Golden Globes Once Again Provides Ripe Opportunity for Oscar Contenders

It was widely held that the overall favorite within the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. this year was Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It makes sense for a movie about America, told from an outside perspective, perhaps tone deaf in some areas but certainly biting in others. Some in the group felt it should not have been in the drama category, given its scathing black humor, but that wasn’t enough to derail its potential in the end. The organization showered McDonagh’s film with four awards Sunday night, including best picture, drama.

Cue a hundred “what does it mean for the Oscars?” headlines…

It means precious little. To reiterate the usual point, this is a group of 80 or so foreign journalists, a far cry from an 8,000-strong group of industry professionals. What the HFPA does provide, however, is an opportunity in the thick of Oscar voting, a ceremony beamed into living rooms worldwide as Academy members sit with ballots in hand. So with that in mind, “Three Billboards” and this year’s best picture, comedy or musical, winner, “Lady Bird,” get to capitalize on the exposure.

But the tenor of the evening wasn’t at all one about what all of this portends in the Oscar (or Emmy) race. It was about an industry on the verge of a shift, and a rally cry that time is up.

Salma Hayek’s “Three Billboards” introduction crescendoed with that very refrain, from the stage and from the audience; Allison Janney pivoted “I, Tonya” to a larger idea about examining class; Gary Oldman remarked about how “Darkest Hour” reminds of the power of words to change a world that needs changing; Natalie Portman dragged the HFPA for not nominating a female director, as did Barbra Streisand in her own way. It was an issue-driven evening, with the awards themselves feeling (perhaps rightly) like a side spectacle, interstitials in a program dominated by activism.

It was also an evening punctuated by an Oprah Winfrey speech, in accepting the HFPA’s Cecil B. DeMille Award, that thundered like some star-making keynote…except she was already the biggest star in the room.

But let’s look at those winners. “Three Billboards” is a story about “compassion,” Sam Rockwell said in accepting the supporting actor prize; it’s a movie, taken to task in some quarters for a perceived ham-fisted handling of race relations, that ends on a definitive note of reconciliation. “The Shape of Water,” as director Guillermo del Toro laid out again on a recent episode of Variety‘s “Playback” podcast, is a story about “the other” and the power of empathy. “I, Tonya” is indeed about class, but as well, the devolution of broadcast media into bloodsport. The zeitgeist was in the air with these nominees, so it was bound to be in the air at the Beverly Hills Hilton — not unlike last year, when Meryl Streep stirred our Commander-in-Chief to lash out on Twitter.

There wasn’t much surprising about the business at hand. “The Greatest Showman” securing the original song prize for “La La Land” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul was a bit unexpected, but certainly not for the only best picture nominee in the category. There was a moderate spreading of wealth, unlike last year when “La La Land” swept so loudly that the “Moonlight” best picture, drama, win felt like an afterthought (oops). Nevertheless, a few movies were ignored entirely: “Call Me by Your Name,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “The Post” — all bridesmaids, with no momentum to be had.

A certain standard may have been set, however. How will the intense show of activism on the red carpet and at this ceremony snowball in the coming weeks? Will the Oscars become another battlefield for the cause? How much pressure might the Academy’s directors branch feel to nominate a Gerwig or a Dee Rees after those Portman and Streisand barbs?

You see, the Golden Globes can impact the awards race in ways far beyond who won and “what that means for the Oscars.” It’s a soapbox, an audition, a trial run, all in one.

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