Oscar voters lucky that Globe noms define field

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Golden Globes: With too many movies to see and not nearly enough time in which to see them, Academy members are lucky to have last week's Golden Globe nominations to help define the field.

Although Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. members nominate a total of 10 best picture candidates because they honor both dramas and musicals-or-comedies, by so doing they give Oscar voters a good sense of what films to make time to catch up with if they haven't seen them earlier in the year. In many cases, of course, Academy members haven't seen films worthy of being nominated because they may not have opened yet or because they may not have been perceived as being important enough to see when they first opened. But honor them with one or more Golden Globe nominations and turn their marketing teams loose and such films can suddenly catapult to the top of DVD screener stacks around town.

With this in mind, I welcomed the opportunity to talk Sunday to HFPA president Phil Berk about the Globes and the role its nominations may play in shaping the Oscar race. The Globes, I observed, is Hollywood's only other major brand name award besides the Academy Award, which remains the industry's most coveted honor. The Globes, however, is probably the only other award in Hollywood that really means anything.

"Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that because there are a number of actors who might feel that winning the New York critics' award is certainly as -- if not more -- prestigious," Berk replied politely. "But the Golden Globe obviously, as you say, does have a brand name -- not just because it's recognizable, not just as an award, but actually as a statue. More importantly, we have a history. All the other new awards that are popping up all over the place have just created themselves within the last few years, but we have a 64 year history."

Asked why the Globe is as sought after as it is, Berk replied, "It is a recognizable brand. It's been around for a long time. The actual statue, itself, may not be as glamorous as the Oscar, but people have seen it in ads sufficiently to know it exists. So it is something that can be pointed to whereas other awards don't have anything that (is comparable). None of them have that special look that the Golden Globe has."

At this time of year, of course, the Globe noms are a prime ingredient in holiday movie marketing campaigns. For instance, browsing through Sunday's local newspaper movie ads what most of the films were selling was their Globes success -- Golden Globe Nominee: Best Actor - Leonardo DiCaprio ("Blood Diamond"); 2 Golden Globe Nominations: Best Actor-drama - Will Smith; Golden Globe Nomination: Best Original Score - Alexandre Desplat ("The Painted Veil"); 2 Golden Nominations: Best Picture - Best Director - Clint Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima"); 6 Golden Globe Nominations - Best Picture ("The Departed");

Also, Golden Globe Nominee - Best Actor-comedy - Will Ferrell ("Stranger than Fiction"); 2 Golden Globe Nominations - Best Animated Picture, Best Original Song ("Happy Feet")...and so on. Other awards, including those from critics groups across the country, were mentioned in many ads, as well, but not nearly as prominently as the Globe noms, which were trumpeted in big headlines.

Those ads are intended not only to sell tickets to moviegoers, but also to entice Academy members into seeing these films on the strength that they've already been singled out by HFPA voters as being awards worthy. Unlike HFPA members, who see hundreds of movies throughout the year in the course of their work as journalists for publications around the world, Academy members spend their time making movies rather than seeing them. At year-end they typically need to catch up with many films they were too busy to see during the year. For the most part, these days they manage to do much of their viewing at home thanks to DVD screeners. HFPA members, on the other hand, are taking the opportunity late in the year to use those screeners to take a second look at films they saw months earlier.

"I've heard it said many times that the difference between the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press is that we actually see the movies in theaters because all year long we are involved in a relationship with the studios," Berk noted. "They provide the stars at press conferences and it's certainly a common courtesy that you don't attend a press conference if you haven't seen the film." By the end of the year HFPA members have seen hundreds of films because they typically have some 200 press events and as many as 400 to 500 celebrity press conferences.

Reflecting on 2006, Berk observed that there were far too many films released: "We had an enormous amount of films. In fact, if I had one piece of advice to give Hollywood it's to stop making so many movies. There are just too many movies in the marketplace. They're knocking each other out at the boxoffice. They're cannibalizing themselves. Even though Academy members are sent screeners, there are so many of them (that it's difficult to find them to look at them all). I think they recognize in ads that certain movies have been given some Golden Globe recognition and that might be an inducement for them to, perhaps, pay heed to those films.

