Tears, laughs all in a year's work for contenders

While James Franco was brooding and winning a Golden Globe for the TV telepic “James Dean” and fighting superheroes in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise, the actor says he longed for the escape of a comedy.

Soon enough, producer Judd Apatow approached Franco to star alongside Seth Rogen in David Gordon Green’s “Pineapple Express.” After years of playing ultraserious characters, the actor had finally found an opportunity to let his hair down.

“I didn’t get offered a ton of comedies, and the ones I did get offered were more like romantic comedies. That wasn’t really my thing,” Franco says from San Francisco, just before the world premiere of Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” “So when Judd said he wanted to do something together, it was kind of a relief.”

With roles in both Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic and Green’s stoner comedy, Franco is one of just a handful of thesps straddling the line between drama and comedy this year. Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Burn After Reading”), Meryl Streep (“Doubt,” “Mamma Mia!”), Emma Thompson (“Brideshead Revisited,” “Last Chance Harvey”) and Greg Kinnear (“Flash of Genius,” “Ghost Town”) are a few examples.

Some turn to laughs as a respite from drama burnout, others as a way to expand their creative faculties. Whatever the reason, the result tends to be awards attention.

In some instances, an actor will be fortunate enough to find both portrayals in the Oscar lineup. Sigourney Weaver managed that feat in 1988 with her work in the Dian Fossey biopic “Gorillas in the Mist” and the Mike Nichols comedy “Working Girl.” More often than not, the comedic performance is relegated to the supporting category.

Dave Karger, Entertainment Weekly’s resident awards aficionado, says that strategy tends to level the playing field for others in the comedy category.

“You look at Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) or Kevin Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”), they both won in supporting categories,” he says. “That helps someone like Penelope Cruz, for instance.”

With roles in Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and Isabel Coixet’s Philip Roth adaptation “Elegy,” Cruz is another performer playing both sides of the fence this season. Some Oscar forecasters say her firecracker portrayal in the Allen pic is her best chance for a nomination.

“As soon as she entered ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ she jolted the movie up to that level of awards potential,” Karger says. “Anyone who sees ‘Elegy’ will be even more impressed by her performance in ‘Vicky.’ I think having two roles of different stripes in the same year can only be a good thing.”

But Cruz doesn’t see comedy as an oasis. She’s adamant that such roles can be as challenging as drama.

“I don’t think comedy is lighter, and I don’t think it’s easier,” she says, calling from London and the production of Rob Marshall’s “8½” remake “Nine.” “I think the timing of comedy is tricky. You have to be so precise, and you have to be aware of that timing.”

Actress Taraji Henson moved from the lighthearted sentimentality of Tyler Perry’s “The Family That Preys” to the dramatic stylings of David Fincher’s F. Scott Fitzgerald adaptation “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” this year. She says comedy is her strongest attribute.

Henson often adds a light touch to her characters, even though they may be part of a more dramatic film.

“If the movie hasn’t been labeled a comedy, then people don’t consider me a comedic actress,” she says, referring to her supporting comic relief turns in “Hustle and Flow” and “Talk to Me.” “I always try to find a place where the character can smile or laugh or even laugh at herself. It allows me to add another layer and lighten the heavy roles.”

All things being equal, Karger concedes that dramatic performances tend to win out with Oscar. But there are exceptions: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work in “Charlie Wilson’s War” finding room in 2007, for instance, when the drama of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” or the dramedy of “The Savages” did not. In most cases, though, the acting branch tends to shy away from rewarding comedic portrayals over dramatic ones.

“I think some of that might have to do with the fact that, historically, the Academy has been an older voting body,” Karger says, “but you can point to examples in the past few years of that changing. With the Academy getting younger and hipper each year, I think that will open the doors for these roles.”

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