Despite comparisons, Globes stand on their own merit

Hugh Laurie enjoys his award at last year's event.

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The Golden Globes are so often touted as a bellwether for the Academy Awards that when the two don't match up, the Globes are taken to task for getting it wrong. But while the Globes' checkered history is studded with strange and even inexplicable calls -- in 1993, the year the Oscars named "Unforgiven" best picture, the Globes bestowed their highest honor on "Scent of a Woman" -- the deviations are sometimes inspired.

Take 1983. The Academy's best picture was "Gandhi," while the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. picked "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" as its top drama, and "Tootsie" as best comedy or musical. A quarter of a century later, "Gandhi" is well respected but rarely watched, while "E.T." and "Tootsie" are enshrined as classics. ("E.T." ranks 25th on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest American movies; "Tootsie" is second on the AFI's comedy list.)

"'Gandhi' is a competently made, stirring film because it's about a stirring man," says Jeffrey Wells, who keeps tabs on the awards season at his Web site, Hollywood-Elsewhere.com. "But it's exactly what the Academy tends to suck up to too much, which is the 'important' film rather than the one that has that liveliness or that inspirational current that really tends to make it stay in your mind."

The members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. don't discuss their votes, so any explanations of why they might prefer certain kinds of films, TV shows or performances are necessarily speculative. But when the Globes' winners are compared to the Oscars' and the Emmys', patterns start to emerge.

First, there's the elephant in the room: the nagging perception that the Globes are, if not for sale, then highly suggestible, particularly to the ministrations of high-level talent. With fewer than 100 members, the entire voting body of the HFPA can easily fit in a hotel ballroom with a gracious movie star. Particularly where gorgeous actresses are concerned, the HFPA can be faithful to a fault. Since 2001, Renee Zellweger has been nominated every year but one, including nods for 2004's "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" and 2006's "Miss Potter," performances that no other significant body saw fit to recognize (unless, that is, you count the Teen Choice Awards).

"You want to have as many glamour queens as possible, because it ups the ratings," Wells says. "So they're going to nominate the Nicole Kidmans and the Julia Roberts. This is not the Village Voice Film Critics."

But even those who doubt the Globes' objectivity often find themselves in agreement with their choices. "They really don't have bad taste," Wells says.

The HFPA's choice for best picture has overlapped with the Academy's 14 times in the last 20 years, so in some ways their tastes are not so different. But the fact that the Globes honor comedies and musicals separately from dramas allows them to consider a range of films and, especially, performances, that lack Oscar's requisite gravitas. Sacha Baron Cohen's nude-fighting, feces-handling turn in 2006's "Borat" is not the kind of thing that makes Oscars voters swell with pride. But the HFPA handed Cohen its highest honor and set the stage for one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in recent history.

Alan Sepinwall, who covers television for the Newark Star-Ledger (N.J.), points out that, like the Oscars, the Emmys are voted on by those who work in the industry and so sometimes seem more concerned with putting the industry's best foot forward than rewarding its highest achievements.

"The Emmys are very much a Chamber of Commerce award," he says. "It's not really about what's best. It's about what's best for the industry -- celebrating things that offer people lots of jobs, recognizing people who've been working a while and they like."

The HFPA, by contrast, is comprised of journalists, whose profession requires them to discover and promote the unknown or overlooked. Sepinwall points to Keri Russell's 1999 Globe for best actress in a television comedy, awarded halfway through the first season of "Felicity." That year's Emmy went to Helen Hunt for "Mad About You," which debuted in 1992.

"They're enamored of new talent, the idea of having a new face, a hot young face," Sepinwall says of the HFPA. "Whereas I don't think Emmy voters really care, and they certainly didn't watch 'Felicity.'"

The HFPA's apparent desire to be ahead of the curve has caused its share of red faces. In 2006, the Globe for best actress in a TV drama went to Geena Davis for her starring turn in ABC's "Commander in Chief." By the time Emmy voting rolled around, the show had been canceled. Most notoriously, they bestowed 1982's "new star of the year" award on Pia Zadora, who would later be nominated for a Razzie in the category "worst actress of the century."

