The Golden Globes Go to the Dogs

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Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Mickey Rourke, left, and Bruce Springsteen both picked up Golden Globes for their work on The Wrestler

Admit it, the show was better than last year's. You may recall that, in the face of the Screen Actors Guild's support for Hollywood's striking writers, the 2008 Golden Globes ceremony was a sad non-party, the winners' names announced with all the pizzazz of numbers being called at a deli counter. But last night the stars were out in their fancy frocks, as if to declare that, in a recession that looks to be heading south toward Black Plague territory, America needs both the elevated glamour of movie celebrity and the pert, reassuring familiarity of TV actors.

There they were, looking great, cracking wise, the winners getting moist on camera, the losers welling up in private in the bathrooms. One Brit producer said the F word (in joy, not anger), an American director gave his winning star the finger, and The Office's Ricky Gervais provoked a collective intake of breath, rather than the laugh he was hoping for, when he said, "The trouble is, with Holocaust films there's never any gag reel on the DVDs." Virtually all the town's royalty — except, unaccountably, those two prime party animals, Jack Nicholson and George Clooney— had been summoned by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), a mysterious enclave that, whatever else might be said of it, is one of America's few examples of insourcing. (See pictures of George Clooney.)

The Globes are supposed to be a bellwether for the Oscars, which is one reason that so many film folk came to the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Then there's the open bar and free eats (though the dinner portion is over by 5 p.m. P.T., when the TV broadcast begins). But the true compact between the HFPA mavens and the movie glitterati is this: We're going to lure all you Hollywood swells to our party — where you'll be seen by millions of TV viewers and you'll promote our lodge of foreign journalists — by nominating you for awards we'll then give to people in little films that few people will see.

The Anglo-Indian Slumdog Millionaire took four awards: film drama, director (Danny Boyle), screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy) and composer (A.R. Rahman). Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona was named best comedy, ahead of Happy-Go-Lucky and Mamma Mia! WALL-E won for animated feature, while the animated feature Waltz With Bashir was the best foreign language film. (Can't explain; too complicated.) The award for best actor in a drama went to Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler. Kate Winslet snagged both the dramatic actress prize for Revolutionary Road and the supporting actress trophy for The Reader. Ireland's Colin Farrell (In Bruges) and England's Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) received the top prizes for acting in a comedy. And the late Heath Ledger, in The Dark Knight, was declared best supporting actor, increasing his chances to become only the second actor to win a posthumous Oscar. The first was Peter Finch, who won the Best Actor Oscar for 1976's Network. (See pictures of TIME's favorite animated movies.)

These HFPA types are nobody's fools: they front-loaded the program with brand names. J. Lo, Bruce Springsteen and Winslet, the female lead of Titanic, all appeared before the first commercial. After that, it was pretty much the Independent Spirit Awards. Clint Eastwood, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep and other famous nominees were essentially table ornaments — party favors for the home viewer. The kings and queens sat there, camera-ready, for a call that never came. Instead of closeups on stage, thanking the little people, they got reaction shots when the awards went to the likes of Hawkins and Farrell. In Hollywood terms, last night, the little people won.

Foreign Agents
If you're keeping score, 10 foreigners won Golden Globe movie awards, compared with just three Americans: Rourke, WALL-E's Andrew Stanton and Allen (who made Vicky Cristina in Spain because he couldn't raise funds to shoot in the States). You could almost hear the muttering of the locals about their hosts: Don't they know they're the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, not the Hollywood Foreign Press Association? Somebody's going to scan the HFPA rolls to determine how many members come from India, and how many from Belgium.

So far, only two winning films — WALL-E and The Dark Knight — have made more than a fender-bending dent at the box office. Mind you, several of these pictures are just starting to get a wide domestic release. Rourke's film and both of Winslet's have a shot at moderate financial success, and Slumdog could be that rare film from the indies (or, this time, from India) that crosses over to mainstream-hit status. The film's U.S. distributor, Fox Searchlight, surely hopes that the publicity from the Globes victory will lift Slumdog into the multiplexes with the buoyancy the company enjoyed in 2007 and 2008 with Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, respectively.

On paper, the Boyle movie's odds of taking four top awards at the Globes were about the same as a poor kid's winning a bundle — and ultimately, the love of his life — by answering tough questions on the Indian edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But the film played to rapturous crowds at the Toronto Film Festival; it received infectiously enthusiastic reviews from the critics; and, most important, it boasts an emotional energy that lifts moviegoers out of their seats, making them eager to tell their friends about the experience. Slumdog is not a standard indie film: glum, poky, wee. It's a sprawling epic, saturated in melodrama and romance, and capped by a big, Bollywood-style production number. People aren't seeing the movie as homework; they're seeing it because they've heard it's something that Hollywood too rarely gives them: a film they can fall in love with.

The numbers are telling. At the domestic box office, this no-star drama has already earned more than $34 million — about double the cumulative take of three Golden Globe winners from last year (La Vie en Rose, Julie Christie as an Alzheimer's sufferer in Away from Her and Cate Blanchett's Bob Dylan impression in I'm Not There). It has already made more than what 2008's film drama winner, Atonement, had cadged by this time last year. Remember that Juno came out of nowhere a year ago and revved up to a $143 million domestic gross. Not that Slumdog has her wide appeal, but once in a while moviegoers look beyond the blockbusters and latch on to an exotic alternative. They might even learn something, like, Hey, they do make good movies in other countries.

See TIME's top 10 movies of 2008.

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