Sunday night's star-studded bash at the Beverly Hilton displayed all the senseless hyperbole, the sweeping proclamations of universal love, the tears, glitter and occasional flashes of genuine wit that we have come to expect from that archetypal Hollywood awards ceremony, the Oscars. Only these weren't the Oscars, but the Golden Globes - the influential, closely scrutinised precursor to the Academy Awards that have been described as a kind of New Hampshire primary of the Hollywood prize-giving season.
In a film world where marketing is king, and nominations for big awards translate into millions at the box office, the Globes are serious stuff - serious enough for every one of Sunday night's lucky winners, even if they were too emotional to remember the names of their co-stars, to pay reverent homage to the event's sponsors, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Leaving the fate of one of Hollywood's biggest nights of the year in the hands of a bunch of journalists may seem suspect enough, but the Foreign Press Association does not even live up to the dubious respectability of its ponderous title. We are not talking about respected critics here, or even the carefully selected representatives of major newspapers and media organisations from around the world. No, the HFPA is little more than a pampered clique, an 82-member body largely made up of freelances and part-timers which jealously guards its privileges and makes it supremely difficult for outsiders - even bona fide reporters from major publications such as Le Monde - to penetrate its world of special advance screenings, celebrity lunches and all-expenses-paid trips to film festivals.
For years the HFPA was considered a bit of a joke, and film stars treated the Golden Globes - if they bothered to turn up at all - as an excuse to have a laugh, drink too much and josh each other at the podium microphone. But that was before the miracle-working powers of network television intervened.
Last year, 24 million people in the United States alone followed the proceedings on NBC; it attracts so much top-dollar advertising that a relatively unfrilly ceremony takes more than three hours to unspool on prime time. The foreign press's ability to predict, and possibly influence, the mainstream sensibilities of the Academy (four of the last five Oscar- winning films were also Golden Globe recipients) has simply overwhelmed the frequent ethical misgivings about a voting body that receives publicity perks and other favours from the makers of the films it is asked to pronounce upon.
Compared to the Academy, whose 5,000-odd members are all industry professionals and are banned from receiving any perks from the studios beyond videotapes of their films, the Foreign Press Association looks distinctly eccentric. Its members have included a retired engineer, the chair of the pan-African studies department at Cal State university, a man who markets automobiles, and a shop assistant in a hi-fi store.
The body has admitted that at least 40 per cent of its members are not full-time journalists, but the rules stipulate only that members should show proof of four published articles or broadcast pieces per year. There are an awful lot of submissions from writers claiming to write "for Costa Rican and Czech publications".
When The Washington Post published a widely publicised denunciation of the Foreign Press Association two years ago, it discovered that a correspondent for Le Monde had been turned down for membership four or five times. Under the group's bylaws, a sitting member has the power of veto over any applicant - even one who works for a competing paper.
The attractions of membership are undeniable. Press screenings of new films are usually accompanied by lunch or dinner, and invariably followed up by exclusive interview opportunities with the director and leading actors. Foreign press members are invariably showered with freebies - not just baseball caps and T-shirts, but valuable gifts such as a silver money-clip to promote Martin Scorsese's movie Casino).
Trips to locations and film festivals are common, with the association usually paying for the flights and the studio picking up the hotel bill. Members who may spend much of the year pursuing entirely different forms of employment can find themselves on the receiving end of an all-expenses- paid return trip to Cannes or Venice.
Thanks to the Golden Globes, there is money galore for such enterprises. According to tax returns and other documents published in the entertainment newspaper Variety, the Foreign Press Association made $1.5m from the 1997 event and - largely because of strict rules governing what non-profit organisations can and can not spend money - has a cash pile of about $3.5m. There are plans to build a new headquarters, complete with state-of-the- art screening facilities. To the association's credit, it also gives increasing chunks of cash to charity.
Why does the industry put up with such a dubious crowd? One answer is that the Golden Globes, having become an accident on the path to the Oscars, have now become too prominent to ignore, and hang the niceties. Another, loudly proclaimed in publications such as The Washington Post and Rolling Stone, both of which have aimed broad jabs at the event, is the very suggestibility of the HFPA. The studios can lavish gifts and attention on a group of hungry, star-struck pseudo-journalists, the argument runs, and in return their films and stars can be rewarded with the glare of media publicity.
Certainly, there have been occasions when the foreign press's activities have aroused widespread suspicion. In 1981, HFPA members were treated to several days of entertainment in Las Vegas by Meshulam Riklis, married at the time to Pia Zadora. When Zadora was named "new female star of the year" for her work in the eminently forgettable movie Butterfly, it caused such a storm that the Globes were considered off limits for network television for several years.
There were similar murmurs in 1993 after Al Pacino was named "best actor" for his work in Scent of a Woman. A few weeks earlier, the HFPA had been off in New York on a promotional trip that included interview time with Pacino. The scandal was muted by the fact that Pacino gave a genuinely impressive performance - one that also netted him the Best Actor Oscar.
Occasionally prominent film-makers have complained about lavishing so much attention on the foreign press. In 1993, the director Rob Reiner complained to The New York Times that the exclusive press conferences he had given had seemed to be little more than an opportunity for HFPA members to have their photographs taken with their favourite movie stars. Such complaints are rare, however, because of the sheer power of the Hollywood publicity machine.
More often, stars and studios will actively cultivate the HFPA. After a press conference to promote Casino, in which she played the wife of a mafioso casino operator, Sharon Stone sent hand-written thank-you notes to each member. She went on to win the Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. One of the HFPA's favourite charities, the American Foundation for Aids Research, is chaired by Sharon Stone, and she is a regular fixture at the awards ceremony.
The complaints and press denunciations have had some effect. The current president of the Foreign Press Association, a German journalist called Helmut Voss, has promised a review of the association's admissions procedure. As part of its broadcasting agreement for the Golden Globes, NBC this year required that association members sign a waiver agreeing not to accept excessive gifts or hospitality.
The Washington Post reported that this covered "any gifts other than those that are the customary promotional gifts of the studios" - wording that, the paper suggested, was vague enough to leave plenty of room for abuses.
Although this year's awards were broadly in line with industry expectations, with Shakespeare in Love, Saving Private Ryan and The Truman Show winning the lion's share, that has not stopped gossip over some nominations. Terrence Malick's war epic The Thin Red Line received not a single mention - which irked the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, enough to point out that less than 50 per cent of the HFPA had turned up to the special screening.
Meanwhile Patch Adams, a Robin Williams comedy, earned itself a best film nomination in the comedy/musical section even though it was roundly panned by every leading newspaper.
None of these misgivings was aired at the ceremony itself, of course. The closest thing to sarcasm came from Jack Nicholson, recipient of a lifetime achievement award and a man too well established in the business to have much to lose. With his deadpan delivery and wickedly ambiguous smile, he said he particularly appreciated the award because it didn't come from a peer group. "The Hollywood foreign press is a loose group of guys and gals," he said. "You almost feel you could go out and have fun with them."
Otherwise, the tone was of impeccable deference. HFPA President Voss, a veteran writer for the Springer press group, perhaps summed it up best as he was introduced on to the stage - looking for all the world like a man who can't believe his good fortune at being the object of such prestigious adulation.
"To be a journalist, have an accent like Erich von Stroheim and be kissed by Sharon Stone," he gushed. "Only in America."