"I mean, George Clooney didn't win any supporting awards (from critics groups for 'Syriana') last year and then when we gave it to him, of course, he ended up winning the Oscar. It was the same thing with Rachel Weisz. She didn't win any major critical awards, but she won the Oscar and the Golden Globe (for best supporting actress for 'The Constant Gardener'). Although you have to keep in mind that last year there was the anomaly that because of the Winter Olympics (the Academy) decided to postpone the nominations and the awards ceremony a week or so and, therefore, the Golden Globes show, itself, had an impact on the nominating ballots."

Do Globe noms have an impact on Oscar noms? "Absolutely," Berk replied. "I think our nominations are taken into consideration. But even though it's true that Academy voters will take notice of the Golden Globes, by the same token each (of the Hollywood guilds) makes certain that they announce their nominees before the (final) ballot closes for the Academy. But maybe the guilds pay heed to the Golden Globes nominations and the critics' nominations."

When I told Berk I believe that the Globe nods help define the field for Academy members who don't have time to see everything, he commented, "I would hate to be that presumptuous because I don't think we're absolutely perfect. I think one of the things that's very interesting is that the Academy, as you've indicated in your column previously, are more likely to reflect some type of popular taste as opposed to the critics, who tend to be more arcane." He pointed to years past when critics groups honored films like "GoodFellas" (1990) or "L.A. Confidential" (1997), but the best picture-drama Globe and the Academy's best picture Oscar went to more popular entertainments like "Dances With Wolves" and "Titanic."

"What I'm saying is that when (the critics) go for something that's really possibly the classic movie of that year, the movie that will (make) the list of the 10 best films of the decade, the Academy seems to reflect the same taste as the Hollywood Foreign Press when they choose the more popular movie," Berk explained.

Looking at films that did well in this year's Globe nominations, Berk said, "'Babel' looks to me like the movie that critics are snubbing their noses at. 'Babel' is off the radar when it comes to the critics' awards and yet it picked up seven Golden Globe nominations. It might be that 'Babel' will be this year's 'Titanic' or 'Dances With Wolves' (in terms of broad Academy appeal)."

Globe nominations can help focus attention on smaller films that Academy members as well as many media people haven't seen yet. A case in point is "Sherrybaby," for which the HFPA gave Maggie Gyllenhaal a best actress-drama nomination. Academy members who might not have bothered to make time to see it before are more likely to make an effort to see it now. "Very likely," Berk agreed. "But you have to keep in mind, we nominate 10 people. Maggie might make the list of the best five dramatic actresses, but you also have to contend with the five actresses in the comedy field. It's possible that Annette Bening might get Academy notice (for her Globe nominated performance in the comedy 'Running With Scissors'). And there's Meryl Streep (a Globe best actress-comedy nominee for 'The Devil Wears Prada'). Even though (Oscar voters will) possibly take the time to look at the DVD (of 'Sherrybaby'), whereas they might have ignored it previously, but whether they're going to be able to nominate her is going to be a tough thing because there are 10 performances that the Hollywood Foreign Press have actually singled out."

But you don't get an Oscar nomination if voters haven't seen your movie. So if a Globe nomination helps to prompt Academy members to actually look at a movie they weren't going to see, then the HFPA is helping to the extent that at least that film is going to be considered. But that's not always the case, Berk pointed out: "There have been cases where we've singled out people and the Academy took no notice. The one that I was really quite disappointed in a couple of years back was Tilda Swinton in her first important movie ('The Deep End'). Every important director in Hollywood picked up on our (best actress-drama) nomination because she suddenly became the darling of Hollywood movies. But the Academy didn't nominate her. We did single out an actress who had no recognition with anybody else. But the upshot of it was that this was a calling card to working with every important director in Hollywood."

Swinton went on to do such films as Cameron Crowe's "Vanilla Sky" opposite Tom Cruise; Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" opposite Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep; and Andrew Adamson's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" opposite James McAvoy and Jim Broadbent.

