A golden path to the Oscars?

Hollywood's latest prizes have whetted appetites for the Academy Awards, says Leslie Felperin. But how reliable a guide are they to the winners to come?
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The Independent Culture

The annual Golden Globe Awards held its 62nd edition on Sunday. The event has long been considered something of a dress rehearsal for the Oscars, not because anyone would be foolish enough to wear the same dress to both events, but because, historically, it has acted as a reasonable indicator of who will win the major awards.

The success rate seems all the more remarkable given that there's no overlap between the 5,800-or-so members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who decide for the Oscars and the 83 international journalists from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) who are eligible to vote for the Golden Globes. This means that the HFPA gives the impression of being attuned to the Hollywood zeitgeist, even though its international make-up might lead one to expect it would be more cosmopolitan and worldly than the mostly American-based Academy members. But the HFPA are people who live and sometimes die in LA, some of whom practically live off the buffet spreads put on by publicists at press junkets.

The one big difference between the Golden Globes and the Oscars is that the Globes split three of the major categories into six separate awards. So there is not just a prize for the best picture , but one for "Best Picture - Drama" and one for "Best Picture - Musical or Comedy", allowing two films to be honoured. Likewise, there are four top acting prizes: one for the best actor in a drama and one for the best actor in a musical or comedy, and two similar ones for the best actresses. Perhaps just to keep the ceremony from going on for ever, there's only one prize each for the best supporting actor and the best supporting actress.

This splitting of the categories gives the Globes a 50:50 chance of matching an Oscar result a month later. Effectively, the Globes provide an indicator of which two films are leading the pack, making the awards a sort of semi-final. Consider the statistics. In the last 20 years, the Globes have given a top prize in either of their categories 17 times to the film which went on to be the best picture at the Academy Awards. In the last five years, a Golden-Globe-winning best picture has won every year, with only one divergence in 10 years. (In 1996, the Globes honoured Sense and Sensibility as the best drama and Babe as the best comedy or musical, while the Oscar went to Braveheart.)

According to Variety, "in its 61 years, the HFPA's picks have had approximately a 77 per cent correlation with the Oscars' picture winner," which is a damned fine batting average. This means it's more than likely that the Oscars' best picture this year will either be The Aviator (the Globes' best drama) or Sideways (their best comedy).

Strangely enough, the Globes are a slightly more reliable indicator of who will be the Oscars' best actress than they are for the best actor. The Globes have largely matched the Oscars in the actress category for yonks - as far back as 1944, when Jennifer Jones won both for The Song of Bernadette, through to 1972, when Jane Fonda reaped both for Klute. In the last five years, there has been only one mismatch, when Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom) and Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge) won Globes, but Halle Berry took the Oscar for Monster's Ball.

This year's Golden girls were Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) and Annette Bening (Being Julia) - a bit of a blow for Brits hoping that Imelda Staunton will be the Oscars' best actress for Vera Drake. However, this is considered one of the wider-open races this year, given that the Academy is expected to hesitate over honouring Swank so recently after she won for Boys Don't Cry (in 2000), especially as the movies she's made between then and now have been so underwhelming (The Core, anybody?). Meanwhile, Being Julia garnered little attention either from the critics or at the box-office, although Bening's performance was praised. So Staunton, already a winner of several major critics' prizes, is still in with a good chance.

This week, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) and Jamie Foxx (Ray) took home the Globes' best-actor prizes. But this might not mean anything on Oscar night, since last year's victory for Sean Penn at both ceremonies was the first match-up in that category since 1996, when Nicolas Cage was the big winner for Leaving Las Vegas. However, statistically, the Globes have predicted more than half the best-actor winners.

When it comes to the best supporting actor and actress, the Globes' winning streak goes more wobbly, although in the last five years they have coincided four out of five times with the Oscar for the best supporting actor and three out of five times with the best supporting actress. This could be good news for British films, since Clive Owen won the prize this week for Closer, while his co-star, Natalie Portman, scooped the Best Supporting Actress gong.

Nevertheless, this year could mark the beginning of the end for the Golden Globes' status as Oscar predictors, because the Academy Awards have moved up the calendar from mid-March to late February. So, even before the stars got to the lobby of the Globes' venue, the Beverly Hills Hilton, on Monday night, the deadline for sending back Oscar ballots had already passed. That means that, unlike previous years, the outcome of the Globes could have no effect on the Academy's floating voters, who in previous years might be finally persuaded by having seen someone or some film honoured at the Globes, or having been moved or amused by a good speech or even an attractive frock.

That doesn't mean they're no longer important, observes Variety's awards season and party correspondent, Bill Higgins. "It's a good marketing tool for Hollywood when it's a dry season, as January and February historically are, especially for movies that came out months ago," he says. "Plus people love watching what actresses wear to these things." Higgins notes that influence has shifted more towards various critics' awards, usually handed out in December, and especially the ones dished out by the Broadcast Film Critics Association, whose awards ceremony was broadcast live in early January. (The BFCA's best picture was Sideways.)

Higgins has exposed some of the dirt which has slightly tarnished the Globes' reputation in the past. In 1999, each member received a very expensive Coach watch on behalf of Sharon Stone, a little thank-you for considering her for her performance in The Muse. The watches were returned just after Higgins broke the story. And old-timers still remember how very suspicious it was in 1982 when Pia Zadora won a Globe for her little-seen performance in Butterfly over Elizabeth McGovern for Ragtime and Kathleen Turner for Body Heat, among others, prompting accusations that her multi-millionaire husband, Meshulam Riklis, had "bought" the prize for her.

There are cynics and snobs who describe some of the HFPA's members as "muffin-stealers" - less than reputable hacks who publish in minor outlets and yet who have come to wield enormous power. Higgins points out that, lately, new, more reputable writers have joined their ranks, and that the Globes are well regarded in the industry as, at the very least, a good night out and good television. Yes, he agrees, it's a little strange that just 83 people enjoy a status on a par with the Delphic oracles of yore, but that's Hollywood.

"No one ever said this wasn't an illusion, you know?", says Higgins. "Show me the guy in the back row who ever said, 'This is real'. The Golden Globes are just part of the whole smoke and mirrors, part of the game."