December 19, 2008 / 11:15 AM / 9 years ago

Golden Globe contenders a complicated bunch

<p>Michael Sheen in a scene from "Frost/Nixon".Universal Pictures</p>

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s decision to divvy up its Golden Globe nominations among a slew of pictures has made the task of predicting winners at the January 11 event all the harder. So where do the leading candidates stand?

Three movies tied for most nominations with five apiece: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon" and "Doubt." That would seem to make "Button" and "Frost/Nixon" the best bets for best picture (drama) ("Doubt" wasn't nominated) and hence the early front-runners for Academy Awards.

In fact, handicapping the Globes race is much more complicated.

"Button" is undoubtedly toward the top of the pack. It is a big, epic adventure of the sort Hollywood hardly ever pulls off anymore. (The HFPA deemed that another epic, "Australia," didn't pull it off at all, shutting it out of the nominations.) The fact that it also earned nominations for writing and directing is indicative of its strength across the board. An even louder signal comes from Brad Pitt's nomination for best actor (drama), as that category is widely viewed as the most competitive this year, and Pitt beat out such strong contenders as Michael Sheen ("Frost/Nixon"), Benicio Del Toro ("Che") and Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor").

That's the good news. On the negative side for "Button," awards season darling Cate Blanchett got spurned; the film's admirers have not been as fervent in their accolades as they have for some of the other contenders; and the HFPA has rarely been as swayed by the sheer scope of a movie as Oscar voters, many of whom come from the technical/crafts side that makes such scope possible.

So look to "Button" as a strong contender, but by no means a lock.

Another major player is a movie that didn't get any acting nominations, usually critical to awards success. "Slumdog Millionaire" is one off the lead in terms of its total nominations with four, but it is a much stronger best drama candidate than the numbers might indicate.

For one thing, it got nominated in the same two crucial areas as "Button": director and screenplay. Its fourth nomination, for its original score by Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman, is also telling. Since 1994, every movie that has taken home the best drama prize has also been nominated for original score. But most importantly, "Slumdog" earned nominations in pretty much every category in which it was a serious contender. That it received no acting nominations is hardly a surprise; few expected the movie's best-known actors, Dev Patel and Irfan Khan, to be recognized for their roles. So put down "Slumdog" as a leading rival.

What about the others?

"The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road" were the two biggest surprises among this year's best picture (drama) nominations, as neither has yet drawn the level of critical acclaim or audience enthusiasm that might be expected for films in the top categories. Also, both are emotionally difficult movies, which could hurt them in an era when HFPA members, just like everybody else, might be looking for something more positive. The fact that "Road" wasn't nominated in the screenplay category could also hint that its support is somewhat weaker.

On the plus side, each has a formidable force behind it: Both "Road" and "Reader" (along with "Doubt") were produced by the redoubtable Scott Rudin,one of the men behind last year's "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" -- though he took his name off "Reader" after a spat with executive producer Harvey Weinstein. And one of the story lines of this year's Globes is Weinstein's resurgence, with both "Reader" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" earning best picture noms.

Still, even with their big-name producers, insiders believe both "Road" and "Reader" are long shots for the top prize.

That leaves "Frost/Nixon" among the dramas. It, too, has a heavyweight producer backing it: Brian Grazer; it was made by a respected director, Ron Howard, who is about to celebrate his 50th year in the business; and it reteams writer Peter Morgan with actor Michael Sheen after their previous triumph, "The Queen." But despite rave reviews, the movie has not quite earned the buzz that "Queen" had in 2006-07, and it is uncertain whether Globes voters -- mostly foreign journalists working in the U.S. -- will connect emotionally to a story about Richard Nixon the same way Americans might.

In the best picture (comedy/musical) category, handicapping is even tougher. The lineup was predicted to be the weakest in years leading up to the nominations, the consensus being that the HFPA would be forced to include non-awards-type films such as Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder" and the Judd Apatow-produced "Pineapple Express."

Then the HFPA caught pundits by surprise, choosing a much more pedigreed group than anyone had anticipated. It did so by counting some pictures as comedies, even though their own backers regarded them as dramas (most notably "Happy-Go-Lucky"), and singling out one movie that hadn't even gotten an Oscar campaign: Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges."

"In Bruges'" selection may have left the folks at Focus Features scratching their heads after the HFPA shockingly neglected to nominate their acclaimed "Milk" in the best drama or director categories, but the snub has made the overall awards race much more exciting and hinted that this is one of the few years when the Globe winners could be real surprises.

But will "Bruges" win? A clue might normally lie in the screenwriting category, where the movie was not nominated. A writing nomination for comedy/music usually indicates a stronger endorsement than for some other contenders. But this year best comedy/musical nominees were shut out of the writing category, leaving none with a clear advantage.

The absence of a strong awards push and mixed critical response could also suggest that "Bruges" won't win. Then again, the movie earned not one but two lead actor (comedy/musical) nominations, for Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, indicating that it has some real fans inside the

HFPA.

But so does Woody Allen. And Allen secured acting nominations for three of his four lead cast members: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall (Scarlett Johannson missed out). That -- and the fact that the Weinstein Co. likely will ramp up its lobbying campaign -- might give "Vicky Cristina" an edge.

Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" drew raves for its star, Sally Hawkins, who seems the favorite to win lead actress (comedy/musical). But Leigh has never won a Globe, and many insiders regard "Happy" as less successful than some of his other films.

As for "Burn After Reading," another Focus film in contention, it generally has not been regarded as a strong awards contender, no matter how beloved the Coen brothers are by the HFPA.

The final film in the category, "Mamma Mia!" enters the race as the only musical and the highest-grossing film among the contenders in either best picture category (over $570 million worldwide and counting). But its reviews were not outstanding, and without that critical heft, its best chances may be if "Vicky," "Happy" and "Bruges" siphon votes from one another.

Though "Doubt" was overlooked for best picture, look for it to make a strong showing in the acting categories, as all four of its main cast members (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis) received nominations. But the film's chances to bring home three Globes might be undermined by having two supporting actress nominees, with the attendant danger that voters will be divided between Adams and Davis.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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