Nondramatic contenders could gain Oscar advantage

So-called lightweight fare can carry heavyweight awards mojo come Golden Globes time.

And in a year featuring especially strong nondramatic contenders including “Dreamgirls” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” this could be one of those times in which Oscar’s top prizes go to a film that cleaned up in the Globes’ best comedy or musical categories.

Established by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. in the early 1950s, the comedy/musical Globes — which include a best picture award as well as lead actor and actress trophies — have often been seen as consolation prizes, awarded to pics and performances deemed worthy yet too slight for the bigger, more prestigious kudos.

But in recent years, that’s changed as more winners in those categories have taken home Oscar. Last year, Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award after receiving the Globes’ comedy/musical actress trophy; in 2005, Globe winner Jamie Foxx also took a thesp Oscar for “Ray.”

Globes comedy/musical pic winners “Sideways,” “Lost in Translation” and “Moulin Rouge” have all gone on to compete in Oscar’s best picture race.

And on several occasions — 11 times since 1951 — the Globes’ winner for comedy/musical picture has gone all the way to claim the top Oscar: Most recently “Chicago” and “Shakespeare in Love” have nabbed the picture trophy, and even further back, films including “Gigi” and “An American in Paris” have rated with the Academy.

Of course, taking the longer view of things, fewer than half a dozen wins in 55 years doesn’t necessarily constitute a trend. In fact, a far more impressive 29 winners of the Globes’ dramatic pic kudo have gone on to win a matching Oscar.

Winners of the Globes’ comedy/musical actress trophy have claimed a thesp award at the Oscars only 13 times; among men, Globes comedy/musical and Oscar actor winners match up only six times.

So this year, what can backers of a particularly strong year for comedy and musical contenders glean from this?

For a musical like “Dreamgirls” — despite the infrequent glory for tuners come Academy Awards time — it’s important to win the comedy/musical pic Globe in order to then claim the Oscar.

Since 1951, every musical that has won an Academy Award for best picture also has won the HFPA’s comedy/musical picture prize.

And on a few occasions, the Globe was the first notable recognition for such a film.

In 1951, for example, the Gene Kelly tuner “An American in Paris” earned a considerable boost from the pre-Oscar attention, ultimately surging past heavy favorites “A Place in the Sun” (the drama Globe champ) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” for Oscar’s best pic trophy.

Like “Dreamgirls,” “Paris” hadn’t received the caliber of crix kudos its rivals did — “Streetcar” was the New York Film Critics Circle’s pick, while “Sun” was the National Board of Review’s choice.

And in 1958, another MGM musical, “Gigi” — lavishly produced but a slow starter at the wickets — was expertly handled by its studio as a prestige event, with an initial release at a Broadway legit theater. (DreamWorks and Paramount’s special road-show run in December of “Dreamgirls” was perhaps a page out of MGM’s playbook.)

For comedies like “Borat” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” however, winning big at the Globes doesn’t seem to be as crucial a barometer of Oscar success.

In fact, only four Globe-winning comedies have gone on to win Oscar’s best pic statuette.

Indeed, it’s worth noting the genre’s two Oscar winners for best pic from the 1970s — “The Sting” and “Annie Hall” — became Acad faves despite the lack of a comedy/musical pic trophy from the HFPA. “The Sting” garnered only a screenplay nod (for David S. Ward) from the Globes.

Since the ’60s, only two Globe winners for comedy pic have duplicated their success at the Academy Awards — 1989′s “Driving Miss Daisy,” which also earned HFPA laurels for stars Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman that quickly pushed it to the top of the list of Oscar contenders, and 1998′s “Shakespeare in Love.”

It’s also worth noting that the ’60s indisputably marked the apex of both musical and comedy Globe winners’ success with Oscar.

More than half of the decade’s Academy Award-winning pictures were HFPA champs — including comedies “Tom Jones” and “The Apartment” and a spate of boffo-biz musicals imported from Broadway such as “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver!” and “West Side Story.”

On the comedy front — like “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Borat” — Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” and Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” were popular films that were also backed by strong critical consensus.

Each film earned top marks from the Gotham crix org, and each also benefited from having little in the way of serious (in both senses) competition: Neither of the respective Globe drama pic winners — “Spartacus” and “The Cardinal” — even made Oscar’s best pic short list.

This year, in contrast, several drama contenders — including “The Departed,” “Babel” and “The Queen” — are viewed as having strong shots at the Acad’s best pic race.

For both comedies and musicals, thesp wins at the Globes can turn a film into a legitimate Oscar contender for best picture — a trend that “Dreamgirls,” with three acting bids (for Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy), is looking to extend.

Films that failed to win the top Globe have nonetheless pushed their way into the Acad’s final five after key acting kudos. Tom Cruise’s comedy actor win for 1996′s “Jerry Maguire” added momentum to the Cameron Crowe film’s Oscar campaign, helping it nudge aside Globe winner “Evita” for an Acad best picture bid.

In 2004, “Ray,” a Globe loser to “Sideways,” secured a best pic berth at the Oscars due in part to the acclaim for Foxx’s Globe-winning portrayal of Ray Charles.

Similarly, Baz Luhrmann’s musical fantasia “Moulin Rouge!” burst onto the scene amid great fanfare at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Despite mixed critical notices, “Moulin Rouge!” — bolstered by solid box office numbers and precursor-laurel attention that included a Globe pic win and another for star Nicole Kidman — landed a slot among the year’s best pic Oscar nominees.

The following year, the Miramax marketing machine — this time, putting its muscle behind Rob Marshall’s tuner “Chicago” — parlayed Globes victories in all three comedy/musical categories (Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger won the thesp trophies) into the first best picture Oscar for a musical in almost 35 years.

If history is any guide this year, “Dreamgirls” — with its mostly upbeat reviews, expected raft of tech bids and a promising start at the box office — has perhaps the strongest shot at translating potential Golden Globes success into Oscar glory.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more