Why the Golden Globes Blew Up

Racial showdowns. Whacked-out press conferences. Sketchy backroom deals. Is the awards show Hollywood loves to loathe finally down for the count?
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Remember the Golden Globes scandal of 1982? When a then-totally-unknown 27-year-old actress named Pia Zadora stunned Hollywood by winning Best New Star. How her turn as teen nymphet in a trashy incest drama called Butterfly miraculously beat Kathleen Turner’s performance in Body Heat and Elizabeth McGovern’s in Ragtime despite the fact that hardly anybody seated in the Beverly Hilton’s ballroom that night had actually seen Zadora’s film. Because it hadn’t even come out yet.

Turned out Zadora’s Svengali-like husband, Israeli billionaire Meshulam Riklis, had rigged the award for his wife by flying Globes voters—esteemed members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association—to Las Vegas for parties and private screenings and entertained them with lavish dinners at his Beverly Hills estate. Zadora’s win turned the Globes into a national  punch line, the butt of countless late-night talk-show jokes, and made the HFPA look so sleazy that CBS dropped the awards show the following year. The Globes spent the next 14 years exiled from broadcast airwaves—banished to syndication and cable—until NBC finally picked them up again in 1996.

Of course, compared to the mess the Globes currently finds themselves in, the Zadora affair seems positively quaint. The accusations that have landed the HFPA in  hot water this time—with NBC announcing in May that it was dropping the show for at least a year following boycott threats from such companies as Netflix, Amazon, and Warner Media, as well as top Hollywood publicists and a slew of stars (like Tom Cruise, who went so far as to box up and return his three Globes trophies)—are far more incendiary than a statuette suspiciously going to a “spectacularly inept” actress (as Vincent Canby zinged Zadora in his Butterfly review). Among the charges that have surfaced over the past several months: self-dealing financial shenanigans, widespread misogyny among the ranks, and systemic racism baked into the organization at its deepest levels, this last assertion klieg-lit by a recent Los Angeles Times exposé revealing that, of the HFPA’s 86 voting members, precisely zero are Black.

Some of these allegations are obviously true. Some can be quibbled over. All are wrapped in enough gobsmacking Hollywood hypocrisy and A-list virtue-signaling to leave even Ricky Gervais speechless. But none fully explain what’s actually going on here, the true reasons the Globes finds themselves in the midst of an existential crisis graver than any they’ve faced before—including 2016’s Shuttlegate, when all of Hollywood was united in righteous fury over the slow bus service from the parking lots to the show’s after-parties—that not only threatens the Globes’ long-term future but could also spell disaster for the entire awards-season ecosystem, which, by the way, generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues for Los Angeles and creates countless jobs, from parking valets to C-suite awards consultants.

“There are a lot of people in Hollywood who can’t stand the Globes,” says one of those consultants. “They hate the press conferences. They hate the insulting questions. They hate having to bow to these people. The racial equity stuff is real—it’s a problem—but, in some ways, it’s also a smokescreen for what’s really going on. Which is that some people in Hollywood really hate the HFPA.”

It’d be all too easy to dismiss the Golden Globes as a sham awards show run by a bunch of freeloading nobodies with zilch credibility and only tenuous connections to the entertainment industry. So let’s do some of that for a bit.

From the very beginning, in 1943, when eight overseas reporters in L.A. formed the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association (as it was called back then) and started giving their favorite stars trophies, there was a whiff of the rinky-dink about the proceedings. Unlike the Oscars or the Emmys or even the trade association awards, which at least get voted upon by people who actually have a hand in the making of entertainment, these accolades were bestowed by mere journalists, and in some cases barely even that. In the past, HFPA members have included such cinematic experts as an “auto referral service” manager and an appliance salesman. Membership requirements have been firmed up since those days—although it’s hard to say how much since the identities of HFPA members aren’t made public—but it’s still a motley crew, a mix of well-established international journalists who’ve been around forever along with an eclectic and sometimes eccentric group of freelancers who write for little-known publications in far-flung places most industry types seldom even fly over.

