Oscar influence, comic-relief elevate Golden Globes

Saturday, January 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ In Hollywood, zaniness is sometimes all you need to get respect _ as long as it's televised.

Consider the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a group of roughly 90 foreign entertainment journalists whose annual awards show Sunday night presents some of the most valued honors in show business _ the Golden Globes.

Top celebrities flock to the formal event, saying that _ compared to the sober Academy Awards _ they relish the party atmosphere of the Globes, where off-color remarks and goofy acceptance speeches are encouraged.

``The Hollywood Foreign Press, they're pretty cool. I always loved their offbeat choices of people nominated,'' said actress Thora Birch, herself an offbeat nominee this year for ``Ghost World.''

Behind the scenes, however, stars and studios campaign hard for Golden Globe honors, filling the trade newspapers with ``for your consideration'' ads and schmoozing with voters.

What makes the opinions of this small group of overseas writers so important? Two things: timing and television.

The NBC broadcast exposes winners to a national audience after the Oscar nomination ballots are mailed to Academy voters but before the return deadline.

``This is a rehearsal for the Oscars,'' said Entertainment Weekly awards expert Dave Karger. ``When someone wins a Golden Globe and gives a great speech and makes viewers root for them, people in the industry take notice.''

The awards themselves can seem like an afterthought, he added.

Most people remember that Renee Zellweger was caught in the bathroom when she won last year, but they probably don't remember that she won for best comedic actress for ``Nurse Betty,'' Karger said.

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has a record of choosing Oscar winners, such as ``Titanic,'' ``American Beauty'' and ``Gladiator.'' It fares well with performances, too, having honored Hilary Swank for ``Boys Don't Cry,'' Julia Roberts for ``Erin Brockovich'' and Jack Nicholson for ``As Good as It Gets.''

It's unclear, however, whether Globe voters actually influence the Oscars or just align themselves with the front-runners. Dark-horse Oscar nominees who pull off victories _ such as supporting actress winner Marcia Gay Harden for last year's ``Pollock'' _ rarely register at the Globes.

The Foreign Press also has separate categories for comedies and dramas _ the Oscars don't _ which double the Globes' chances of selecting winners.

In 1998, the top Oscar rivals ``Saving Private Ryan'' and ``Shakespeare in Love'' won best dramatic picture and best comedic picture, respectively, at the Globes. ``Shakespeare'' went on to claim the Oscar.

The Hollywood Foreign Press has struggled to find a level of prestige following years of allegations about voting irregularities. Few critics will let the group forget its decision to honor actress Pia Zadora in 1982 for the soft-core bomb ``Butterfly,'' which prompted network television to drop the awards show for many years.

The Globes began in 1945 when a coalition of foreign movie journalists united to push for more access to celebrities. At the time, international markets were of little interest to Hollywood and domestic writers dominated interview schedules.

The awards won the Hollywood Foreign Press more attention, but the ceremony itself was thought to have little merit _ which accounted for the tradition of irreverence.

``That's a badge of honor now,'' said Tom O'Neil, author of the book ``Movie Awards'' and proprietor of Goldderby.com, which tracks award predictions. ``The irony is that the foreign journalist had trouble being taken seriously until they surrendered to the reputation.''

Now NBC has parlayed the jocularity into steady ratings. The Globes broadcast has averaged about 22 million viewers in recent years and earns the Hollywood Foreign Press about $2 million annually.

But that success, coupled with its unsteady background, has also made the Golden Globes a prime target for toppling.

The International Press Academy launched its own Golden Satellite Awards in 1996 as a rival to the Globes, but the ceremony has never attracted much media attention.

This year, the American Film Institute, a group dedicated to studying and preserving movies, held its first AFI Awards. But although its board of voters was a prestigious group of critics, filmmakers, actors and industry professionals, Sissy Spacek _ named best actress for ``In the Bedroom'' _ was the only acting winner to attend.