Cameron's Avatar Takes Golden Globe Glory

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Frank Micelotta / Getty

After winning the Golden Globe for best director, James Cameron celebrates at the FOX party in Century City.

If it's only January and the Hollywood swells are assembling in tuxedos and evening dresses, you know it must be an award show of dubious provenance but free television exposure. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, king-of-the-movie-world James Cameron: if you offer them the chance to win a prize on TV, they will come. Thus on Friday the Broadcast Film Critics Association presented its star-clogged Critics Choice Awards, hosted by Broadway and prime-time cutie Kristin Chenoweth. And Sunday night found the Hollywood Foreign Press Association rounding up all the usual suspects, plus famous folks not up for anything — Mel Gibson, Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to name but a few — to lend their allure to the 67th Golden Globe Awards. British comedian Ricky Gervais was the impish, entertaining host.

In most of the categories on both shows, the same people were winners. Best Actor: Jeff Bridges for his role as an alky singer in Crazy Heart. Best Actress, at both: Streep for Julie & Julia and Bullock for The Blind Side. (At the Golden Globes, to get more stars to show up, the actors' awards are split into Comedy/Musical and Drama.) Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds. Best Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. Only in the Picture and Director categories did the two groups disagree. The Broadcast Critics gave those awards to Kathryn Bigelow, and her Iraq bomb-squad drama The Hurt Locker, while the HFPA cited Cameron, Bigelow's ex-husband, and Avatar. "Frankly, I thought Kathryn was gonna get this," Cameron generously said at the Globes. "And she richly deserves it."

As harbingers of the March 7 Academy Awards, whose nomination ballots are still in the hands of the members (they'll be announced on February 2) the two ceremonies boosted the pedigree of Avatar — now it's not just the runaway blockbuster of the millennium — and dented the chances of an early Best Picture favorite, Up in the Air, which won only a screenplay award from each group. Bridges gets a leg up over his main rival, Up in the Air's George Clooney; and Bullock, once a long shot for a Best Actress nomination, now looks to be short-listed with Streep, as well as becoming the first actress to have a $200 million grossing movie to her name for The Blind Side. Waltz and 'Nique have had their Oscars locked down since winning a slew of awards last month from critics' groups that don't have their ceremonies on TV.

Those groups (like the New York Film Critics Circle, of which I am a member) comprise mostly reviewers for daily and weekly print publications. Not so those who choose the Globes and Critics Choice awards. The 199 members of the BFCA, North America's largest film-critic group, are a mix of reviewers for radio and TV — a dwindling fraternity, as are the print critics — and the swelling contingent of industry bloggers.

The Association's President, Joey Berlin, has authored no criticism that I could find on line. His one published comment was a letter to the Los Angeles Times defending the sanctity of the press junket, in which the studios pay for reporters to come to Hollywood, pick up some swag and spend a few minutes chatting up stars and directors. Berlin extolled "the hard-working journalists who spend up to 40 or more weekends a year on the 'junket circuit,' gathering whatever juicy morsels they can to satisfy the insatiable appetite for news about Hollywood." And then they get to give an awards show: a dreadful, amateur, mean-spirited one, to judge from Friday's disaster. Its only fresh moment: when Bullock came onstage to share the Actress prize and planted Streep with a full-on kiss.

The quality of the HFPA membership has risen slightly since the days when it was thought to be a crowd of Beverly Hills florists and valet parkers loosely affiliated with foreign newspapers and magazines. But it remains a group of show business reporters, mostly, desperate for access to movie stars who, once a year, are avid to get free exposure by being on their show. The relationship is one of mutual parasitism, and deeply suspect. Live-blogging Sunday's Golden Globes show on her Deadline Hollywood web site, the asp-tongued industry reporter Nikki Finke wondered, "How many times is that annoying announcer going to ask the question, 'Will Avatar win Best Picture?' My answer is, 'Depends on how many Rolexes, Samsung DVD players, free food, and gambling trips to Vegas the studio gifted the HFPA members. Isn't that how it's done? Oh, wait, this was 20th Century Fox, the cheapest studio in Hollywood. Maybe the Avatar keychain was enough."

On Sunday night's show, Gervais alluded to the Heidi Fleiss-like relationship of the HFPA to Hollywood. After asking viewers to buy the DVD of his own movie, The Invention of Lying, he lurched into an introduction of the HFPA President: "One thing that can't be bought is a Golden Globe. Officially," he added, wagging his hand, and making the aside, "I'm not gonna do this again anyway." He continued: "But if you were to buy one, the man to see would be Philip Berk."

Gervais is a master of giddy irreverence; on last year's show, as a presenter, he heard a wince from the audience as he remarked, apropos The Reader, that "The trouble is, with holocaust films there's never any gag reel on the DVDs." Since the HFPA invited him back to preside over the whole thing — indeed, Gervais was the first host since 1995 — he took that as a license to kill, with his trademark acid wit, the stars he was introducing — especially if they'd been known to take a tipple. Making a solemn declaration against "prejudice and stereotype," he then said, "One stereotype I hate is that all Irishmen are just drunk, sweary hellraisers. Please welcome Colin Farrell." Later, holding a glass of beer, Gervais allowed, "I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is: Mel Gibson!"

It's been said that the true measure of star acting is the acceptance speech. They all have the same content ("I'm astonished to receive this ... Thanks to all the wonderful people I worked with ...") and differ only in the grace and humor with which they're delivered. By this standard, Robert Downey, Jr., a winner for best comedic performance, somehow, in Sherlock Holmes, merits an Oscar for his speech, in which he didn't just warn, "if you start playing violins I will tear this place apart," but also "refused" to thank his wife, producer and director; smartly done, sir. Streep, who followed the Best Song winner T-Bone Burnett, got a laugh by musing, "I want to change my name to T-Bone. T-Bone Streep." She also offered the pertinent observation that "I've in my long career played so many extraordinary women that basically I'm getting mistaken for one." The winner for Most Incoherent Speech would have to go to Drew Barrymore, whose thank-you — in recognition for her work in the HBO mini-series Grey Gardens — was a ditsy dither that seemed to channel both Sarah and Michael Palin.

As a "real" critic, I may both deplore and secretly envy the proximity that the BFCA and HFPA members enjoy with the celebrities they chronicle. At last Monday's New York Film Critics Circle dinner, I got to chat with Clooney and Bigelow and found them both warm, smart and gorgeous. But as I retreat to my rabbit hole and watch the parade of expensive, pampered flesh on the expertly produced Golden Globe show, I can thank the HPFA for aligning certain constellations — as when Sophia Loren, still statuesque and preternaturally well-preserved at 75, presented the Foreign Film award to Austria's Michael Haneke, the current dean of daunting drama, for The White Ribbon. The two shook hands, and the glamour and brains of a half-century of European cinema stood together. Haneke, usually dour, but now smiling, even thanked his wife and said, "I love you."

Or when De Niro and DiCaprio flanked their frequent director Martin Scorsese — bestowing upon him the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement — as Scorsese argued passionately for film preservation, quoting William Faulkner's "The past is never dead. It's not even past." At that moment it didn't matter who threw the party; it mattered only that the best movie people made it a memorable one.