Not surprisingly, it’s been fertile ground for scandal, starting in 1958, when then-
HFPA president Henry Gris resigned after he realized nearly all the winners of that year’s show were represented by just one public relations firm. “Certain awards are being given more or less as favors,” he noted. Ten years later, in 1968, it was revealed that favors were still being traded, with stars being offered what amounted to bribes to attend the ceremony—which NBC had started broadcasting nationally in 1964—with promises that they’d win something just for showing up. The FCC got involved, charging that NBC had “misled the public,” and threatened to pull the license of the network’s L.A. affiliate. And that’s how the Globes got dropped by a network for the first but not the last time and stayed off the air until 1978, when NBC brought them back.

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Clockwise from top left: Pia Zadora at the 1982 Globes; Sam Mendes, Steven Spielberg, Jessica Bovers, and Tom Cruise at a 2000 Globes party; Ricky Gervais in 2011; Madonna, Harvey Weinstein, Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow in 1998.

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Of course, it’s precisely the Globes’ loosey-goosey, anything-goes attitude that makes the show so much fun. That and the fact that alcohol is served at the ceremony. You never know what’s going to happen at the Beverly Hilton, and usually something outrageous does. Who could forget Bette Midler mock-fellating her statuette when she won for 1980’s The Rose? Or Jack Nicholson mooning the audience (he kept his pants on) when he won for 1998’s As Good As It Gets? Or Angelina Jolie diving into the hotel’s pool (she kept her gown on) after winning for 1999’s Gia? “The reason people enjoyed themselves at the Globes was that nobody took it seriously,” says a longtime, high-level marketing exec. “It was ridiculous that we were there in the first place, getting awards from this weird little group. It was silly. It was a joke. So people were like, ‘Let’s just drink.’” As Gervais put it when he hosted the ceremonies in 2012, “The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. A bit louder. A bit trashier. A bit drunker. And more easily bought.”

In the mid-1990s, though, the Globes became a much more serious, if no less rowdy, cog in the industrial-entertainment complex. It was around this time that Harvey Weinstein hit on the brilliant idea of weaponizing the Globes, which conveniently take place around the time Academy members are casting their nomination votes, to increase his films’ Oscar chances. “Harvey knew that the Globes were the start of the awards cadence, and he used them to tee up his campaigns,” explains an A-list publicist who’s been dealing with the HFPA for years (and who, like everybody interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified). “He made sure that HFPA members were massaged and taken care of. He made sure that whoever was in his films wrote holiday cards and sent HFPA members gifts. It was Harvey who was the one who emboldened the HFPA. He’s the one who gave them power. And everybody else in Hollywood just fell in line.”

It’s the Globes’ loosey-goosey attitude that makes the show so much fun. And the fact that alcohol is served at the ceremony.

Suddenly, the Globes weren’t just a glamorous joke anymore but a critical staging ground for every studio’s Oscar campaign (and soon every network’s Emmy campaign). In some ways, it was a stroke of strategic genius: the film and TV academies have thousands of voting members—an impossible number of people to bribe. But the HFPA had fewer than 100, and most of them were suckers for a gift bag. Toward the end of the ’90s, HFPA had become stricter about emoluments—in 1999, members were ordered to return the $400 Coach wristwatches that Sharon Stone had sent as “for your consideration” gifts to help prime her chances for The Muse—but they kept the power Weinstein had given them. Up until a few months ago, all of Hollywood continued to genuflect before this shaggy group of largely irrelevant foreign scribblers. As one publicist puts it, it was “galling.”

Just about every studio and network (and, now, every streaming service) has entire publicity teams devoted to glad-handing the HFPA. They arrange special screenings for members. Fly dozens of them at a time to their film and TV sets and put them up in five-star hotels. According to multiple sources, Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos even invited a bunch of them to his home last Christmas. Most galling of all, stars are paraded on stage for the HFPA’s notorious group press conferences, which tend to unfold with all the decorum of the food-fight scene from Animal House. “They interrupt each other, shout at each other to sit down, they ask inappropriate questions or just weird ones—like ‘What kind of toothbrush do you use?’—and they walk out in the middle of an answer,” says the marketing exec. “It’s not like the editorial board of the New York Times. You’re not dealing with Maggie Haberman here. It’s craziness.”

