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February 25, 2009updated 28 Jan 2016 7:44pm

Oscar-winners and maitre d's

By William Cash

So many of the ‘film critic’ voters for the Golden Globes actually work as waiters in restaurants to pay their bills

‘Watching it on television,’ said Glenda Jackson of the 1979 Oscar ceremony, ‘I felt disgusted, as though I was watching a public hanging. No one should have a chance to see so much desire, so much need for a prize and so much pain when not given it.’

I remembered this line from Jackson as I watched the Oscars at home on TV on Sunday night. The problem with the ‘awards season’ is that there are now so many pre-Oscar film awards handed out between November and February – ranging from the Golden Globes to the BAFTAs – that by the time the actual Academy Awards come along, we pretty much know who is going to win them.

That’s why the bookies no longer take any sort of sizeable bets on the Oscars. There is an established, unwritten Oscar form guide that decrees that if, say, an actress wins a Golden Globe for Best Actress, the chances of converting this into Oscar gold are very, very high – as Kate Winslet did this year for The Reader – so long as the studio behind the film then backs this up this Globe win with a well budgeted Oscar campaign that targets the 5,000 voting members of the Academy.

In Hollywood, where insecurity is a way of life, the herd voting instinct of the Academy members is strong.

What I discovered, however, when I lived in LA back in the 90s is that there is a very particular art to winning a Golden Globe. They are handed out by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which is one of the oddest collection of people I have ever come across.

  The influence and power they wield in deciding who will be the Oscar front runners is wholly disproportionate to the often wholly unglamorous reality of their day to day activities.

When I worked for The Times in LA, I once did an investigation into their journalistic credibility. Whilst the Academy of Motion Pictures has around 5,000 voting members, I discovered the HFPA had, in fact, just eighty-seven members – most being white-haired, star-gawping pen-pushers in their sixties or seventies with incomprehensible Nordic or Far Eastern names who did very little professional journalism at all.

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Like the White Russian former aristos who settled in Cannes after 1917 and worked as dustbin removal teams, so many of the 83 strong HFPA Hollywood legion actually work as waiters or maitre d’s in Italian and French restaurants to pay their bills.

To qualify as HFPA member you need to produce just four press clippings a year. One studio boss described the HFPA to me over dinner as ‘one hundred stringers living off hors d’oeuvres.’

And jolly decent canapes too as the studios are forced to throw lavish parties for the HFPA members if they are to have any chance of having their $50-100 million budget movies actually nominated by this strange band of struggling freelancers with strange foreign accents.

Their votes can be easily won, it seems. A while back there was a famous scandal in which the unknown singer Pia Zadora (married to an ageing billionaire called Meshulam Riklis) was curiously voted ‘New Star of the Year’ after a delegation of HFPA were flown to a luxury hotel in Las Vegas and were lavishly entertained for 48 hours by her multi-millionaire husband. That was followed by a canape buffet dinner at her home Pickfair, the former Douglas Fairbanks Jr house in Beverly Hills.

So next year, as you sit up through the night watching the pain and the desire on the winners and losers faces on Oscar night, spare a thought for those eighty-seven, well fed hack geriatrics – the unlikeliest kingmakers of Hollywood.

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