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What's The Deal With The 'Musical Or Comedy' Category At The Golden Globes?

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in 'La La Land,' the frontrunner for the Golden Globe for Best Picture — Musical or Comedy. (Photo by Dale Robinette/Courtesy of Lionsgate)
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It is often said that "comedy is tragedy plus time." The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, however, employs their own definition when categorizing films up for awards consideration.

Last April, HFPA, the organization that hands out the Golden Globes, attempted to tighten the restrictions on what films could be eligible in the category of "Musical or Comedy." The rules now state:

Motion pictures shall be entered in the category that best matches the overall tone and content of the motion picture. Thus, for example, dramas with comedic overtones should be entered as dramas.

Most of this year's nominees fit this category without argument. Sing Street and frontrunner La La Land are musicals through and through, biopic Florence Foster Jenkins takes a farcical tone towards its musical subject, and Deadpool is a sarcastic superhero film that pokes fun at its own milieu. But Mike Mills' 20th Century Women is the black sheep of the bunch, even though it certainly has a lighter tone than typical prestige fare. But, frankly, the fact that it's an independent film that's not a frontrunner means no one is raising any objection to its nomination.

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Why did this tightening of the rules even come about in the first place? This came in the wake of the controversy surrounding last year's nomination (and eventual crowning) of Ridley Scott's sci-fi film The Martian in the category of "Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy." While most would agree it's a good film (it has a 92 on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic), what left most people scratching their heads was how it even landed in the category in the first place.

To be fair it does have a fairly amusing joke that uses disco as the punchline. Both categories covered!

"When you watch the movie with audiences, they laugh a lot," Martian producer Simon Kinberg told The Hollywood Reporter. "Between drama and comedy, there's always a unique tone, so with some drama, some comedy, we ended up picking it to go in the comedy category."

Of course this move was all for a trophy during Hollywood's awards season, so practically everything should be assumed to be a cynical ploy to improve a film's chances for an Oscar. Up against the lighter fare that's typically in the "Comedy or Musical" category, The Martian had a better chance to take home the trophy. While the gambit paid off, it ultimately won none of the seven Academy Awards it was nominated for.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in 'An American In Paris,' the first winner of Best Picture — Musical or Comedy.
Even as the second-most prestigious award in Hollywood, the Golden Globes are still a far cry from the stature of the Oscars and thus have had more room to play with its format. The Globes started this in 1946 when they awarded a trophy for "Best Film Promoting International Understanding" (which they gave until 1964) and followed that up the next year with the "New Star Of Year" award for both actors and actress (handed out until 1983).

The most lasting of their awards category changes came during the 9th Golden Globe Awards in 1952, when they first handed out the award for Best Picture — Comedy or Musical, "so that no genre would be slighted." It was a win-win for everyone: the Globes could pad out their ceremony and the studios could promote even more films as "Best Picture" nominees or winners. In more recent years, the HFPA has used its presence to pat themselves on the back by proclaiming the category "keeps a genre alive."

What's typically considered a musical or comedy typically leans towards lighter, less-prestigious fare not normally thought of as the typical Oscar bait. As a result, every year there's one or two films nominated in the category that the Academy wouldn't even be caught dead merely mentioning during the Oscar ceremony. Just to name a few: Crocodile Dundee (1986), Home Alone (1990), Love Actually (2003), and one of the more recent controversial picks, the box office flop and critical dud, The Tourist (2010). (HFPA members were said to have been "bribed" by a Cher concert for that last nomination.)

But this isn't to say there's no overlap between the "Musical or Comedy" distinction and Oscar prestige. Don't forget that until mid-1960s, the musical reigned supreme in Hollywood. Through the decades, a dozen of the Best Musical or Comedy winners would go on to take the Academy's top trophy. This goes all the way back to the category's origin when An American In Paris won both prizes in 1952, and as recently as 2011 when the silent film throwback The Artist did the same. With Goldderby giving La La Land over 93% odds to win the trophy tonight and the best odds next month at the Oscars, history will probably repeat itself.

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The 74th annual Golden Globes air tonight at on NBC at 5 PST/8 EST.