The Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes — the least reputable and most avidly watched pre-Oscar awards show — validated critical opinion last night by handing out prizes to the perceived leaders in many Academy Award categories. The Social Network won for Best Picture (Drama), Director, Screenwriter and Original Score. Colin Firth was named Best Actor for The King’s Speech and Natalie Portman Best Actress for Black Swan. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo took the supporting-actor statuettes for their performances in The Fighter. Pixar’s Toy Story 3 was the preferred animated feature. All are expected to duplicate their awards during the Feb. 27 Oscar ceremony.
In categories that exist only to get more celebrities to go to their party, the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) chose Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) and Paul Giamatti (Barney’s Version) as the best actors in a comedy or musical. The Kids Are All Right also won in that hybrid classification, although it’s neither a musical nor, arguably, a comedy. The HFPA also gives citations in 11 TV categories, eight of them for actors, and there the big winner was Glee, with three wins.
Cannily programmed to honor twice as many film actors as the Oscars, while ignoring less sexy awards like those for cinematography and documentaries, the Globes is essentially an all-star TV fashion show — hosted for the past two years by the impish Brit comic Ricky Gervais — with take-home gifts for members of the renowned studio audience. It’s like Oprah for the glitterati. And if the occasional citation goes to an outsider movie (say, the Danish In a Better World for foreign-language film) or a miniseries (Olivier Assayas’ French TV production Carlos) … well, the presenters are foreign. Also mysterious, and maybe shady.
The provenance of the HFPA is highly suspect: a few actual critics among a flotilla of hangers-on, some of whom may be actual journalists, but nearly all of whom make their living interviewing movie and TV stars for newspapers and magazines that have no U.S. cachet. Recently the HFPA was sued by its former publicist, who alleged that the group had taken lavish gifts from studios in exchange for nominations. Before short-listing the roundly panned Burlesque, the members were flown from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to catch Cher’s show. And how to explain the nominations for the stars of the widely reviled The Tourist? Gervais had an answer for that one: “I’d like to quash this ridiculous rumor going round that the only reason it was nominated was so the Hollywood Foreign Press could hang out with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. That is rubbish. That is not the only reason. They also accepted bribes.”
That may have been a joke. But the HFPA has a great quid pro quo to get all-year access to the stars. Once a year it nominates many of them for door prizes on a TV show that is aired on a once major network (NBC) and timed to occur in the center of awards season, midway between the December citations of real film critics and next month’s Oscar show.
Now, there’s little resemblance between the HFPA and a venerable organization of full-time professional reviewers like the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), to which I belong, except that for the past two years both groups’ dinners have been hosted by acidulous comics — Gervais for the Golden Globes, Armond White for the NYFCC — whose stock-in-trade is insulting the honorees. According to one report, White’s derogatory comments about The Kids Are All Right at last Monday’s NYFCC awards dinner reduced Bening nearly to tears. Gervais lost much of his audience when he introduced recovering addict and current superstar Robert Downey Jr. by snarking that “The people in this room probably know him best from the Betty Ford clinic and Los Angeles County Jail.” Downey was up to the challenge: “Aside from the fact that it’s been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I’d say the vibe of the show has been pretty good so far, wouldn’t you?” Cheers from the crowd.
Last night’s prizes anointed the putative front-runners for the Oscars, but the Globes are not always an accurate predictor. As Deadline Hollywood’s Nikki Finke noted, only once in the past six years (with Slumdog Millionaire) has a Golden Globe Best Picture winner also taken the Academy’s Best Picture award. To this, Hollywood says, ‘Who cares?’ It’s a night for them to dress up, meet other famous people and promote their wares. For whatever the shoddy rep of the HFPA, it’s the most attention-getting movie show next to the Oscars. At the Academy Awards, the stars show up to be judged by their peers. For the Globes, to publicize their award-contending movies, they go to a party thrown by their stalkers.
This year’s do had the standard mix of comedy from surprising quarters — Lifetime Achievement laureate Robert De Niro genially mocking the HFPA members as illegal immigrants — and poignancy. Laura Linney received a TV Best Actress award for her role as a cancer survivor in The Big C, the day after her father, playwright Romulus Linney, died of lung cancer at 80. And Michael Douglas, recuperating from throat cancer, responded to his warm Globes reception with the quip, “There must be an easier way to get a standing ovation.”
Grace notes like these can ennoble any ceremony, no matter who the hosts are. But there must be a less sleazy venue for giving prizes to movie stars.