knowing where these contenders will be competing, it's really impossible to know where any of the field really stands.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which decides the Globes, has a committee that determines category placements. Distributors are asked to state their preference in paperwork that must be submitted by Nov. 1, but the HFPA reserves the right to overrule their suggestion. (Three years ago, Paramount submitted True Grit as a musical or comedy, and Sony submitted The Tourist as a drama; the HFPA reversed both.) This year, all decisions will be made before nomination voting begins Nov. 27.

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It's usually seen as easier to compete in the musical or comedy category, as there's less competition than the jam-packed drama category. Besides, the average Joe doesn't remember if a film was nominated for a best picture Globe in drama or in musical or comedy -- it's the first part of the phrase that you see in ads.

That is why dark comedies such as Lost in Translation, Sideways and The Kids Are All Right were all pushed on that side of the ledger -- and won. Kids competed with Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, Red and The Tourist. As a drama, it would have had to displace Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The King's Speech or The Social Network just to be nominated.

And what happens when filmmakers closely associated with comedy or comedic elements start making movies that are so dark that it becomes hard to argue that they are not dramas? Sometimes their distributors embrace being categorized as a drama in order to show that the film can compete with the top guns. (See: Recent nominations in the drama category for  Quentin Tarantino's Basterds and Django Unchained.)

So what is likely to happen this year? I think that the distributors of most of the line-straddlers would prefer for their films to compete in the musical or comedy race, since this year's drama race is already overflowing with good options. But let's go case-by-case.

August: Osage, the story of a bickering family, features several laugh-out-loud moments, but also a number of revelations that are anything but funny. Despite the movie's bumpy landing at the Toronto International Film Festival, The Weinstein Co. remains bullish about its awards prospects, particularly for best actress hopeful Meryl Streep. But prior to the Oscars, they would probably like to avoid having Streep go head-to-head with Blue Jasmine's Cate Blanchett, whose universally-hailed performance looks as if it will be very hard to beat -- and Blue Jasmine will probably end up on the musical or comedy side (see below). On the assumption that this will be the case, TWC has begun to position August as a drama, likening it to Terms of Endearment, a dramedy that won the Golden Globes for -- you guessed it -- best picture and best actress on the drama side. PROJECTION: DRAMA.

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Blue Jasmine is a dark film about a rich wife who loses her husband and her money and who never really recovers. While it certainly offers a lot of laughs, I'm not sure that you walk out of it thinking it's a comedy. It would certainly have an easier time scoring a best picture nomination classified as a drama, and it might well be designated that way -- either per the wishes of Sony Pictures Classics or at the insistence of the HFPA -- as was the case with Allen's Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point. But my hunch is that, being a Woody Allen film that features funnymen Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay in supporting roles, it'll break in the other direction. PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

Before Midnight, also an SPC contender, presents another interesting case. Neither of the two previous Before films, which revolved around the same man and woman, were nominated for any Globes, so I don't know which side they were considered for. With this one, in which the two are now a married couple clashing while on vacation, an argument could be mounted for either. My best guess is that SPC will at least submit it for musical or comedy, since that is the path of least resistance. PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

Frances Ha centers around a lost and drifting twentysomething New Yorker whose self-destructive tendencies make for both laughs and pity. Considering that the film has frequently been likened to the TV show Girls (which competes on the musical/comedy side at the Globes) and that it was directed by Noah Baumbach (whose even darker film The Squid and the Whale was deemed a comedy by the HFPA), it's not hard to measure the direction of this wind. PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

Then there's Llewyn Davis, the bleak story of a male musician who is just as floundering as Frances Ha's protagonist. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen are masters of dry humor, and previously earned best picture, musical or comedy, Globe noms for Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading. Their darker films, however, have been placed on the drama side; The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and True Grit all earned best picture noms there. But the earlier Coens' film that Llewyn most evokes is A Serious Man, which was nominated for best actor -- in a musical or comedy. Plus this one features music! PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

Alexander Payne, the director of Nebraska, has a similarly varied history with the HFPA. The group deemed About Schmidt and The Descendants dramas (both were nominated for best picture, and Descendants won), but classified Election and Sideways as musical or comedy contenders (the former scored a best actress nom and the latter won best picture). I would argue that Nebraska is quite similar to Schmidt -- both present a sad story about an aging man who goes on a road trip, during which he sees old friends and relatives -- but Nebraska co-stars an SNL alum and features broad comedic work by a variety of character actors, so I'd guess that it can get away with the opposite category. PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

And then there's Philomena, the log-line of which reads like a drama -- it's the story of an old woman who embarks on a search for the child that she was forced to give up decades earlier -- but which plays not unlike a comedy. (It was co-written by and co-stars Steve Coogan.) I imagine that TWC will ask the HFPA to label it a comedy, particularly if the distributor's other best actress hopeful, Streep, is vying on the drama side. Whether the HFPA will raise a red flag remains to be seen. PROJECTION: MUSICAL/COMEDY.

As for American Hustle, The Monuments Men, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Wolf of Wall Street, I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg