Spinning for Globes

'Chicago' kicks, 'Hours' ticks toward trophy time

Always the slightly tipsy, loose-limbed bridesmaid and never the bride?

Perhaps. But at a spry 60 years old, the Golden Globe Awards hardly seem to mind their codified status as Oscar night’s big fat rehearsal dinner.

On Jan. 19, when the Globes hand out their 2003 awards, you’ll see more off-the-cuff remarks than would ever pass muster at the Kodak Theater. Whether or not the Globes, in the end, amount to anything more than an Oscar bellwether is open for debate, but while they last there’s a certain jaunty fun to be had, as though Cinderella decided to stay home and throw her own ball.

As Film Comment’s Amy Taubin puts it, “It’s a lot more ticky and fun than the Academy Awards. It’s like great Eurotrash!”

Yet, with each passing ceremony, the nominations themselves are looking more and more like Oscar. With seven nods, this year’s most nominated drama, “The Hours” (Paramount) is exactly the sort of starry, prestige literary adaptation the Academy has always embraced while the most nominated film overall, Miramax’s “Chicago” (which competes in the separate musical/comedy category) is the second film in as many years to carry the torch of reviving the long-dormant movie musical. (Last year, the Globes were among the first on the “Moulin Rouge” bandwagon.)

“About Schmidt,” “Gangs of New York” and “Far From Heaven” are all, not surprisingly, in the running for multiple major prizes too; and whereas the Globes’ concurrent TV awards are constantly lauded for their recognition of newer, vanguard shows that have yet to woo Emmy voters, it’s hard not to see the film nominations as rather conservative by contrast.

So, it’s not surprising that neither Paul Schrader’s “Auto Focus” nor George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” among the darkest, most original and most eccentric of American movies this year, managed a single Globe nod.

Yet even certain films and performances that once seemed like Globe shoo-ins find themselves without an invitation (at least as a nominee) to this year’s ceremony.

“I expected them to admire ‘Frida’ (which received nominations for drama actress and original score), but I was surprised they didn’t nominate Alfred Molina,” points out critic Leonard Maltin. “It was one of my favorite performances of the year.”

Fox Searchlight’s much-ballyhooed “Antwone Fisher” was completely ignored, as was its “The Good Girl” (which had a major campaign for star Jennifer Aniston). And while Focus Features scored six nominations between “Far From Heaven” and “The Pianist,” Todd Haynes’ decorous 1950s melodrama unexpectedly failed to land mentions for best picture and director.

But good luck getting Focus co-president James Schamus (who’s won a few awards of his own as Ang Lee’s regular screenwriter) to complain about anything.

“We made up for in bulk what we might have missed in the top two boxes,” Schamus says. “Nothing surprises me, because I so discount any prognostication; otherwise I wouldn’t sleep.”

Likewise, Schamus dismisses the tendency to look for trends and themes in the assortment of films vying for the Globes this year, despite suggesting that the cultures of fear, repression and paranoia depicted in films such as “Far From Heaven,” “The Pianist” and “Adaptation” are particularly in synch with the national psyche.

But Slate film critic David Edelstein sees things a bit differently.

“There are a lot more movies that were shooting or going into production right around the time it became clear the Internet bubble was going to burst. So, you have these movies that have this strangely empathetic, non-moralistic tone towards hustlers and present the whole economic system as kind of absurd. The big movie of this is the French ‘Time Out,’ which takes place in the twilight of capitalism. But even movies like ‘About Schmidt,’ ‘Catch Me if You Can’ and ‘Gangs of New York’ have this very skewed and kind of absurdist take on what it means to succeed under capitalism.”

Urge to merge

One principle of success under capitalism that hardly seems so absurd is that of quality control, which in recent years has seen the acquisition of such one-time independents as Miramax and New Line by the same multinational conglomerates that own and operate the major Hollywood studios, in turn giving companies such as Disney and AOL Time Warner an increased presence in contests such as the Globes.

