The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Golden Globes: The ultimate Hollywood fantasy

December 11, 2008 | 12:28 pm

GlobesIt's safe to say that if today's Hollywood is a gigantic industrial celebrity media complex, then the complex's ground zero is the Golden Globes awards. Staged by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (HFPA), a group of 85 or so obscure foreign journalists, the Globes have gone from a featherweight laughingstock--remember the halcyon days when producer Meshulam Riklis flew HFPA-types to Las Vegas right before they gave a "new female star of the year" award to his wife, Pia Zadora--to an industry heavyweight that garners front-page media coverage across the globe.

The latest Globes nominations, released this morning, are no exception. Everywhere you look, from our newspaper to the tiniest gossip website, everyone is poring over the nominations, assessing how they will impact the future of a host of movies, both in terms of award-season and box-office success. Give the HFPA credit--they have created an amazingly influential product, largely thanks to the ratings success of their Globes TV broadcast. Originally airing in the netherworld of cable TV, it moved to NBC in 1996, which is when the show took off, forcing the industry celebrity media complex to play along, with showbiz publicists and agents dragging their stars to the event, providing it with nearly all the glitz and glamour of the Oscars.

The dirty little secret inside the industry is that a night at the Globes is far more fun than the Oscars. It's a party, not a coronation, with drinks flowing and merrymaking encouraged. The other secret of the Globes broadcast's success is that it honors both TV and film performances, so you get twice the celebrity bang for your buck, essentially landing everyone from the Emmys and the Oscars all in one room. People in Hollywood tend to forget that for viewers at home, the mass appeal of the TV nominations dwarfs that of the tiny specialty-division movies that dominate the film side. The talent from "The Office" and "House" have far more name recognition and star power with Middle America than Sean Penn, Frank Langella or Kate Winslet.

The awards themselves are often preposterous, this year as much as ever. But now that the Globes is such a marketing bonanza for everybody, from the networks and studios to the showbiz press, everyone conveniently ignores the messy details and discrepancies. As veteran journalist Sharon Waxman, who has done the best work in exposing the often comical inner working of the HFPA, put it in an op-ed piece she did for our paper earlier this year: "There is every reason for the average viewer to presume the awards are important, prestigious and meaningful. But they're not. They're just a cash cow.... The fact is, the financial weight of the awards show creates intolerable pressure for HFPA members. There is constant worry that some misstep will put their prize in jeopardy--the money that pays for trips to film festivals for members, and the status that this year got them invited to drinks with George Clooney and tea with Keira Knightley."

The Oscar nominations are voted on by roughly 6,000 industry leaders, from below-the-line craft folk to stars to filmmakers. The Globes nominations are hatched by 85 foreign journalists, many of them little-known freelancers. I once asked a studio chief to name one member of the HFPA. "Come on," the executive said with a laugh. "That's like asking me to name a circuit judge in Alaska." But what the HFPA lacks in individual stature, it makes up for in group status. I was once on the set of a big Hollywood film that was noticeably behind schedule, but when a busload of HFPA members arrived for a visit with the stars of the movies, everything ground to a halt as the actors and filmmakers eagerly glad-handed with the people they knew held their Golden Globes fate in their hands.

I'm sure there are hundreds of stories being written about today's nominations, many of them focusing on the surprises and snubs--no best drama nomination for "Milk" or "Doubt" or "Gran Torino," no acting nomination for star favorites like Will Smith or Clint Eastwood, nothing at all for "Australia." But industry insiders say that if you want to really read between the lines in the voting, ask yourself--which movies that have been largely ignored by critics groups did especially well with those 85 Globes voters? The answer would be "The Reader," which landed a surprising four nominations, including the much-coveted best drama nomination, and "Vicki Cristina Barcelona," which scored an even more surprising four nominations, including one for best comedy.

What do those two films have in common? They are both released by the Weinstein Co., whose fearless leader, Harvey Weinstein, has assiduously courted HFPA voters for years, believing their nominations were a key to potential Oscar riches. Weinstein has such close relations with the HFPA members that when the Globes mysteriously expanded its best drama nominations from five to seven pictures last year--an arbitrary alteration you'd never see happen with the Oscars--most industry observers concluded that the sudden expansion of the category was designed to make room for "The Great Debaters," a Weinstein Co. release.

Still, why argue with success? Despite all their oddities, the Globes are more influential than ever. Axed by the writers strike last year, their show was sorely missed, since it usually provides far more fizz and fun than the stodgy Oscars. In fact, if I were Larry Mark and Bill Condon, this year's Oscar producers, I'd tear up the Kodak Theatre and turn it into the kind of ballroom set that has served the Globes so well, with an open bar to keep the celebrities in good cheer. In Hollywood, the oldest maxim is: The show must go on. There is no better example than the Globes, which are all show and precious little substance, a formula that keeps the wheels of the industry celebrity media complex turning so smoothly you'd almost think they were moving all by themselves. 

Photo of the Golden Globe statuette from the HFPA