Statue of limitations?

The Golden Globes fight a bum rap, but truth is ... they matter

First, it was said the Golden Globes were going to be hurt by the shortened awards season, that they would be squeezed out by the new Oscar timetable and lose their value to the Hollywood community.

Then, supposedly, the screener ban would compromise the choices of the HFPA and render this year’s Globes insignificant.

Then they were attacked as trivial — and worse — in a recent cable TV documentary.

But like the Energizer bunny, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. and its annual kudosfest just keep going and going.

When nominations were announced at the crack of dawn Dec. 18, the same level of enthusiasm, disappointment and relief that usually greets the unveiling of the list was palpable in the room packed with overcaffeinated publicists and studio reps eager to splash news of their movies’ success all over trade, newspaper and TV ads. Business as usual.

And with a recent trend where nine out of the past 10 Oscar winners for best picture first won a Globe as best pic, either comedy or drama, attention must be paid. Competition is so intense this year that even some studio heads reportedly got personally involved in courting the Globe vote.

So now that we are assured the Globes are safe for another year — their 61st — what do the nominations actually tell us about where we are in this whacked-out awards season?

Some had speculated the HFPA would take out its anger over the screener ban on the majors rumored to be mostly behind it, namely 20th Century Fox, Warners and Disney. Instead, Disney had one of its better recent showings, managing to land noms for six pictures along with a share of the Miramax booty. Fox got a best drama pic and two other major noms for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and Warners scored five major noms, including best drama, for “Mystic River,” along with actor and supporting actor nods for “The Last Samurai.” So much for taking it out on the big guy.

As for the ban’s impact on the indies and studio specialty divisions, where protests were loudest, 31 noms indicate the little guy was seen and heard this year.

Although HFPA prexy Lorenzo Soria downplays any notion that his org tries to have an impact on the Oscar race, it is still generally considered a good bet that many Globe nominees also will be getting early wakeup calls Jan. 27, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences unveils its list.

With its eight noms covering just about every major category it was eligible for, “Cold Mountain” would seem to be well-positioned to triumph because the film with the most noms usually wins. But with five key noms for “Mystic River” and four for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” nothing is certain. “Mystic” is probably the best-reviewed film of the year, while the “Rings” trilogy is riding its third consecutive best pic nom, a first in Globes history. Many believe a win at the Globes, followed by numerous Academy nods two days later, would pretty much seal the Oscar deal for the final chapter of the New Line trilogy.

Two other major studio showcases, “Master and Commander” and “Seabiscuit,” round out the competitive best pic (drama) field, although, considering the pedigrees of the other contenders, both would have to be considered long shots, especially as “Seabiscuit” failed to get directing or writing noms. No drama pic nominee has gone on to win without also being nominated in at least one of those categories.

The other best picture race, for musical or comedy, has vaulted “Lost in Translation,” with its five noms, to a place no other film has been in since the HFPA started dividing up drama and comedy contenders more than 50 years ago. It’s the only comedy nominee this year that managed to nab acting noms in either top comedy category (Bill Murray for actor and Scarlett Johansson for actress). The other contenders — “Finding Nemo,” “Bend It Like Beckham,” “Love Actually” and “Big Fish” — fielded no noms in the top acting slots (although Albert Finney is in supporting for “Fish”). That’s a first for the Globes, which usually peppers the lead acting noms with thesps from the comedy or musical pic list.

That could translate into a golden night Jan. 25 for “Lost,” which is also the only comedy contender that scored a directing nod — for Sofia Coppola, who is aiming to become the first American woman to nab a Globe in the helming race.

But look out for “Nemo,” as the year’s top grosser may be irresistible to Globe voters who have shown a penchant for animation in this category: Past winners include 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” 1994’s “The Lion King” and animation of a different sort in 1995’s “Babe” (which beat, among others, Pixar’s “Toy Story”).

