From Ricky Gervais to Elizabeth Taylor: 9 Revelations in Former HFPA President's Book

Philip Berk
Philip Berk
 Alexandra Wyman/Getty Images

In his new book, With Signs and Wonders, Philip Berk, the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, discusses many of the controversies and internal battles he faced in seven terms as head of the group that puts on the Golden Globe Awards.

The first half of the book is about Berk’s life, from growing up in South Africa, to teaching public school in Los Angeles. He also has a theory that people who do him wrong eventually have their own troubles, which he even references when discussing the suicide of a member who had written him an anonymous letter. Berk now writes for publications in South Africa, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Here are nine noteworthy reveals from Berk's book, which was released last month.

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1. PIA ZADORA WAS A GOOD SINGER. REALLY.

Since 1981, a mention of Pia Zadora does not conjure up an actress and singer, but rather the reaction when she was named at the Golden Globes as the "New Star of the Year" before a movie she starred in, Butterfly, was even released. Her name to this day provokes laughs at the expense of the HFPA.

Berk says it began as what seemed like a “harmless perk” at the time. He and half a dozen other HFPA members were in Las Vegas -- not to see Zadora -- but for a performance by Siegfried & Roy, the magicians. A publicist for Zadora heard they would be in  Vegas and invited them to see her perform at the Riviera. He says he was “knocked out” by her singing performance, and notes that so were some other critics, including one for the Los Angeles Times.

When it came time to name a “New Star” at the Globes, he remembered Zadora because the award, he said, covered not just film but also TV and music. The press reaction to Zadora’s honor was that her husband at the time, millionaire Meshulam Riklis, owner of the Riviera Hotel, must have “bought” the award.

Amid the mocking, there was a full-page ad in the trades congratulating the HFPA for honoring Zadora’s talent, signed by Orson Welles and others (paid for by Riklis).

That didn’t matter. The controversy led to a Los Angeles Times expose in which the HFPA was accused of deception and fraud. Times correspondents around the world found some HFPA members claimed to write for publications where they had not actually worked in years.

As a result, CBS dropped carriage of the Golden Globes, which did not even air on TV the following year (and later returned on cable TV before getting a network deal).

2. YES, HFPA MEMBERS ARE TERRITORIAL.

The HFPA has often been accused of not taking in new members who might compete in a foreign country with an existing member. Those charges have been shrugged off, but Berk writes there is at least some truth to them.

He recalls a phone conversation with a Paramount publicist originally from Australia who kept him on the phone for two nights going over every member.

“His beef was that most of the best journalists in L.A. had been denied membership in the HFPA because of our protectionist policy, and unless we started admitting more professional journalists, [the company that released movies for Paramount, Universal, and MGM overseas] would continue to marginalize the HFPA.”

“There was some truth in what [he] had to say,” admits Berk. “At the time, our territorial protectionism was indeed carried to extremes; for example, someone who wrote for Japan barred any other journalist who wrote for that country. The same was true for France, Great Britain, and Italy.”

Berk said he did later work to expand membership. However, as recently as last year when a new president, Theo Kingma, was elected,  he too talked about the need to bring in more new members.

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3. NO BATTLE MATCHES HFPA VS. MIRJANA VAN BLARICOM

Fights among HFPA members are legendary, and by all accounts continue to this day. However, none surpasses the epic struggles that involved former president Mirjana van Blaricom.

Berk admits he never supported her run for president. He says from her first day on the job she was “bent on revenge” against him. Berk criticized many of van Blaricom’s ideas and resented the way she spent the HFPA’s money. He accuses van Blaricom of using “the cover of ‘petty cash’ ” to get funds without approval from other members.

Berk writes that he quit the board in protest but months later attacked van Blaricom again, presenting a list of 500 “irregularities.” That led to an audit, but the result was simply that the HFPA decided it needed a good bookkeeper.

He also blames her for another scandal, this time over the surprise selection of Scent of a Woman as best drama. It led to a story in The New York Times suggesting HFPA members had gone on a junket for that movie and it influenced their decision.

The problem, writes Berk, was that van Blaricom misled The New York Times when interviewed. She was asked who paid for the trip and said she did not know. Berk said she did know because they had put in place a new policy the prior year that the HFPA paid airfare, but the studio, Universal in this case, paid for the hotel.

He also complained about how she handled the Globes shows and her decision to give out special awards without a vote of all the members.

Berk also blames her for signing the contract with Dick Clark Productions that became the subject of a lawsuit over whether it granted rights to produce the Golden Globes in perpetuity. It also gave Dick Clark 50 percent of net profits. He writes that he cannot otherwise comment on the case because it is now on appeal.

Berk says the break came when they discovered van Blaricom had been paid for work on the Globes both by Dick Clark and by the HFPA. There was an “explosive” general meeting at which she was asked to resign, according to the book. She refused, but eventually paid money back to the HFPA. She also signed a release not to speak badly about the HFPA or other members for two years. When she violated that, Berk says it led to her resignation. But it didn’t end there. Van Blaricom sued the HFPA for $1 million. She eventually lost, but it took several expensive years of litigation to play out.

Van Blaricom left and formed a competing group of international journalists that puts on its own annual awards show. Asked by The Hollywood Reporter to comment, van Blaricom responded: “He’s delusional and a liar. I don’t want to pay attention to such rubbish. None of this is true. Twenty years after the fact he can say what he wants. He can’t prove any of this.”

4. THE HFPA FOUGHT WITH THE QUEEN OF PR, PAT KINGSLEY

For many, many years Pat Kingsley of PMK was a powerful publicist with a list of superstar clients. She worked hard for them and guarded their interests and image.