“When you go to a luncheon press conference with the HFPA,” recalls a veteran director who has been to a bunch, “they all file into the room, this panoply of stringers from Israel or the Caribbean or wherever. Most of them are really old, a lot of them in wheelchairs or walkers, like they’ve just emptied out a Ventura rest home. And then they ask these inane questions. It’s just surreal. It’s like, what planet are these people from? And after that, they all line up for pictures with you, so you have to pose with each one of them—all 80 of them—and it takes forever. When you finally leave, you think, ‘What the hell was that all about?’”

At times, the proceedings cross the line from inane to outright offensive. Some filmmakers claim that HFPA members have a habit of skipping events for movies and TV shows made by Black creators (Queen & Slim director Melina Matsoukas told Variety that she held three screenings for the HFPA and only four members showed up). Others point to a history of sexual harassment at Globes festivities, and not just against women. Brendan Fraser recounted to GQ in 2018 a harrowing ordeal at a 2003 HFPA luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. According to the Mummy actor, a handshake with former HFPA president Philip Berk, then 70, devolved into a mortifying groping. “His left hand reaches around, grabs my ass cheek, and one of his fingers touches me in the taint. And he starts moving it around,” Fraser told the magazine. “I felt like a little kid. I thought I was going to cry.” Berk’s response to the accusation was that he had “pinched” Fraser as a joke. The HFPA launched an investigation and concluded that the taint-groping had indeed been intended as a joke. No action was taken against Berk. “I don’t get the joke,” Fraser told GQ.

The fact that there are no Black members of the HFPA is hardly a secret. It’s been obvious for years to anybody paying attention (like three-time winner Denzel Washington, who has pointed out the dearth of Black faces at HFPA press conferences). But timing is everything, and when the Los Angeles Times published its report in February—after a year of Black Lives Matter marches and other racial reckonings—it set off a firestorm. Hollywood was shocked, shocked, to find that there were no Black people in the HFPA.

Time’s Up, the movement originally established in response to the Weinstein sexual assault scandal, was the first to jump into the fray. On February 26, two days before the Globes broadcast, the group launched an online protest—shared on social media by Kerry Washington, Amber Tamblyn, Amy Schumer, Busy Phillips, and scores of other famous people—and a few weeks later followed up with a list of demands, starting with a call for the resignation of the entire HFPA membership. Members could reapply, Time’s Up allowed, after the establishment of a new application criteria, which should include at least five years of “credible” journalism experience. The group also called for the HFPA to expand its membership to at least 300, publicly disclose members’ names, end lifetime memberships, and move the Globes’ airdate outside the Oscar-nomination-voting window so as to curtail its “outsize influence on later awards.” Oh, and one more thing: “The HFPA will forgo exclusive HFPA press conferences.”

The HFPA took a minute during the 2021 awards broadcast—actually more like 40 seconds—to admit it had a problem, with current president Ali Sar taking to the stage and promising to “create an environment where a diverse membership is the norm.” And hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler acknowledged the controversy in their own way. “The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is made up of around 90 international, no-Black journalists,” Fey cracked. “We say ‘around 90’ because a couple of them might be ghosts and it’s rumored that the German member is just a sausage that somebody drew a little face on.” But a week later, on March 6, the HFPA took a more serious stab at a mea culpa, promising to hire independent diversity experts and take other steps within two months. A few days later, on March 9, the HFPA brought on Shaun Harper, a USC professor and diversity consultant, and announced that the law firm Ropes & Gray would be serving as outside counsel to help update the association’s bylaws and practices. Then, on March 15, it made one more promise, vowing to add at least 13 Black members by the end of the year.

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Clockwise from top left: Shonda Rhimes at the 64th Globes; HFPA president Philip Berk,in 2006—Berk was fired
in April amid allegations of sexual misconduct and racially insensitive comments; HFPA headquarters in West Hollywood; Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Ava DuVernay, and Peter Ramsey celebrating Black Panther’s win at the 2019 Globes party.