Another instance that Berk pointed to of the Globes putting its spotlight on a promising young actress was Evan Rachel Wood, a best actress-drama Globe nominee for Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen" (2003). Wood did not receive Oscar recognition for her performance. Wood appeared opposite Annette Bening this year in "Running With Scissors."

Berk also cited this year's Globe best actor-musical or comedy nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor for his performance in "Kinky Boots." "That is quite a break-out performance," he said. "I wonder if that (nomination) might induce Academy members to look at that?"

Reflecting on the upcoming Academy nominations, Berk told me, "With one or two exceptions, almost every film that the Academy will consider is nominated in some category by us. In other words, you can limit the process of trying to fill out your (Academy) ballot by just looking at the 15 or 16 films that are actually nominated (for Globes) this year."

Looking back on all those movies that he and his HFPA colleagues saw this year, does Berk think it was a good year for movies? "There was a feeling all year long that this is not a good year and this is possibly the weakest year we can remember, at least over the last 20 years," he began by observing. "And yet at the end of the year when you get all those DVDs and you look at all those titles and you start looking at the movies a second time you realize there are at least 30 titles that maybe 20 years from now people will be watching on Turner Classic Movies. These movies definitely have value.

"But the reason why people were somewhat apathetic about the year is that there was not any one film that stood out as a truly great movie that knocked your socks off. And when you don't have that you somehow seem to think that there's a certain degree of mediocrity, which there wasn't. I can think, for example, of 'The Prestige,' which didn't get any year-end recognition and, actually, if you look at that movie again it's an extremely excellent piece of film craft. Unfortunately, the director (Christopher Nolan) has a proclivity for making everything as complex as possible so audiences really have a tough time following the story. But once you figure out the story on the second visit, it becomes really a remarkably well made movie and certainly one worthy of future recognition. It's an example of a movie that stands out in my mind, having looked at it again, as having far more qualities than I remembered having seen the first time."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 17, 1988's column: "Having talked so much (on TV) lately about 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' it seems appropriate now to present some 'Last' words here.

"Anyone interested in exploring the effect of mass communications on contemporary society would do well to use 'Last' as a case study. It's a film that has captured the media's attention and, in the process, the media has not only reported on that news but has also helped create it.

"It's not that the media has done anything wrong. The media has covered the news, which is exactly what it's supposed to do. However, by focusing for a period of weeks on the emerging story of how fundamentalist Christian clergymen opposed this movie, the media has at the same time managed to fuel the protest and create a larger audience for 'Last' than the film would ever have found on its own...

"To begin with, there's the question of whether, when all is said and done and the controversy ultimately dies down, the movie is working as a movie? Insiders point out that it's too soon to determine that after only one weekend of capacity business...

"'Last' faces the same problem that other product in the marketplace faces today, which is that there's a lot of product out there that's doing good business. That makes it difficult for new films to get the theaters they would like to have. 'Last' was not to have opened until late September, so its accelerated release has now put it into the marketplace well ahead of when exhibitors expected it would be available.

"On the other hand, 'Last' has turned into the movie event of the year. In the past there have been films that called themselves the movie event of the year, but in the case of 'Last' the media has made it into an event. Nonetheless, it's not a movie that appears destined to play in a thousand theaters. More likely, sources say, it will dig in for a long run in fewer theaters...

"Those close to the situation point out that 'Last' has not swayed the faith of those who believe strongly. However, the movie is said to be having an interesting effect on some who have been exposed to it who say they are religious but who aren't regular churchgoers and typically don't spend time talking about the nature of Jesus. That the film has been prompting such people to have such conversations is being taken in a very positive way."

Update: "The Last Temptation of Christ" went nowhere at the boxoffice. Universal opened the film Aug. 12, 1988 to $401,211 at 9 theaters ($44,579 per theater). Its widest release was at 123 theaters the weekend of Sept. 30-Oct. 2 when it grossed $377,593 ($3,069 per theater). It went on to gross just $8.4 million domestically. The film received one Oscar nomination -- for best director (Martin Scorsese) -- but did not win. It received two Golden Globe nods -- for supporting actress (Barbara Hershey) and original score (Peter Gabriel) -- but did not win.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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