HFPA's picks matter in Academy Awards race

If the producers of “Atonement” rack up a healthy number of Academy Award nominations later this month, they probably should say a silent prayer of thanks to the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Joe Wright’s romantic drama hasn’t figured heavily among national critics honors. Still, it can boast seven Golden Globe nominations, more than any other film this year. That’s the kind of credential Oscar voters notice, and it’s a testament to the increasing impact of the Globes as an Academy bellwether.

Well-reviewed movies lacking year-end distinctions gain stature from their presence on the HFPA’s nominations list. “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “Michael Clayton,” 2007 films more or less left out in the cold by critics orgs, are believed to have enhanced their Oscar potential by virtue of Globe attention.

“Sweeney Todd,” which was entirely ignored by the SAG Awards, remains an Oscar contender by virtue of its four Globe noms.

On the other hand, two multiple crix winners whose arthouse aura might be thought to limit their Academy appeal, “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” benefit from their Globe nods, which in essence say: It’s actually mainstream; this is a winner.

Conversely, the Globes list can diminish the buzz of films trying to get onto the Academy’s radar screen. Oscar-bound momentum of “Cinderella Man” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005 and “Flags of Our Fathers” and “The Good Shepherd” in 2006 slowed when the Globes ignored them. (And HFPA categories often expand to six or seven nominees, making a title’s absence even more dramatic.)

Certainly the Globes’ imprimatur is by no means a guarantee of a film’s Oscar heft. Golden Globe nods for picture did nothing to enhance the chances of 2004′s “Kinsey” or 2005′s “Match Point” (one Oscar nom apiece) or last year’s “Bobby” (zero Academy recognition).

Still, since the Globes began to clean up their act and court respectability three decades ago, they’ve taken on the visibility and influence once wielded by the august New York Film Critics Circle from 1935 to the mid-1960s. No less a giant than John Ford once opined that he’d rather win kudos from the New York panel than any other honor (presumably including his four Oscars for director). The NYCC’s citation was “the greatest honor anyone in my profession can achieve,” said John Huston, and the profession noticed. From the group’s inception, almost never did a Circle winner not appear among the Oscar nods in that category.

But the Circle’s influence began to wane when dissidents broke off to form the National Society of Film Critics in 1966. In the ensuing decades, critics’ associations proliferated in most major cities, as did broadcast and Internet groups, each with its own end-of-the-year slate.

So many awards are now announced in December and January that none stands apart as pre-eminent. Moreover, increasingly highbrow tastes on the part of many scribes set many of their honorees apart from the movies likely to be honored by the Academy.

That leaves the Golden Globe nominees. Historically, even the winners don’t get a big B.O. bounce. But the Globes do help to focus Academy attention, a fact that won’t change even with this Sunday’s press conference. A Globe nomination, even minus a win, marks a film as “awardworthy,” and that’s a bellwether to which Academy voters can respond.

The cachet of a voted nominations slate, combined with its timing (Academy members are only starting to vote when the HFPA announces its selections) , puts a limited number of titles into the voters’ minds. Those are the titles that will be pulled out of the DVD pile.

Small wonder that with rare exceptions, the Oscar picture nominees tend to come straight out of the Golden Globes categories: generally three or four from drama, the remainder from comedy/musical. It’s great news for the 12 pics on this year’s HFPA shortlist — and a bummer for those that failed to make the cut.

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