Comedy actor, supporting actor noms are good for laughs
There was tittering in the Beverly Hilton ballroom early Thursday morning as Brooke Shields announced the Golden Globes nominees for actor in a comedy or musical. James Franco, she intoned, and there came those giggles. Co-announcer Elizabeth Banks then revealed Tom Cruise as a supporting actor nominee and out burst the laughter again.

The two roles -- Franco as a loopy drug dealer in the stoner comedy "Pineapple Express" and Cruise's hip-jiggling turn as a profane studio chief in "Tropic Thunder" -- coupled with Robert Downey Jr.'s "Thunder" nomination for his work as an obsessive Australian actor who undergoes "pigment augmentation" to look black, added an unexpected twist to the Globes nominations.

Was the crowd laughing because they remembered the laugh-inducing performances fondly? Or was it a reaction to the out-of-left-field honors bestowed upon gross-out comedy roles at the expense of such heavyweight performances as Michael Shannon's supporting turn in "Revolutionary Road"? Or was it simply a move by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to add Cruise-style star power to its annual January bash, particularly after the debacle of last year when the writers strike turned its award event into a dreary news conference?

James Franco, contacted in New York where he attends New York University's film school, sounded amused and chipper by the morning's unexpected hoopla, particularly because he had stayed up late the night before sound mixing a short film for school. "I was a little surprised," he kept saying. "In some ways, the Golden Globes are better than the Oscars in that they have a comedy category. Over the past 70 years, a lot of comedic performances have been passed over by the Oscars."

Franco, who was nominated previously for his TV performance as James Dean, added, "I always saw this movie as something bigger than a formulaic stoner comedy. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen are really doing fresh things."

These nominations represent a rare recognition by the Golden Globes of that Apatow brand of ribald comedy that plays well in the U.S. but less so elsewhere. ("Pineapple Express" earned $87 million domestically and a mere $13 million internationally. "Tropic Thunder" took in about $30 million less worldwide than it did domestically.) For many journalists in the HFPA, English is not even their first language, and the group has traditionally honored more tony European-flavored comedies like "Shakespeare in Love" or this year's "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

The nominations also offer an ironic coda to this summer's "Tropic Thunder" phenomenon. Paramount Pictures ran an award campaign for the film, which pointedly satirizes Oscar lust. Cruise has won the Globe three times -- for "Magnolia," "Jerry Maguire" and "Born on the Fourth of July," while Downey has taken home the statuette for his turn on TV's "Ally McBeal" and as part of the ensemble of "Short Cuts."

Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com