Have you seen director David O’Russell’s acclaimed comedy American Hustle? What a rib-tickler! Loosely based on America’s Abscam scandal, which brought about the conviction of a United States senator and six members of Congress in 1980, this side-splitting con artist caper stars Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper.
American Hustle was one of the big winners at yesterday’s Golden Globes ceremony. Its gongs include the much sought-after award for Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical and Best Performance by an Actress (Amy Adams) in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical.
Actually, hang on a moment. Perhaps that intro should be re-written to take into account the small inconvenient fact that American Hustle is in no way a comedy. Sure, there are a few chuckles (largely involving Christian Bale’s combover) but it is inconceivable any viewer would leave the cinema and say “boy, that was hilarious!”.
So if Russell’s “comedy” is not actually a comedy (and it is most certainly not a musical), how did it win Hollywood’s most revered award for a comedy or musical?
The reason comes down to strategy. Columbia Pictures, the company in charge of the film’s American distribution, submitted it into the Comedy or Musical category because it had a better chance of winning than in the Best Motion Picture — Drama category, against titles such as 12 Years a Slave andCaptain Phillips.
It’s hardly the first time a Hollywood studio has gamed the system. Films and performances that win in highly questionable awards categories is something that happens from time to time (for example, Jennifer Hudson won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2006 for Dreamgirls, even though she clearly played the lead role), but this year the Golden Globes plummeted to a new nadir — in turn demonstrating how conspicuously the system can be manipulated and how little regard they have for whatever shreds of integrity remain in it.
American Hustle competed against the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Spike Jonze’s Her and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Not exactly a line-up choc full of songs and belly-ups. To put it another way: this year no film in the comedy or musical category at the Golden Globes was a comedy or a musical. This says less about the subjective nature of comedy as it does the business end of Hollywood’s annual backslapping routine and the shameless role the Golden Globes plays in facilitating it.
Red carpets, fancy clothes and scores of smiling celebrities disguise the grubby PR mongering at the heart of the organisation behind the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The HFPA is a small and mysterious clique of California-based journalists who are generally neither film reviewers nor people who work in the film industry. According to The Star’s Peter Howell, the group includes real-estate agents, car salesmen, showbiz publicists and hairdressers.
The HFPA has less than 100 members (by contrast the Academy Awards are decided by around 6000 industry professionals and former professionals) who belong to the organisation for the same reason it was founded in 1943 — for easy access to celebrities. The reason the group is kept small is, as Howell put it, because “it makes it easier for studio publicists to court them with dinners, private screenings and valuable one-on-one celebrity interviews”.
Joining is practically impossible. A maximum of five new memberships are processed every year and any existing member has the right to veto new applications. In a 2008 op-ed for The Huffington Post, journalist, author and former Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times, Sharon Waxman, famously described the Globes as “the entertainment industry’s dirty little secret”.
Viewers who enjoy tuning in for a couple of hours of star-studded entertainment may wonder what’s wrong with appreciating the Golden Globes as a glitter-soaked guilty pleasure. Perhaps nothing, although the massive impact the small number of celebrity hunters who make up the HFPA has on the wider entertainment industry should provide pause for thought.
This year marks a special moment in the Golden Globes’ 70-year-old history. It is the year an organisation already starved of integrity publicly declared, with celebrities and spotlights and all the bells and whistles, it either has no understanding of a concept as basic as comedy — or, in the face of such unfettered access to the movers and shakers powering Hollywood’s PR machine, it simply doesn’t care.