(In fact, only one of this year’s 10 best picture nominees, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” is a truly “independent” release.) Is the line between the mainstream film and the arthouse film starting to blur indecipherably?

“Just a teensy weensy bit,” Maltin says. “The major studios all know they can’t exist simply doing blockbusters and that’s why they’ve all nurtured specialized divisions to do smaller films.”

“I think that there is a kind of institutional schizophrenia that is very productive right now,” adds Schamus. “There’s an interesting interplay between those two spheres: tentpole movies and the Oscar-caliber, more specialized releases.

“Is ‘Lord of the Rings’ a tentpole movie or an independent, arthouse movie? There’s a lot of filmmaking going on at the tentpole level that deserves the same kind of respect and interest of the critical/awards communities. At the same time, in terms of the independent films, there’s tons of ambition to tell stories of enormous historical and emotional sweep, like ‘Far From Heaven’ and ‘The Pianist.’ They’re not little movies.”

Get any group of people talking about the Golden Globe Awards and, sooner or later, the conversation drifts toward a discussion of the Globes’ tradition of presenting awards for best picture, actor and actress in two separate categories: one honoring achievements in dramatic films; the other recognizing musical and/or comedy pics.

“The best thing about the Golden Globes is that by having two categories, they can recognize more good work,” Maltin says. “And by segregating comedy, they can recognize the one form of entertainment that Oscar most frequently overlooks.”

Even playing field

While this has led to some rather daft choices in weaker years, this year’s lineup of musical/comedy nominees reps one of the strongest competitive fields in Globes history.

“I think it’s fantastic that Goldie Hawn is nominated for ‘The Banger Sisters,’ ” Edelstein says. “That’s the best performance she’s given since ‘The Sugarland Express’ and I’m glad somebody will recognize it.”

Yet, there are any number of films, from Universal’s “About a Boy” and Sony’s “Adaptation” (both nominated for comedy pic and comedy actor) to New Line’s “About Schmidt” (also up for best pic and actor, but submitted by New Line in the drama category) that precariously straddle the genre-dividing line, begetting the question of just what makes one film more comedy than drama and vice versa.

“We looked at that very closely and it could have gone either way,” offers Russell Schwartz, New Line’s president of domestic marketing. “People have heard of dramas with comedy in them, but it’s much harder to think of a comedy with drama in it. That was the overriding feeling, that with a drama you’re freer to mix emotions.”

There’s also the unspoken, but widely held belief that a comedy win at the Globes is less meaningful (especially come Oscar time) than a drama one. To wit, Gene Hackman’s win as comedy actor last year for “The Royal Tenenbaums” (another film that easily might have been submitted in the drama category) did not translate into an Oscar nod.

Certainly, it’s no secret that dramatic films fare better with Oscar voters.

“The predilection for dramas over, say, comedy-dramas at the Oscars reminds me of how people like their medicine to not taste particularly good,” says “About a Boy” co-director Paul Weitz.

But the prejudice may run even deeper than that.

“I think that comedies, by and large, are not ennobling and I think people who give awards tend to give awards that make them feel better about themselves,” suggests Edelstein.

“There’s a wonderful passage in ‘The U
nbearable Lightness of Being’ where Kundera defines kitsch by saying that it’s not the sight of children running across a lawn that makes kitsch kitsch; it’s when you look at them and you cry, and then you cry at your own nobility for crying that makes it become kitsch.

“Comedy, on the other hand, tends to be a very anarchic, destructive, non-ennobling, rambunctious form. Even if ‘Death to Smoochy’ was good, nobody’s going to give any prizes to that movie. Movies like ‘Wag the Dog’ don’t get prizes. ‘Election’ didn’t get any prizes. It’s so rare it’s almost unprecedented.

“The last male clown — and the only one in about 25 years — to get an Academy Award had to have a concentration camp around him.”

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