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Nobody was impressed. One the contrary, that very same day, 104 top Hollywood publicity agencies—including ID-PR, 42West, and Rogers & Cowan PMK—all but declared war, sending an open letter to the HFPA pressing for more reforms and threatening to withhold their stars from the Globes if they didn’t comply. “The eyes of the industry and those who support it are watching,” warned the flacks.

In truth, not all of Hollywood’s publicists were on board with the letter. On one side of town, personal publicists—the ones who represent individual stars and accompany them to the HFPA press conferences—are all but united in their antipathy to the HFPA. But on the other, studio and network publicists—and especially awards consultants (who can pocket bonuses of up to $30,000 when their clients take home trophies)—are considerably less strident. “The HFPA members, they’re just human,” says one of them. “They have a problem, but they’re making efforts to fix it. And it’s not like they’re the only ones with this problem. Pretty much everybody in Hollywood has a diversity issue. I mean, how many Black publicists do you know?”

It’s a fair point. There are probably just as few Black publicists working in Hollywood as there are Black overseas correspondents. As the veteran director puts it, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” adding, “most of the publicists I’ve dealt with have been Jewish.” Agencies that signed the Globes boycott letter are quick to concede that they have work of their own to do in diversifying their staffs, but then trot out statistics affirming that some firms are made up of more than 30 percent people of color (a group that includes Asians, Latinos, and other minorities, if not necessarily Blacks). Ironically, a source close to the Globes wheels out nearly identical numbers in defending the HFPA, pointing out that it’s also made up of at least 30 percent people of color, as well as LBGQT and disabled members. The truth is, nobody in Hollywood is in any position to throw stones. Which is maybe why the town’s talent agencies have been so conspicuously quiet throughout the controversy—like the one the L.A. Times recently exposed as having disguised Black interns as agents in PR photos to make the agency appear more inclusive than it was. (That’d be ICM).

“The hypocrisy makes me sick,” says the marketing exec. “I mean, nobody was returning their tickets to the Globes after Brendan Fraser got attacked. But now all of a sudden, people are outraged? Come on.”

All these nuances, though, were lost when, on April 18, the taint-touching Berk struck again, sending an email to HFPA members describing Black Lives Matter as a “racist hate movement” and calling BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors a “trained Marxist.” Even NBC took offense, demanding the former president’s immediate expulsion. “[S]wift action on this front is an essential element,” the network wrote in a statement. Others close to the Globes were also rattled by Berk’s outburst. The diversity expert from USC promptly quit, as did the crisis communications firm—Smith & Company, headed by Judy Smith, the inspiration for Olivia Pope on Scandal—that the HFPA had hired in March to help steer them out of their mess. This time, the HFPA didn’t bother with an investigation; within two days, Berk was out.

By the time the Globes rolled out more reforms—on May 3—few of the show’s critics were in any mood to hear them. The HFPA now said it would add at least 20, not 13, diverse members by the end of the year and promised to increase its total membership by 50 percent over the next 18 months, recruiting underrepresented groups to fill many of the new slots. It was an ambitious goal considering the paltry number of Black foreign correspondents in Los Angeles covering the entertainment business (current HFPA rules require that members live in Southern California). “They don’t exist,” insists an awards consultant. “I deal with 300 international press from countries all over the world, and not one of them is Black. What the publicists and others are demanding is a unicorn.”

Nevertheless, Time’s Up rejected the HFPA’s reform proposals as too little too late. And then the rest of Hollywood began piling on. Netflix announced in a letter (signed by Sarandos, just months after hosting that Christmas party) that it would be joining the Globes boycott. Warner Media (owner of HBOMax) and Amazon followed suit. Then some movie stars got in on the act. Cruise announced he was boxing up his old Globes trophies while Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo posted their outrage at the HFPA on social media. “As a recent winner of a Golden Globe, I cannot feel proud or happy about being a recipient of this award,” Ruffalo wrote (just months after sending the HFPA a thank-you video for his I Know This Much Is True nomination in which he professed “great respect” for how the organization had “moved forward as a group.”) As well-intentioned as these online protestations may have been, it is perhaps worth noting that not one of these actors has ever worked with a Black film director (although Ruffalo did shoot 2014’s Infinitely Polar Bear with Maya Forbes, who is half Black).

