Golden Globes 2011: Why you should care

Burlesque, up for best comedy or musical at the Golden Globes.

Correction:

The HFPA requires its members to have "permanent, primary residence" in Southern California, which explains why most foreign film critics are not in the association.

Who is Alena Prime, and for which Tahitian publication does she write? Or Ersi Danou in Greece? Nellee A. Holmes in Russia? Don't bother searching online for information about them; you're likely to land on websites that cause your browser to crash, as mine did on too many occasions, or you'll hit one dead end after another. So let me tell you who they are: three of the 83 active members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization that awards the annual Golden Globes. You can be forgiven for not recognizing their names — not simply because they're foreign, but because many are not, in fact, regularly employed as film writers. Alexander Nevsky of Russia, for instance, is a bodybuilder who writes fitness books. Howard Lucraft of Argentina is a composer and jazz writer in his mid-90s. And those are just two of the few whose existence I could confirm.

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Long story short

Why you should care about Hollywood's biggest joke: The Golden Globes.

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Members who are gainfully employed as film writers, meanwhile, don't exactly work for the world's most respected publications; no Le Monde or London Times scribes here. They mostly write for gossip rags and obscure websites. That includes the HFPA president, Philip Berk, who supposedly writes for Malaysia's Galaxie magazine and Australia's FilmInk, though I had trouble finding his byline in either. You won't find, say, the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw or the Globe and Mail's Liam Lacey in the HFPA's member directory. They're among the scores of reputable film critics for foreign publications whose input is eschewed in favor of — allow me to choose blindly here — Husam "Sam" Asi's. The Internet tells me he's a struggling filmmaker who founded UK Screen, for which he writes articles about, among other subjects, the Golden Globes.

How could an awards ceremony as prominent as the Globes, which air Sunday night, be decided by this group of unknown, ethically adventurous sometime-writers? It's a question that American filmmakers and journalists have been asking for decades now, and yet the HFPA continues, in the words of Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, "perpetrating a scam that would make Bernie Madoff blush." But is the association really to blame? Perhaps it's time we, the press and public, took a look at ourselves.

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The HFPA wasn't Hollywood's first foreign press association, but it was the first to endure. Formed in 1943, it began with a small group of journalists meeting in each other's homes, according to the official history. The association held its first awards ceremony a year later, when winners were honored with a scroll; the Golden Globe statue was introduced the following year. In 1951, the HFPA divided the best film, actor, and actress categories into "drama" and "comedy or musical," a distinction that riles film critics to this day. Four years later, the television categories were added.

Now the unofficial history. In 1968, the Federal Communications Commission accused the HFPA of misleading the public, alleging that Globe winners were determined by lobby rather than blind poll. NBC subsequently pulled the awards ceremony from its broadcast for nearly a decade. In 1982, actress Pia Zadora won "New Star of the Year" for her performance in Butterfly, defeating the likes of Elizabeth McGovern (Ragtime) and Kathleen Turner (Body Heat). Her millionaire husband Meshulam Riklis, who funded the film, had invited a dozen HFPA members to Zadora's show in Las Vegas, and had hosted other members at his Beverly Hills mansion. Furthermore, Butterfly hadn't even been released yet, and should never have been: It was panned, with Zadora winning Razzies for "Worst Actress" and "Worst New Star." A year later, the HFPA dropped the "New Star of the Year" award.

The scandals since then are too many to list, so I'll fast forward to last year, when it was revealed that: seven members have credited roles in Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere; the HFPA "took a Sony-sponsored trip to Las Vegas to see Cher in concert, then gave her picture [Burlesque] a stunning best picture nod," according to the Los Angeles Times; and the HFPA's PR chief Michael Russell quit over "unsavory" and "questionable" business practices, writing to Berk, "This is the fifth year I have handled PR for the HFPA and Golden Globes with you as president, and this year was by far the worst as your conduct climbed to a new outrageous level."

It's little wonder, then, that many filmmakers and American journalists think the Globes are "just as vacuous as ever," "have zero integrity and credibility," "a fascinating dynamic of greed and ambition," "the entertainment industry's dirty little secret," "just a group of whores from other countries," and so on. (And yes, the list does go on.) But is this just a bunch of sour grapes? More often than not, it's the snubbed filmmakers who, having been denied artistic recognition (and a marketing opportunity), disparage the Globes. And members of the non-foreign press are probably a wee bit jealous that the opinions of their international peers — the little known or respected ones, no less — are given such weight, while the awards of, say, the National Society of Film Critics — which includes Roger Ebert, David Denby, Kenneth Turan, and Andrew Sarris — are relatively ignored.

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