In the war of movies about heroic CIA operatives fighting Islamic bad guys in Western Asia, the nicer one took the big prizes at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s 70th Golden Globe Awards. Argo, a light fictionalizing of the fake-movie caper that the Agency’s Tony Mendez dreamed up to spirit U.S. hostages out of Tehran after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, took Best Film Drama and, for its star and helmer Ben Affleck, Best Director. Argo’s Oscar-nominated competitor, the bin Laden search thriller Zero Dark Thirty, won only for its leading Actress, Jessica Chastain. The third big docudrama of the awards season, Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln, made do with a Best Dramatic Actor statuette for Daniel Day-Lewis.
In a peppy three-hour show that’s much more fun than the logorrheic ordeal of self-congratulation that is the Academy Awards ceremony (coming Feb. 24), hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and their celebrity pals handed out 14 citations to movies and 11 to TV shows. As Poehler noted, “Only at the Golden Globes do the beautiful people of film rub shoulders with the rat-faced people of television.” (James Poniewozik will comment on the TV awards, the majority of which went to Homeland, Girls and Game Change.) Having cannily split movies into Drama and Comedy or Musical, and thus doubling the actors’ awards and the stars in the room, the HFPA honored Les Misérables as Best Amusing or Singing Thing (over Silver Linings Playbook), with the movie’s Hugh Jackman winning Actor in that category, and Anne Hathaway taking Supporting Actress.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a fancy name for a group of 87 mostly freelance, often part-time scribes who, asserts Deadline Hollywood’s acerbic Nikki Finke, “won’t grant membership to the real foreign journalists at the prestige media outlets across the world. … And even though the entire entertainment industry ridicules the awards, it props them up because they’re a useful marketing tool for the studios and networks.” Exactly: the HFPA long ago realized that the way to get celebrities to sit for interviews was to throw an annual televised party that gives face time to stars promoting their Oscar-hopeful movies. The days when the HFPA members would be more likely to valet-park a star’s car than interview him are probably past — a few of them even write reviews — but the Golden Globe ceremony still has the odd éclat of a lavish party thrown for Hollywood royalty by the help.
Well-paid help, mind you: NBC kicks in a reported $30 million for broadcast rights. And as they deliberate on their ballots, the members are not averse to accepting junkets to Las Vegas or banquets in Los Angeles. A New York Times story Saturday noted that a rich spread of Italian food at the HFPA home office in West Hollywood bore the sign: “Lunch courtesy of Harvey Weinstein.” (Finke: “The Weinstein Company led with 15 nominations [this year] because Harvey really knows how to schmooze these moochers.”) If there’s some shock value to the Times item, it’s not that Weinstein would send over tubs of pasta but that the HFPA would leave the benefactor’s sign in the plain view of a genuine journalist.
(READ: All about the Golden Globe nominations)
Think of the relation of the HFPA to Hollywood as that of a curbside hooker to a $1,000-an-hour call girl. The movie establishment is in the business of flesh- and influence-peddling, and the Golden Globes festivities prove it doesn’t mind taking pearls from swine, provided the evening includes jokes about the sponsor’s illegitimate provenance. This year’s hosts did their bit. As Poehler explained: “When left untreated, HFPA can lead to cervical cancer…” “She’s kidding,” added Fey. “There is no known cure for the Hollywood Foreign Press.”
(READ: James Poniewozik on Amy Poehler’s Parks and Recreation)
In a sharp, A-minus opening duologue, Fey referred to Quentin Tarantino (whose Django Unchained took Best Screenplay, plus Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz) as “the star of all my sexual nightmares.” And in saluting director Kathryn Bigelow, Poehler said, “I haven’t really been following the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty, but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.” It’s whispered that Bigelow won the Academy’s Best Director award three years ago for The Hurt Locker was that official Hollywood just couldn’t stand Cameron. (We heard that from a cater-waiter at a Beverly Hills party — or was it an HFPA member on his day job?)
(READ: Corliss’s review of Django Unchained)
This year’s show had its own share of Best Drama or Comedy moments. Jodie Foster, who received the Cecil B. De Mille life-achievement award as she turned 50, was stately, sharp and poignant as she stuck one toe out of the closet by declaring herself “single” and thanked both her ex-partner and her ailing mother, suffering from dementia. Other actresses, including Hathaway and Chastain, emphasized the hard slog and self-doubt in the acting trade. But some were there just to have a good time. “I can say I beat Meryl!” exclaimed Jennifer Lawrence of her Best Actress award for Silver Linings over Streep in Hope Springs. (Streep, expected to give if not receive a Golden Globe, was absent last night. “She has the flu,” Poehler observed. “And I hear she’s amazing in it.”) To Harvey Weinstein, Lawrence said, “Thank you for killing whoever you had to kill to get me up here today.” It’s always possible she was kidding.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Silver Linings Playbook)
Adele, the Brit pop stylist who won for Best Song (“Skyfall” from Skyfall), insisted she came just to have fun with a girl-mate: “We been pissin’ ourselves laughin.'” The dour Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, whose Amour won Best Foreign-Language Film, is known as a joke-cracker only on his (bogus) Twitter account. Yet he was able to appreciate the irony of being handed his statuette from Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying, “I never thought to get an award in Hollywood from an Austrian.”
(FIND: Amour atop TIME’s “Top 10 Best” Movies of 2012)
As tough as it is reading the minds of a group with so few brains, it’s harder still figuring what impact the Golden Globe choices may have on Oscar voters as they mull their selections in the next few weeks. There is no overlap between the Academy and the HFPA, either in membership or esteem, so the victory for Argo may mean as little here as they did Thursday night when Affleck’s film took the Critics’ Choice Awards; these two snubs may be only speed bumps for the Lincoln Express. Waltz’s Globe, over Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, could spur Academy voters to give another think to his pearly performance. Chastain and Lawrence were already co-frontrunners for the Actress Oscar, and they remain the favorites.
(READ: TIME’s take on Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master)
Hollywood is a company town, even if populated by zillionaires, and its employees value recognition from within the factory (the Academy Awards) more than compliments from mere passers-by (the HFPA). Thus the Oscar will always be a trophy-case treasure, and the Golden Globe a doorstop. But for one night, at least, the makers of Argo and Les Misérables can take pleasure in having won stuff in a ballroom filled with their peers, and on the most sufferable movie-awards show on TV.