Tight race

The acting races promise to provide plenty of suspense as previous drama actor winners Russell Crowe, Tom Cruise and Ben Kingsley face off against Sean Penn and Jude Law, who have yet to cash in a Globe nomination. Cruise is an HFPA favorite, gaining his first nom at the beginning of his career in 1983 for “Risky Business” and winning for “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Jerry Maguire” and “Magnolia.” This year, his nom came for “The Last Samurai,” but its failure to get a drama pic nom could be a negative, especially going against Crowe, Penn and Law, who are all in drama pic nominees.

Penn, previously nominated for “Dead Man Walking,” would seem to be a favorite for “Mystic River,” although another highly regarded film he starred in this year, “21 Grams,” was shut out by the Globes. Kingsley is an imposing presence in the group, but his is the sole nomination for “House of Sand and Fog” — not a good sign. Law can’t be counted out, considering the strength of “Mountain,” and Crowe, with “Master and Commander” marking his fourth nom in five years, obviously is admired by the foreign press. The winner of the Globe in this category for the past five years has not repeated on Oscar night.

Actress in a drama is anybody’s game, but traditionally the Globes have honored glamorous actresses who transform themselves in serious roles, such as Sharon Stone in “Casino” and Nicole Kidman last year in “The Hours.” This bodes well for this year’s makeover candidate, Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wournos in “Monster.” Kidman is, like ex-husband Cruise, a three-time Globe champ going for her fourth in a Civil War-era epic. So, if nothing else, it ought to make the red-carpet arrivals show interesting.

Cate Blanchett’s surprise nod for her well-reviewed but little-seen performance in “Veronica Guerin” seems a triumph in itself, but a win might be harder to come by. And because the HFPA has always loved newcomers, don’t count out “Thirteen’s” Evan Rachel Wood and especially double nominee Scarlett Johansson, whose twin noms in drama for “Girl With a Pearl Earring” and comedy for “Lost in Translation” put her in the select company of Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Diane Keaton and Julianne Moore, who have pulled off a similar feat in the past.

A brief look at some of the other categories sees six-time Globe nominee Jamie Lee Curtis up for the same role in the 2003 “Freaky Friday” remake that earned Barbara Harris a nod for the 1977 original. Curtis could provide the most competition for Johansson and early favorite Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (the National Board of Review’s pick) as actress in a comedy or musical.

The actor in a musical or comedy race pits Murray, the frontrunner and critical fave, against Jack Nicholson, Jack Black, Johnny Depp and Billy Bob Thornton, constituting perhaps the most raucous and rowdy group of actors ever to compete for a Globe. Some insiders are saying Depp could pull off an upset for his mascara-laden swashbuckler in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Vets vs. rookies

The supporting categories, which are not divided into comedy or drama, provide some of the year’s toughest competition, with supporting actor pitting veterans Finney, Alec Baldwin in “The Cooler,” William H. Macy in “Seabiscuit” and Tim Robbins in “Mystic River” against relative unknowns Peter
Sarsgaard for “Shattered Glass” and Japan’s Ken Watanabe for “The Last Samurai.” The sentimental vote says Finney, but this could be the closest tally of the night.

Supporting actress contenders Patricia Clarkson, Holly Hunter, Hope Davis and Maria Bello all come from indies, with Clarkson making a strong case by already winning a host of critics awards for her “Pieces of April” perf. The fifth nominee, Renee Zellweger, is a two-time Globe winner and might be regarded as a front runner in this category for a third as the scene-stealing Ruby in “Cold Mountain.”

Unlike their Academy counterparts, Globe winners for director and screenplay often differ from the eventual best pic winners, so the competition is wide open and unpredictable.

Considering this is his third nom in a row for the “Rings” saga, Peter Jackson probably has a slight edge over Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Anthony Minghella and Peter Weir, but it’s one of the most impressive directorial lineups the Globes has had in years. Jim Sheridan, whose well-liked “In America” was tipped by Globe insiders to be in the pic race but isn’t, could pull off a win for screenplay (where he is nominated along with his daughters) to make up for the snub. But he faces heavyweight competition from Coppola for “Lost,” Minghella for “Mountain,” Brian Helgeland for “Mystic River” and Richard Curtis for “Love Actually,” which, unlike Sheridan’s film, are all best pic nominees.

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