Richard J. Leskosky: And the winner is ...
This time of year, Hollywood is awash in awards ceremonies, all leading up to the industry acme: the Academy Awards. There are basically two sorts of organizations that present awards during this season — guilds of Hollywood professionals who actually make movies and societies of critics and reviewers who write about them. (Film festivals present awards, too, of course, but they occur all throughout the year.)
All the different talents involved in the production of a movie have their own guilds: the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, for instance. These organizations present awards to people working in their specific areas and pretty much ignore the rest. The American Society of Cinematographers, for example, honors the person actually in charge of the camera and could not care less about the puppets emoting in front of it (as long as they're lit well).
Guild awards are generally considered good indicators of Oscar nominations and winners because guild memberships overlap so much with the constituency of the academy's different branches (actors, editors, directors, cinematographers, etc.) — which are responsible for selecting the nominees for their respective categories. Everyone in the academy then votes for every nominee, though, so the final correlation between Oscar winners and the various guild award winners is not perfect.
The other sort of award-presenting society consists of film critics and reviewers. They are scattered across the country organized around major cities (the Chicago Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association) or parts of the country (the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the Northeastern Film Critics Circle, the North Texas Film Critics Association).
Like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, these groups make awards across all categories of talent involved in filmmaking and also name a best picture of the year; in some cases, they will distinguish between dramas and comedies, whereas the Oscars do not.
Have no doubts that Hollywood is happy to receive these awards. (If you started giving out film awards on your basement computer, Hollywood would be happy to accept those, too.)
But critics' awards do not carry much weight in the industry because they have little public recognition. They're good for one or two days of limited local newspaper coverage, and that's about it. Studios will, of course, list them in ads for their films and mention them on the cases when the films go to DVD or Blu-ray, but they don't really care because they don't think the public cares.
Plus, if you accept critics' awards for your work, you pretty much have to accept their brickbats as being equally valid, don't you? Only rarely will some Hollywood talent go on record attacking the work of a peer, but critics attack Hollywood artists and their productions all the time.
John Simon, who wrote film reviews for New York magazine for 36 years, was notorious for his acerbic comments on every aspect of a film, including the physical appearance of its performers. And Roger Ebert compounds and extends the impact of his negative reviews by collecting them into best-selling anthologies with eye-catching and unambiguous titles such as "I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie."
The Golden Globes, given out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and televised a week ago, represent the major exception to Hollywood's underlying disregard for critics' awards.
The HFPA has been around since the early 1940s and consists of about 90 journalists from more than 50 foreign countries who cover American entertainment news. It presents awards for both film and television achievements and distinguishes between drama and comedies in its categories.
That's a more equitable arrangement than the academy's, which puts dramas and comedies together usually to the detriment of the comedies. And it also means that the HFPA can attract that many more celebrities to its awards ceremony. That helped get it televised, and that in turn attracted even more celebs.
But that comedy/drama division can lead to some strange results, as demonstrated this year. The HFPA's nondrama category is not simply "comedy" but "comedy or musical" after they conflated those categories in 1963. The association defines "musical" as "a comedy or drama where the songs are used in place of spoken dialogue to further the plot." The combined category makes some sense if you consider musicals to be light entertainment, and that's OK for something like "My Fair Lady" (1964 winner) or "The Sound of Music" (1965 winner). Even musicals of a darker stripe like "Cabaret" (1972 winner) or "Chicago" (2002 winner) exhibit significant comic moments and wry humor. And although a major character dies in "Moulin Rouge" (2001 winner), the film as a whole is so flamboyant that it makes sense to classify it separately from drama.
That said, last week's "Les Miserables" win in this category against "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom," "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" and "Silver Linings Playbook" still seemed like a high-stakes version of the Sesame Street game "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others."
"Les Miserables" may not be as grim as "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," (the 2007 winner; I'm not sure how their respective body counts measure up), but at least the earlier film was competing against a couple other less-intense musicals ("Across the Universe" and "Hairspray") as well as a couple of comedies ("Charlie Wilson's War" and "Juno").
With respect to its sometimes odd selections, the HFPA has something of a reputation for being, to put it diplomatically, "easily influenced" by elements of a film not viewable on the screen. Show business maven Nikki Finke in her "Deadline Hollywood" (the best website for inside Hollywood news) posting on Dec. 13 put it more bluntly: "it's a completely meaningless awards show from a scandal-riddled organization aired by a production company desperate for money on a network praying for ratings."
According to her, the industry does not regard the awards as anything other than advance publicity for the Oscars.
The scandals Finke refers to most notably include Pia Zadora being named "Newcomer of the Year" for her role in "Butterfly" in 1981 after her husband flew voting members to his Las Vegas casino and the nomination in 2010 of "The Tourist" in the Comedy or Musical category after distributor Sony flew HFPA members to Vegas to see Cher perform. ("Burlesque," starring Cher, also received a nomination in this category).
Sony really wanted "The Tourist," a thriller of sorts starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie (both also nominated for acting in a comedy or musical), in the drama category. So if there actually was bribery involved, the irony rivals the malfeasance in the results.
"The Tourist," by the way, gets a 20 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and a 37 percent rating on Metacritic.com, while "Burlesque" gets 36 percent and 47 percent, respectively. Neither did well at the box office, either, and neither won any comedy or musical Golden Globes (though "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from "Burlesque" did win as best original song).
It's a two-way street, though. The foreign press loves to hang out with the beautiful people of Hollywood or the well-connected of New York (e.g., Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO series "Girls"), and they'll do what they can to curry favor. How else can you explain the presence of Mr. and Miss Golden Globes at the awards ceremony — adult children of celebrities who help steer recipients on and off stage?
A cynic might also opine that if the HFPA had known sufficiently in advance that Steven Spielberg was going to get Bill Clinton to show up to introduce the "Lincoln" clips then that film and not "Argo" would have won as best drama. But then, that same cynic might also suspect that Spielberg was really just trying to nail down a subsequent multiple Oscar sweep.
Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.