Golden Opportunities

Robert Downey Jr. is due back in court on drug charges at the end of the month. At stake: his professional future, his personal freedom. But such concerns aren't going to prevent the actor from appearing at the Golden Globes on Sunday night. Downey, who recently pled not guilty to felony drug possession after being arrested on Nov. 25, was nominated for his work on "Ally McBeal." He's also scheduled to appear as a presenter. Besides, anyone who's anyone in movies and television shows up at the Beverly Hilton for the Globes. No matter what.

How did this second-tier awards show turn into one of the most important nights in Hollywood? It's certainly not because of the program's sponsor: The Globes are run by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a rag-tag group of outsiders. "They're old and they smell like wool that's been in the closet too long," says an influencial publicist.

Smelly judging or not, winning a Globe is viewed as a powerful portent. Eighteen of the last 25 films that captured Best Picture Oscars first won a Golden Globe. Globe nominations come out just days before ballots are mailed to Oscar voters, and the awards are given nine weeks before the Academy Awards are presented. "If my client is nominated for a Golden Globe, I start thinking we're in pretty good shape for the Oscars," says publicist Simon Halls, whose clients include Oscar winners Helen Hunt, Frances McDormand and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Then there's the opportunity for self-promotion that the show represents. The program has become a ratings giant--22 million people tuned in for the entire show last year, up from 3.6 million five years ago. Viewers are responding partly to the show's unpredictability. Because the ceremony takes place at a dinner banquet where the champagne flows, the evening can take on a festive tone. In 1998, Jack Nicholson mock-mooned the audience. Downey's appearance this year is certain to be a draw.

So if the Oscars are Election Day, the Globes have become Super Tuesday. Studios run expensive campaigns courting votes from the mere 84 voting members of the HFPA. And stars are urged to give the HFPA exclusive access. Take Russell Crowe. While promoting his new espionage flick "Proof of Life" (co-starring Meg Ryan), the Academy Award-nominated actor spent nearly an hour in front of the HFPA, selling his performance to about 60 members in attendance. Then he had his picture taken with each of the scribes, which took another 15 minutes.

As a capper, Anita Baum, a grandmotherly HFPA member wearing a fusty suit, sidled up to Crowe and presented him with a copy of Pronto, a weekly Argentinean entertainment magazine. "Hello, darling," she said slowly, in a frail accent. "Have you ever been to Argentina?" Baum's no fool; she's just one of a small number of Hollywood outsiders who magically, for a few weeks at least, were given the keys to the kingdom.