Berk writes that Kingsley became “perturbed because one of our members had written an article supposedly misquoting one of her clients.” To keep it from happening again, Kingsley asked that all press conferences with her clients be tape-recorded and insisted anyone who wrote unfavorably about her client in the past should not be allowed to attend, according to the book. She also didn’t want the interviews sold or used except by the specific outlets the HFPA member said he or she worked for.

The HFPA refused to bar any members but did agree to provide a letter before each press conference guaranteeing the tape, and interview, would only be used "for legal purposes."

"The HFPA also granted Kingley’s request that when the star had their picture taken with the HFPA member, the star would not have to hold a copy of the journalist’s publication," Berk writes. "Many stars complained about the practice of members getting pictures taken with them." But he says they keep taking photos because the foreign editors want to show that their journalists really got the interviews.

5. THE HFPA ALSO FOUGHT NEW YORK TIMES WRITER

Throughout the book, Berk complains about coverage of the HFPA by journalist Sharon Waxman, first for The Washington Post, and later for The New York Times. He says after granting her a few interviews, he came to believe “she distorts everything you say.”

One of her articles dealt with the HFPA policy of limiting membership, which meant that fewer than 100 people typically vote on the Golden Globe awards.

"I told her that we couldn’t absorb [more members] because our main goal is to provide journalistic opportunities for our members,” writes Berk, adding, “Instead of printing that, she scoffed at the fact that ‘only 40 members attend our press conferences.’ An obvious distortion of what was said in an honest exchange of ideas, during a friendly telephone conversation, that was never intended for publication, merely to clarify issues.”

When asked by THR, Waxman responded: "I of course stand by everything I have ever written about the Hollywood Foreign Press.… Phil Berk does himself and the organization no favors by reminding people of his own embarrassing past behavior, and the often-comical shenanigans of some members, however charming."

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6. WHO PINCHED BRENDAN FRASER'S REAR END

Berk writes that at an HFPA installation event, he and other members were talking to actor Brendan Fraser, who had just presented a check representing the group’s charitable donation to FilmAid International.

In the course of the conversation, writes Berk, he asked Fraser about a rumor that at the Golden Globes the prior year he had pinched the female HFPA president. To demonstrate, Berk said that he then pinched Fraser’s butt.

Fraser’s response, according to Berk, was, “He pinched my ass” or “He touched my bod.”

Berk thought it was all a joke until the HFPA got a letter from the star’s publicist threatening legal action against him personally and against the association. So Berk wrote the actor a letter of apology.

It might have ended there, but Waxman got a copy of the letter and wrote a story about it for The New York Times. “She never called to get my side of the story,” writes Berk, “and of course I had no intention of contacting her.”

“Unfortunately the incident has hounded me ever since,” writes Berk.

7. HOLLYWOOD PUBLICISTS ONCE REVOLTED

At HFPA press conferences, the members are known to take photos during the entire session, which annoys some stars and their publicists. So at one point, the publicists got together and asked for a limit on photo taking and control over where images could be published.

This was communicated to the HFPA’s then president, according to Berk, by Stan Rosenfield, a publicist who has represented George Clooney and other stars for many years. Berk notified Rosenfield he would refer it to the members for a vote.

At the next general membership meeting, the members voted against it.

Berk says that Rosenfield then sent him a “curt note” that said: “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

“My letter to Stan had been greeted with a cold shoulder from the other publicists,” added Berk, “who retaliated by boycotting the Installation luncheon, but thanks to the Film Foundation (and Brad Pitt, who showed up to present a check to a favorite charity) they were not missed.”

Asked by THR, Rosenfield responded: “I don’t ever recall sending him such a letter. If I did, it was with all the publicists. I have never boycotted the HFPA. And I have no recollection of writing him a curt note. Not my style. If I did write the note, I am certain that there was at least one sentence before and one sentence after my alleged quote.”

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8. HOW DICK CLARK SAVED ELIZABETH TAYLOR

Some have suggested Elizabeth Taylor might have been under the influence at the 2001 Golden Globes when she began to open the envelope with the name of the winner of the best movie drama before announcing the nominees.

Here is what Berk says happened: He recalled it took a lot just to get her to show up and present, including help from Harvey Weinstein and her longtime publicist Warren Cowan. He also had to get the HFPA board to approve $8,000 for her hair and makeup.

Berk writes that when she took the stage, there was a tremendous standing ovation. This so overwhelmed Taylor that she opened the envelope and started reading the name of the winner. She was rescued by producer Dick Clark, who rushed on-stage and had her list the nominees before revealing the winner.

“She saved the moment,” adds Berk, “when she explained herself, ‘Oh, I guess I’m more used to receiving awards rather than giving them.’”

“It may have been nerve-racking for me,” writes Berk, “but it ended up giving us more favorable publicity than any single moment in Golden Globe history.”

9. WHO OBJECTED TO RICKY GERVAIS?

For many years the Golden Globes had no host. But to help pump up ratings in 2010, comedian Ricky Gervais got the job. He was outrageous and very funny, so he was invited back again the following two years. But there was blowback from Hollywood. 

“When in his return engagement,” writes Berk, “he turned his hosting chore into a ‘roast,’ all hell broke loose. There were letters from irate viewers, but more telling were two phone calls I received, one from a studio head, and the other from a major star, which convinced me we should never invite him back, even though most members felt he had made the show the success it was.”

Berk doesn't reveal who the phone calls were from.

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