A cynic's guide to the Golden Globes

Published January 14, 2005

What is the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and why are people saying such terrible things about it?

The answers are: Its members are not whom you may expect, and for plenty of good reasons.

The association's Web site (www.hfpa.org) lists 96 members who vote for the Golden Globes, also known as the HFPA's annual reason to exist. Only about one-third of them are full-time film journalists. None represent Africa, and few are people of color. All are published in overseas newspapers and magazines. Only one name on the list - United Kingdom representative Emanuel Levy, who also writes for Variety - might be recognizable to U.S. moviegoers.

The rest of the list is occasionally amusing for odd combinations of names and outlets: Jack Tewksbury writes for French readers, Ali Sar's audience is Russian, Ron Krueger's film expertise is sought by cinephiles in Japan, and Ray Arco's influence spreads to China, Romania and Singapore. As do all HFPA members, they reside in Southern California, many of them tapping out just enough stories to keep their membership active.

Why not? HFPA members have better access to celebrity interviews and star-studded events than most U.S. journalists. Practically everything is free, from airfare and hotel rooms to souvenirs, while most major U.S. publications, including the St. Petersburg Times, pay their own expenses to similar events to avoid conflicts of interest. A documentary broadcast on Trio titled The Golden Globes: Hollywood's Dirty Little Secret, detailed these favors and the relative obscurity of HFPA members, who sometimes gain their memberships through nepotism and keep scrapbooks of celebrity encounters.

At least twice, the buying of Golden Globes awards has publicly cast the HFPA in a bad light. Scent of a Woman was named 1992's best drama after Universal Pictures treated members to a weekend in Paris where they schmoozed with eventual best actor Al Pacino, usually a tough guy for reporters to reach. The most notorious scandal was presenting Pia Zadora - one of the worst actors ever - with a best newcomer award over nominees such as Kathleen Turner, Howard Rollins and Elizabeth McGovern.

Turns out that Zadora's billionaire husband, Meshulam Riklis, feted HFPA members at one of his luxurious hotels while their ballots were still blank. That scandal cost the Golden Globes its television contract with CBS. The show was banished to UHF stations for 14 years until NBC noticed the public's growing fascination with award shows.

The Golden Globes are a fascinating dynamic of greed and ambition. Studios love them since it's one more award to hype in movie ads anywhere, and because overseas markets are so profitable. Getting publicity in Chile, Korea or Yugoslavia pays off. Nominees and winners have something else to use in contract negotiations, resumes and obituaries. NBC loves getting ratings, and gathering dozens of celebrities in one place does it. Feeding on the bottom, the HFPA gains a year of credibility in a single night. The next day, the freebies start rolling in again.

Positioned after most critics groups announce their picks for the year's best filmmaking achievements, and before final balloting for the Academy Awards, the HFPA fancies itself as a fine-tuner of opinion; not first, not last, but reserving the right to crib from the past to influence the future everyone will remember.

Sometimes, it backfires. Two years ago was supposed to be Martin Scorsese's year to finally win a best director Oscar. HFPA members read the tea leaves dropped by critics and decided to beat the academy to the punch, voting its directing prize to Scorsese for Gangs of New York, a film that hindsight informs us wasn't as special as some critics (including me) originally thought. If the Oscars honored Scorsese, HFPA members could sit back and say, "We told you so."

But that didn't happen. Oscar voters chose Roman Polanski for The Pianist, making a bigger splash for honoring a refugee from U.S. justice than merely seconding the Globes' choice. Gangs of New York lost in all 10 categories for which it was nominated. One whispered reason for the backlash was the Globes' support. Nobody tells the academy what to do.

So what happens Sunday night when Scorsese is again nominated (for The Aviator) and the general consensus (again) is that he'll finally win an Oscar? Golden Globes voters are practically forced to honor him, to prove they had the right idea about Scorsese two years ago, and to revive that "told you so" potential this year.

A suspicious consolation for Scorsese's closest competitor, Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), seems to have emerged: He's also nominated for composing the film's musical score, and his 16-year-old daughter Kathryn is this year's Miss Golden Globe, handing statuettes to the winners onstage. Eastwood can't grouse about losing to Scorsese.

Sorry if all this sounds cynical, but the Globes' history leaves no other choice.

Despite Scorsese's win, The Aviator won't be selected as best dramatic film. Miramax Films' Harvey Weinstein throws better parties than Scorsese's producers, so voters will likely choose Finding Neverland, which also has that foreign-film feel the foreign press prefers.

For that reason, Imelda Staunton will be named best dramatic actress for Vera Drake, while Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) deserves it. Oh, and once Globe members love you, nominations are practically annual, explaining how Nicole Kidman (Birth) and last year's double nominee Scarlett Johansson (A Love Song for Bobby Long) made the finalist list.

Now you probably think I'll predict Spanish actor Javier Bardem to win best dramatic actor for The Sea Inside. It's possible, but we must consider the HFPA's equal devotion to schmoozing. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) probably made a lot of "friends" when he hosted the association's annual installment dinner. Sign a few autographs, pose for a few photos and the votes will come. He's my pick.

In the musical-comedy categories, the winners according to Golden Globe tradition will be Sideways (a movie about booze), Annette Bening for Being Julia (maybe she'll bring Warren Beatty!), and Jamie Foxx for Ray, because he's the flavor of the month.

As you might expect, the foreign-market reporters usually do a good job of selecting the best foreign-language films, and they like tossing out a surprise to make Oscar voters scramble. Most of the awards season momentum is with The Motorcycle Diaries and A Very Long Engagement. The Globes will choose The Sea Inside as consolation - they're so diplomatic about these things - for not picking Bardem as best dramatic actor.

Supporting, screenplay and musical nominees are bipartisan, with dramatic and musical-comedy performers lumped together. The supporting actress race appears to be close between Cate Blanchett's impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator and Natalie Portman's impersonation of a sexpot in Closer. I'll guess that Globe voters realize they can't give everything except best dramatic film honors to The Aviator, while indulging their penchant for lovely starlets, in a movie they gave five nominations (boy, that must have been quite a publicity junket). Portman's the pick.

The same consolation mentality makes Morgan Freeman the best supporting actor. Plus, it's a way to fend off complaints that subtitled actors (or in Staunton's case, those who should be) have advantages. Freeman deserves it more than the other nominees, so the HFPA will stumble into doing the right thing.

The screenplay award will go to Sideways writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor for reasons similar to Scorsese's situation. The Globes honored their script for About Schmidt in 2002 that the Oscars didn't even nominate. Now Payne and Taylor are front-runners for an adapted screenplay Academy Award, and the HFPA wants to be on the bandwagon first.

The best original musical score prize will go to Jan A.P. Kaczmarek for Finding Neverland because a best film winner (thanks again, Harvey!) should take home more than one statuette. And I have a sneaking suspicion that voters picked the annoying song Old Habits Die Hard from Alfie as the year's best, figuring that Mick Jagger might show up to perform it. But I'll go with Learn to Be Lonely from The Phantom of the Opera because, hey, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote it, and how many times do you get a chance to meet him?

Sunday's program also includes 11 awards for television achievements that work on the same HFPA principles. I'll leave those predictions to others because my regular television habits are pretty much sports, news and Survivor. I didn't see most of the nominees. Hey, maybe with a valid passport I can become a Golden Globes voter.