Here's a modest proposal for the Golden Globe Awards telecast Sunday night: Make the presenters wear tragic masks when reading the nominations in the drama categories and comic masks when reading the nominations in the musical/comedy categories. That way we'll have a better chance of keeping the knuckleheaded division straight this year.

How else are we to remember that "Inside Llewyn Davis," a somewhat downbeat picaresque adventure from the Coen brothers, is competing as a comedy, while "Philomena," a real-life morality tale masquerading as a chuckling odd couple comedy, is contending as a drama?

Or that Meryl Streep's lead actress nomination for "August: Osage County," the screen version of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, is in comedy, no matter that the work owes as much to Eugene O'Neill as it does to Edward Albee, or that Julia Roberts' nomination for supporting actress in the film doesn't get classified as comedy or drama. (Second bananas, whether grinning or frowning, are thrown together pell-mell.)

Golden Globes nominations 2014: Nominee reactions

And what's this? Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" isn't an assaultive exposé of financial industry Ponzi schemers but a riotous comedy of manners. Think Preston Sturges, with unlimited cocaine and a busload of hookers.

In trying to maintain the pretense that comedy and drama are readily distinguishable, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the august body behind the Golden Globes, is clearly trying to cast itself as ultra-traditionalist.

A neoclassical tradition, as it turns out.

In 17th century France, it was considered anathema to mix genres. Tragedy was elevated and grave. Comedy was familiar and drolly instructive. A breach of aesthetic decorum could provoke more than bad press — it could incite a national uproar.

Of course it's silly to compare the French Academy with the Hollywood Foreign Press. One was fixated on the Classical unities, the other is rumored to be obsessed with the quality of the catering sent over from Harvey Weinstein's office.

Still, there's something willfully quaint about the Globes' system, a throwback to a time before Chekhov made "laughing through tears" seem completely natural onstage. The 20th century may have enshrined tragicomedy as the quintessential mode of modern drama — Pirandello, Beckett, Pinter, Albee, Mamet and Shepard are all masters of the form — but for the Hollywood Foreign Press the last century is best captured in the poles represented by "Schindler's List" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."

LIST: Golden Globe nominations 2014 | Buzzmeter

The logic behind the Golden Globe categories is dictated by Hollywood. These awards are meant to spread the promotional love around. The studios choose the categories for submission, though by a process more opaque than any utilized by that tightest of tight ships, the Obama White House, films can be reclassified.

"American Hustle" was reported by Bloomberg.com to have been submitted as a drama, but was reassigned to the comedy categories by the Globes nominating panel. With "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" the favorites for motion picture, drama, the switch to comedy might have initially seemed to be doing "America Hustle" a favor. In years past, the comedy/musical category was a way to give love to movies that typically receive little from the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes' much more respectable older brother. Oscar, after all, has little time for "Mamma Mia!" and its harebrained ilk.

Yet the fierce competition in this year's comedy category is no laughing matter. "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Her" and "Nebraska" all have their champions, while "The Wolf of Wall Street" has topicality along with a legendary director and a superstar (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose absence from the red carpet would be a blight on the Globes' glittery reputation.

"American Hustle" might still be the favorite of this group, but Earth wouldn't have spun off its axis were the movie squaring off against "Philomena," "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave" and "Nebraska," to mix and match best picture categories. I don't know about you but I wouldn't have cried foul if Cate Blanchett's brilliant performance in Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" was the front-runner in the lead actress category for comedy rather than drama.

Golden Globes nominations 2014: Snubs and surprises

Artists aren't making clear-cut distinctions, so why are the Golden Globes?

In affixing the comedy label to both "The Seagull," which ends in suicide, and "The Cherry Orchard," which ends in the dispossession of a family from its ancestral estate, Chekhov forever disrupted the hierarchy of genres.

Indeed, as any undergraduate English major could explain, comedy can be every bit as serious as drama. It's hard to imagine anyone arguing that Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," designated as a "drama," is more substantive than "The Cherry Orchard." Both works are suffused with pathos; both works derive strength from laughter. And what would the Globes nominating committee make of "Uncle Vanya," mysteriously subtitled "Scenes From Country Life"? A coin flip would have to decide where to place the work.

It might seem odd to be talking about a Russian playwright from more than a century ago in the context of 21st century movie trophies, but was there not a Chekhovian blend of sorrow and levity in "Philomena," "Her," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Blue Jasmine"? "August: Osage County" might best be described as a tragic farce, a curious hybrid with a pedigree that stretches at least as far back as the Elizabethan drama of Christopher Marlowe.

FULL COVERAGE: Golden Globe nominations 2014

Yes, this seems to be old news for everyone but the Hollywood Foreign Press, which could use a course in Shakespeare, the master of "mirth in funeral" and "dirge in marriage."

What's that you say? The Golden Globes aren't about excellence but publicity? That it's all just an excuse for a moneymaking party. That artistic philosophy has nothing to do with it.

Sure, but even if it's all just a show, an elaborate marketing ruse, why not get with the times? There is no objective "best" when dealing with works of imagination, but that's no reason to throw out common sense when honoring some of the year's most memorable (and impossible to pigeonhole) movies.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

twitter@charlesmcnulty