Org gives a chance to lighter fare

Of all the Golden Globes categories, best motion picture — musical or comedy may be the hardest to get a bead on. For starters, it yokes together two distinct categories while segregating them from drama.

Yet the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., which sponsors the annual Globes competish, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is a tradition that started with the establishment of the awards,” says HFPA prexy Jorge Camara. “It seems fair to separate comedy and drama. Other awards don’t recognize comedy as merited, and we think it’s a very valid form of entertainment that should be recognized.”

Indeed, ask Camara if the org has ever feuded over the persistence of this hybrid category, and he’ll tell you: “We have many arguments, but that has never been one of them. I think we’re happy with the way it is.”

One byproduct of having a separate award for comedy and musicals has been HFPA’s recognition of comic acting. It’s a given that Globes will go to one leading actor and one leading actress in the category, which this year includes thesps in the films “Burn After Reading,” “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “In Bruges,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.”

Actors nominated for best performance in a motion picture – musical or comedy are Javier Bardem for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; Colin Farrell, “In Bruges”; James Franco, “Pineapple Express”; Brendan Gleeson, “In Bruges”; and Dustin Hoffman, “Last Chance Harvey.”

Distaff thesps in the running: Rebecca Hall, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”; Sally Hawkins, “Happy-Go-Lucky”; Frances McDormand, “Burn After Reading”; Meryl Streep, “Mamma Mia!”; and Emma Thompson, “Last Chance Harvey.”

While supporting-actor categories are not segregated by genre, Globes occasionally go to comic supporting thesps as well. Thus this year, Penelope Cruz’s broad turn as a spurned lover in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” faces Kate Winslet’s deadly earnest portrayal in “The Reader.” Sure, that makes some fields a bit of a “smorgasbord,” says HFPA veep Mike Goodridge, but the separation of categories for leading actors allows the celebration of work that might otherwise go unrecognized.

“Look at Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman,” says Goodridge, pointing to two actors nommed in comedy-acting categories. “(That picture) is unlikely to go to the Oscars, but it’s a sweet comedy, and we’re recognizing them for playing light.”

James Franco was kind of a surprise,” Goodridge adds. “That’s the kind of performance nobody would normally think of in awards terms, but that’s why these categories work — the Globes broadens the scope and recognizes all different types of films.”

Barry Dale Johnson, an awards consultant at ID, a Hollywood PR firm, echoes that view. “I think it’s probably welcomed by actors,” he says, “and I think it’s nice to see comedy and musicals rewarded in this fashion. It allows a bigger range of films to be honored.”

Still, there’s no denying the weirdness of pitting a sunny musical like “Mamma Mia!” against the pitch-black “In Bruges.”

“Hey, at least it’s not musical, comedy and tragedy,” jokes Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern. “And I wouldn’t call ‘In Bruges’ a comedy; it’s a comic-drama.”

But maybe that’s missing the point. “I think what ultimately matters is whether a film is good,” Johnson maintains. “What category something falls into has nothing to do with whether it’s a quality movie or not. I almost feel like it marginalizes a film to have to cram it into a certain category.”

Traditionally, the HFPA’s noms have highlighted the differences between the comic sensibilities of American filmgoers and those of the foreign press. That’s why exuberant pics like “Pineapple Express” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” were not tapped for contention this year, as opposed to darker films like “In Bruges” and “Burn After Reading” along with an off-kilter work like Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

“You can sense a difference in sensibilities,” confirms Camara. “But as you can see this year, James Franco was nominated for ‘Pineapple Express’ and also Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise from ‘Tropic Thunder.’ So maybe our sensibilities are becoming Americanized — though I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

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