In 1943, the same year that the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. was founded, movie screens were filled with a popular series of Warner Bros. cartoons that riffed on the “Tortoise and the Hare” Aesop fable, where the faster rabbit competes with the hopelessly outclassed tortoise and yet inexplicably loses the contest.
Midway through Tex Avery’s 1941 classic, “Tortoise Beats Hare,” the rabbit is exasperated and mystified by his inexplicable failure and one of the tortoise’s co-conspirators winks to the audience and announces, “We do this kinda stuff to him all through the picture!”
Think of the Academy’s Oscars as Bugs Bunny, the famous, well-heeled favorite to win and the HFPA’s Golden Globes as Cecil Turtle, the lesser-known, comical four-legged foil whose victory drives Bugs completely up the wall.
The Oscars have thousands of famous members and a board of governors packed with movie stars, studio chiefs and legendary filmmakers. The Globes have journeyman journalists who hail from foreign countries, none of them famous.
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Even more perilous in these millennial-catering times, HFPA members are mostly not young, decidedly less than glamorous and here’s the real kicker: there are only around 90 voting members.
Earlier this year, Vox’s Caroline Framke “explained” the Globes by describing them as “the trendy, tipsy cousin of more ‘prestigious’ awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys” with “unpredictable ceremonies” and, crucially as it turns out, “an open bar.”
While their competition may have been friendly in the first 50 years of the HFPA’s existence, with the Golden Globes running a distant second in the minds of moviegoers to the powerful, famed Oscars, that all began changing about 25 years ago when Dick Clark Productions and the HFPA began getting major attention with the NBC network TV broadcast.
While the Globes have stayed consistently strong since then, annually delivering a water-cooler friendly show packed with colorful moments (Christine Lahti’s 1998 “bathroom break” acceptance speech) and hilarious, edgy hosts like Ricky Gervais, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, the Oscar’s have performed inconsistently, perhaps rattled by recent ratings erosion and searching for a new winning formula.
Reports regularly surface that the Academy’s leaders are dismayed by the Globe’s ratings and awards season impact and, determined to regain their clear-cut primacy, the Oscars have moved their broadcast dates and tested out a number of revamps and gimmicks on the telecats such as Seth MacFarlane’s homage to himself, and this year’s gaggle of befuddled tourists straggling off Hollywood Boulevard and into the show.
Given the declasse David vs. glitzy Goliath nature of this bout in the popular imagination, how could we be here 75 years after the HFPA’s founding watching the Academy’s moves and moods every year for a sign of how they’re currently viewing their perennially vexing competitor?
Perhaps most important to Globes’ rising fortunes, the tortoise of TV shows landed in a primetime viewing spot in January, a slot that was growing increasingly valuable as the Oscars, not hitting TV screens till late March, were winding up at the tail end of an increasingly long, crowded and sometimes sloggy awards season.
And just as in Avery’s Looney Tune, the HFPA “tortoise” has had allies in the awards season marathon. Ceremonies have popped up in the past few decades, including the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, the Indie Spirits, SAG Awards and People’s Choice.
Add on the arrival of internet at the end of the 20th century, which brought seemingly a million new “experts,” all promoting whatever aspect of awards jousts they could monetize. Then throw in a huge dollop of “serious” ascendant indie film culture, while the studios focused their budgets almost exclusively on franchise pictures with (men and women) in tights. End result: an Oscar show with lower movie star wattage and an abundance of films that your aunt in Topeka never saw.
By 2010, you had Academy watchers like Deadline’s Pete Hammond observing that the Academy board wanted to “deal a crushing blow to their competition … make the Academy Awards seem fresher as the public won’t feel such a sense of déjà vu in seeing the same nominees week after week for the long two months until Oscar finally shows up.”
And in yet another ironic turn in the road race, the HFPA’s decades-old decision to combine film and TV awards also began paying huge dividends in prestige and industry relevance. Peak TV is gobbling up the talents of Hollywood’s greatest actors, writers, directors and even the venerable Cannes Film Festival this year was aghast at the increasing respect and creative inroads being made by the Amazons and Netflixs of the world. Sharing their shock with the arbiters of auteurism, the Academy never imagined they’d be slugging it out for attention and importance with those upstarts from the cathode tube crowd!
Cut to: More fuel in the tortoise’s tank.
So as the HFPA rolls into its 75th anniversary, armed with goodwill from annually handing out millions of dollars to arts charities and good ratings for a consistently lively and star-studded awards show, it might be time for it to consider a mascot that symbolizes the organization’s durability and invincibility.
Since members are already chided every year by their detractors for the high percentage who qualify for senior discounts, there’s a little fellow who’s been running alongside them since their inception. All they need to do is make a deal with Warner Bros. and check to see if Cecil Turtle has his tuxedo shell pressed.