The Oscar race kicked into overdrive last weekend as the two award ceremonies closest in stature to the Academy Awards handed out their statuettes. The Critics' Choice telecast aired Saturday on E! and the Golden Globes broadcast was carried Sunday by NBC. Both were glitzy and studded by Hollywood's biggest stars. Both attracted vast audiences. Both appeared to be highly credible affairs, but the little-known fact is that one is legitimate and the other is a scam, Tinseltown's dirty secret.
The recipients of Critics' Choice Awards are determined by North America's largest body of professional reviewers -- the Broadcast Film Critics Association. In contrast, the Golden Globes are given out by a tiny, borderline shadowy cartel called the Holly-wood Foreign Press Association, a group tainted by a long history of corruption and questionable taste.
First televised in 1996, the Golden Globes have risen to their place of prominence via well-documented, clearly unethical dealings between HFPA members and movie industry insiders. Their purpose? To position certain titles, performers and filmmakers for optimal Oscar consideration in exchange for extravagant gifts and favors. Motion-picture payola is what it boils down to.
"At the studio, we were told about the Hollywood Foreign Press," an ex-publicist confided anonymously to a Brills Content writer in 2001. "Take them out to a nice hotel, order the best bottle of champagne and you'll get whatever you want from them."
Buying Foreign Press votes is cost-effective, to say the least. Studios bring in billions annually and can well afford to wine, dine and otherwise pay off the organization's 90 or so members. Money spent is recouped many times over through revenues generated when a release earns either a Golden Globe or an Oscar.
Some of the group's strongest detractors are critics themselves. "These ill-dressed people slump in and help themselves to all the food," Time's Richard Schickel has complained. Aljean Har-metz wrote in the Los Angeles Times that HFPA members are perceived as "freeloaders who would sell their votes for a vodka and tonic and cross the Alps for a hot dog."
The Foreign Press may not be well respected, but everyone seems to agree it's well fed. NBC has agreed to pay the group $30 million over 10 years for the right to air the GGA. Not bad. Particu-larly in light of the organization's nonprofit, tax-exempt status. Of course, that didn't stop the HFPA this fall from threatening to go elsewhere if NBC didn't sweeten the deal. Ultimately the show's producer, Dick Clark, bitchslapped the group into honoring its commitment.
As Sharon Waxman pointed out recently in the Washington Post, "The money raked in by the Golden Globes telecast gives HFPA members privileges unheard of in other press organizations. Each active member can take two fully paid trips to film festivals of his or her choice annually. The association pays air fare for studio press junkets." Members also "get unparalleled access to movie stars and directors, with studios holding press conferences for them with every movie release," Waxman further reports. "Stars are required to pose for individual photos with every member who attends."
She goes on to describe the special treatment afforded Foreign Press members by top movie-industry brass. "Typical was a lavish affair that members attended this fall at the home of Chris McGurk, vice-chairman of MGM. Every studio-run screening for the HFPA also features cocktails or dinner or both, which is not the case for other media screenings."
Of course, Oscar season lasts only a few months. At other times of the year, members of the group are occasionally forced to pick up their own tabs. That's where that NBC money comes in handy. It makes possible the more than $5000 a month the HFPA spends on members-only Beverly Hills luncheons. By way of contrast, that sum represents the total annual salary the BFCA pays its director, Joey Berlin.
Naturally, a voting body needn't have lots of members to be legitimate. Nine-teen people comprise the Pulitzer Prize Board. There are a mere nine judges on the Supreme Court. Some well-respected film-critic groups have modest constituencies. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association, for example, is made up of 53 members. The New York Film Critics Circle has but 34.
Critics' Choice awardees are selected by a membership numbering just under 200 professional film reviewers -- yours truly among them -- working throughout the U.S. and Canada. The Golden Globes, on the other hand, are divvied out by a motley clique whose membership is not only comparatively small but composed of people who in many cases don't even make or review movies for a living.
"They're like the Beverly Hillbillies," that anonymous ex-publicist told Brills, whose reporter wrote, "Members have been called corrupt and, perhaps more tellingly, have been derided by Holly-wood insiders as incompetent, slovenly and junket-buffet gluttons... a decidedly ragtag band of outsiders."
As revealed by the Washington Post, "Perhaps two dozen are working foreign journalists; a larger number are longtime members who freelance infrequently for small overseas publications... and struggle to produce the four yearly clippings they need to qualify as members. A large number... make their living at other professions, including... real estate, car sales and film promotion."
According to an account published previously in the same paper, one HFPA member lists his occupation as running "an auto referral service." Which may explain some of the jaw-droppingly bad choices the Foreign Press has made over the years.
"Boneheads" was the word Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers used after the HFPA listed Patch Adams and The Mask of Zorro among its Best Comedy/ Musical nominations in 1999. In 1995 rumors flew to the effect that Sharon Stone traded favors for the GGA she was given for her work in Casino. One can only speculate as to the nature of those favors. Their effectiveness, on the other hand, is beyond question. Not only did the Foreign Press end up giving her a Best Actress award, it also ended up giving her favorite charity, the Amer-ican Foundation for AIDS Research, truckloads of money.
The defining moment, though, came in 1982 when the HFPA in its wisdom bestowed New Female Star of the Year honors on Pia Zadora for her unforgettable work in the classic Butterfly. In an eerie coincidence, the actress' multi-millionaire husband, Meshulam Riklis, had flown members of the organization to Vegas for several days of Caligula-level R&R just a few weeks earlier.
I can personally attest to the fact that Hollywood knows better than to pull that kind of stuff with the BFCA. Aside from some very friendly letters and e-mails, an armful of soundtrack CDs and 75 or so "For Your Consideration" video and DVD screeners, I was offered nada. That is, except for a Paul Simon greatest-hits collection, a private screening of Catch Me If You Can courtesy of DreamWorks, a numbered, limited-edition Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron lithograph and the option to come on out and hang with My Big Fat Greek Wedding costar John Corbett. No sign of cradle-robbing millionaires. Not one freebie that could qualify as lavish. Oh, well, maybe next year. I mean, I wouldn't have it any other way.
If you happened to catch the two broadcasts, you know what I'm talking about. More than 20 years after the Pia Zadora debacle, those auto-referring goofballs in the Foreign Press are still making fools of themselves in front of millions.
Goofball highlights of Sunday's broadcast included a segment in which the HFPA director promoted the organization's latest charitable effort: screening Hollywood films for starving kids in Africa! My favorite, though, was the moment when About Schmidt star Jack Nicholson picked up his award for Best Actor in a Drama and had to admit, "I don't know whether to be happy or ashamed. I thought we made a comedy."
Nicholson, it goes without saying, hasn't any reason to be ashamed. Foreign Press members, on the other hand, might want to think about giving the free drinks a rest long enough to actually watch the movies they vote on next January.