But, particularly in the realm of television, the Globes have shown considerable foresight. While the Emmys quickly followed the Globes in recognizing the merits of HBO's "The Sopranos," they lagged behind on the cable net's "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under," perhaps reluctant to acknowledge that a cable channel could compete on several fronts against the broadcast networks.

Compared to the Oscars and the Emmys, the Globes also show a marked preference for international fare. In 2007, the Oscar went to "The Departed," a gangster drama steeped in the atmosphere of working-class Boston, while the Globes picked "Babel," shot on three continents in half a dozen languages. The same year, the Globes picked "Ugly Betty," the American version of a Colombian telenovela, over the Emmy winner, NBC's Manhattan-set "30 Rock."

Where actors are concerned, the Globes seem to have a soft spot for foreigners made good. Hugh Laurie has been twice honored for his leading role on Fox's "House," delivering his acceptance speeches in his natural British accent. But his two Emmy nominations have produced no wins, and Sepinwall says Laurie was prevented from hosting the Emmys because Fox executives didn't want to confuse viewers who think Laurie is American-born.

Similarly, the Globes were the first to recognize Ricky Gervais for his work on the original British version of "The Office." He had to wait two more years to win his first Emmy for his writing work on the American remake of the series, and another year to win best actor, for HBO's "Extras."

"Babel" producer Jon Kilik is skeptical that the HFPA's international makeup is responsible for its predisposition to global themes. "Audiences in general seem to be more receptive to it," he says, "and more willing to expand their moviegoing experience to include foreign-language films." But he says that the Globes "do seem to reach a little further" in terms of their interests. Sepinwall agrees that foreign nationality might give actors an edge. "Certainly foreigners coming over here could get a leg up," he says.

With that said, the Globes have been, until a recent rule change, extremely un-international in restricting its best drama and best comedy/musical film awards to movies with dialogue spoken primarily in English. In 2006, both Clint Eastwood's Japanese-language "Letters From Iwo Jima" and Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," with dialogue in Yucatec, a Mayan dialect, were classified as foreign-language films and thus disqualified from the overall best picture consideration. This year, Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" and Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" met a similar fate. (The new rules, which will go into effect for the 2009 awards, state that foreign films must have "51% non-English dialogue" and originate outside the U.S.; films in foreign languages that originate in the U.S. will be considered for best picture.)

Kilik, who produced "Diving Bell," expresses frustration with both the Globes' and the Academy's restrictions. But he otherwise has nothing but praise for the Globes' willingness to embrace directors who reach beyond the boundaries of national origin. "It takes special people, really, breaking down the barriers that would limit a director to only telling stories that take place only in his own backyard," he says. "I think the Globes really embrace that kind of courage."

Instead of dwelling on the HFPA's suggestibility, Kilik praises its commitment. "I think it's a very good assessment of what the best films and television of the year are," he says. "They work very hard at it, and I think they do a really good job. They really watch the films. I'm an Academy member, and I wish every Academy member would watch at least the nominated films. But the truth is, it doesn't happen."

In the television industry, Sepinwall says, "people look at the Globes as a night to get drunk and hang out with other celebrities." But he also points out that the Globes have a history of being the first to recognize new talents -- and not only because they take place months before the Emmys. "Because the Globes come in the middle of a season, they are far more likely to identify a brand-new show," he says. "In general, they've always done a much better job than either the Emmys or the Oscars have."

Wells denounces the Globes' susceptibility to schmoozing (although he does defend the 1993 win of "Scent of a Woman"). But he also pines for the "dopier, funnier" days before the Globes became at least slightly respectable, before the awards ceremony was picked up for national broadcast. "The bigger they're getting, the less loose they're becoming," he says.

And if Wells is skeptical about the Globes' objectivity, he doesn't have anything better to say about their more well-established counterpart. "The Oscars are slightly classier," he says. "But they're also stodgier. I don't think there's that much difference between the two."
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