“They’re just trying to look hip,” says the consultant. “It’s the equivalent of putting a Black Lives Matter poster on your lawn.”

Be that as it may, on May 10, NBC pushed the Destruct button, canceling the show, at least for a year. “We continue to believe that the HFPA is committed to meaningful reform,” the network said in a statement. “However, change of this magnitude takes time and work, and we feel strongly that the HFPA needs time to do it right.”

At this writing, members of the HFPA are still hoping to save their show. They’re working with the lawyers at Ropes  & Gray to cobble together a new set of reforms, including a training program to teach members how to behave like normal human beings at press conferences. They’re talking about eliminating the Southern California residency requirement to make outreach to Black foreign journalists less of a unicorn hunt. They’re even considering putting the names and credentials of all HFPA members up on its website. Whether any of it will make a difference, though, is highly questionable. “The bloom is off the rose,” says the director. “I don’t see how the Globes can survive this.”

For Hollywood’s anti-Globes contingent, it may prove to be something of a pyrrhic victory. After all, for all its many, many flaws, the Globes do serve a purpose in the awards-season biome. If it weren’t for them, long-shot contenders like, say, The Crying Game, might never have had a shot at the Academy Awards. Then again, Saving Private Ryan might not have lost Best Picture to Shakespeare in Love. The point here is that when the Globes aren’t bestowing accolades on the likes of Pia Zadora, they can be a useful disrupter, shaking up the odds to give worthy outsiders a shot at a real trophy. That’s a role it’s hard to imagine any other show filling, although it looks like the Critics Choice Awards, which next year airs on the CW, is going to give it a go, wasting no time in moving into the Globes’ early-January calendar slot.

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The bar is always open at the Globes. Gossip legend Louella Parsons with Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in 1956.

JACK ALBIN/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

And then there’s the money. A lot’s been written about the HFPA’s funky finances—how members are paid to serve on committees as part of a self-dealing scheme that cycles some of the broadcast fees the Globes earn from NBC (reportedly $27 million this year) back through the ranks. That’s not something the Academy or any other awards organizations do, but then, to be fair, the HFPA doesn’t have a paid staff and it’s not like anyone’s getting rich; members of the HFPA’s foreign film viewing committee, for instance, only take in about $3,400 a month, according to the L.A. Times, and the total payments to all members serving on committees was less than $2 million last year. That’s just a third of the nearly $6 million the HFPA donated last year to film-restoration charities, film school scholarships, and a slew of other programs.

More to the point, the Globes generate truckloads of cash for L.A. and the entertainment-adjacent industries that service them. Wardrobe, hair and makeup, catering, carpentry, party planning, hotels, transportation, billboard and trade advertising, screenings—it all adds up. Nobody’s done a recent study, but back in 2008, when the writers’ strike canceled the show, it was estimated to have cost the city about $70 million. In today’s dollars—and with deep-pocketed streamers now joining the spending spree—we’re probably talking closer to $100 million.

Also—and this should send a chill down Oscar’s little golden spine—it’s entirely possible that the war over the Globes is actually a symptom of a much deeper problem with the entire awards-show industry, one that has nothing to do with racism or misogyny or Brendan Fraser’s butt: boredom. Enthusiasm for red-carpet events has been waning for a decade and, thanks only in part to the pandemic, viewership sunk to shocking new lows this year, with both the Globes and Oscar ratings down more than 50 percent from 2020. Younger viewers, in particular, seem to be abandoning the awards-show genre in droves. In other words, it’s beginning to look like the party is finally over.

“I think people need to ask themselves if this whole controversy is really all about the HFPA or a bigger issue—the death of the awards-show culture,” suggests the marketing exec. “All awards shows are in the sick ward right now. The Globes may be close to death, but the Academy Awards aren’t looking so hot either. I think people need to start thinking about this differently. They need to realize this could be the end.”


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