Oh my head hurts trying to figure out the race for best drama actor at the Globes. Sure, it looks, at first glance, like a lavender tossup: take your pick between gay roles played by, to use hipster's written slang, "str8" chaps Heath Ledger ("Brokeback Mountain") and Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"). Let's get to that discussion in a moment. Meantime, the presence of Terrence Howard ("Hustle & Flow") makes me reach for Advil.
Because Howard has a real — albeit modest — chance of winning. There's nothing Globe voters love more than hailing the Hot New Star during his or her "moment." It's their job. Voters, after all, are foreign journos who are intensely searching for breaking news and trends to trumpet in their publications back in Oslo, Cairo and Buenos Aires. They like African Americans (Denzel Washington won best drama actor for "The Hurricane") and art-house actors. Let's recall, for example, that the star of the arty film "Shine," Geoffrey Rush, beat Ralph Fiennes for best drama actor of 1996 even though Fiennes appeared in best picture winner "The English Patient" and was considered a red-hot property after breaking out big time three years earlier in "Schindler's List." But there was so much new buzz surrounding Rush in 1996 that it seemed to be his moment, so he won. Thus the question now: What about Howard?
HFPA members have witnessed his ascendancy up close. Howard was not among the cast members sent by producers to chat with voters when "Crash" held its HFPA press conference early this year. "He wasn't yet Terrence Howard, if you know what I mean," notes an inside source.
Photo: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine believes Heath Ledger is riding high in the best actor saddle at the Globes, but beware: There might be an ambush on awards night.
However, that changed later in 2005 as Howard wowed film critics with dynamic performances in several additional movies: "Hustle & Flow," "Four Brothers" and "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." HFPA press conferences were held for "Hustle" and "Rich" and suddenly Howard was not only front and center, he was also welcomed warmly.
But Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine — one of the most canny Golden Globe seers in the universe — notes that Howard may be losing his buzz as the year's most gushed-over rookie. "I was shocked at the Gotham Awards when Terrence lost the award for best breakthrough performer to Amy Adams," he says. "That may be telling us something or it may just mean that Gotham voters didn't see the movie. Have the Globe voters really watched 'Hustle & Flow'? A lot of people haven't."
Travers insists that a different Globe contender is the front-runner in this race for best drama actor: "Heath has all the heat."
Yes, Ledger is having his own moment right now, too, and he stars in the Globes' best picture front-runner, "Brokeback Mountain." Even though that actor-picture hook failed to pay off for Fiennes, it often prevails, as can be observed in past linked victories for Tom Hanks and "Forest Gump," Russell Crowe and "A Beautiful Mind," and Leonardo Di Caprio and "The Aviator," among others. In addition, Ledger has a studly quality that has currency at the Globes, if not at the Oscars where pretty boys are often slapped. (Tom Cruise has three Globes, but still hasn't won an Oscar. Paul Newman didn't win an Academy Award until he in his sixties and had suffered seven defeats.) It helps too that Ledger has "Casanova" in current release. Being a comedy, it underscores his artistic range.
While Ledger may appear to be the front-runner, Philip Seymour Hoffman could surpass him easily. Hoffman's performance is based upon a real person — that's always a strong plus — and he nails every nuance of Truman Capote's eccentric manner and haunted soul. Hoffman and his movie have artsy snob appeal too. One of the chief reasons Rush probably beat Fiennes was because his role as a concert pianist had so much snob appeal to voters always straining to prove that the Globes are legit in a highfalutin sense. They don't just slobber over pretty superstars. Often they give prizes to frumpier thespians like Brenda Blethyn ("Secrets and Lies," 1996) over Kristin Scott Thomas ("The English Patient"), Emily Watson ("Breaking the Waves") and Meryl Streep ("Marvin's Room").
Recently, Satellite Awards voters may have tipped us off that their Globe counterparts plan to pick Hoffman. The splinter group that broke off from the HFPA in 1996 just named him best actor over Ledger. Last year their awards predicted all four lead acting categories correctly at the Globes, but, granted, that rarely happens. It's certainly not going to happen this year because the Satellites put Terrence Howard in the race for musical/comedy actors, which he won. Howard's award reps had asked HFPA to put him in the equivalent race at the Globes, but the eligibility committee disagreed.
While the Globes and Satellites are decided by foreign journalists residing in L.A., it may be of interest to note how Yankee journos voted for the awards bestowed by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.: Hoffman won by a landslide. Out east two days later, the New York Film Critics Circle dealt Hoffman a loss — best actor went to Heath Ledger by a slim margin of 35 to 33.
Nonetheless, Travers believes that Ledger will triumph at the Globes on Jan. 16 because of one key advantage: likeability.
"Hoffman's role isn't sympathetic," he observes. "As Capote, he pretends to be the killers' friend while he wishes that authorities would hurry up and hang them so his book can be published. Meantime, he lies to Perry Smith about not having a title for the book. But it's impossible not to feel sympathy for Heath Ledger in 'Brokeback.' Heath can't express his feelings, but you see them all pent up inside him. You ache for him."
Despite giving Ledger such a strong endorsement as an award front-runner, Travers doesn't really believe that he's outdistanced Hoffman as a performer.
"To me, Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance is not just the best piece of acting I've seen this year, but it's one of the best I've seen in five years," he adds. "That said, my vote doesn't count at the Globes. In their case, I just happen to think they're going to be more impressed by what Heath Ledger did without words. His performance is all in his eyes."
So what do you think, dear reader? Would you like some of my Advil?