Everybody knows that the Golden Globes are terrible. Even before the L.A. Times ran an exposé on Sunday about the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s ethical lapses and questionable business practices, the organization (whose members select the nominees and vote for the winners) was generally considered to be a joke. The only reason anybody cares about the Globes is that the awards show, which airs this Sunday, is an important bellwether for the Academy Awards. Why? I have no earthly idea. The HFPA’s choices are often bewildering, and since its members don’t overlap with the Academy’s, their judgments mean less than nothing. And yet, every year, we’re all expected to be intensely invested in who wins.
To illustrate my point about the HFPA’s bizarre taste, I decided to take the last two decades of Golden Globe nominations and pick the single worst nominee from each year. (As a special bonus, I’ll conclude with my selection from this Sunday’s crop.) Now, I wanted to be fair about this: I didn’t pick anything that would later get an Oscar or SAG nomination. (You can’t be mad at the Globes for showering Green Book with accolades when the Academy did the same thing not that long after.) Instead, my selections are the real head-scratchers — the total left-field “Dear god, what were they thinking?” oddities that make industry observers just laugh. Some of these choices suggest that the Globes just love having big stars attend their event. Others are from movies that have been deservedly forgotten. And one of them is Madonna.
Least Deserving: Brenda Blethyn, Saving Grace (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: In general, the HFPA’s comedy nominations are always rough because, as opposed to the difficulty of narrowing it down to five choices for the competitive drama category, comedy tends not to have as many great performances. Blethyn is a superb actress — she’s been Oscar-nominated twice, for Secrets & Lies and Little Voice — but Saving Grace isn’t a very good movie. This was at a time when crowd-pleasing U.K. comedies (The Full Monty, Waking Ned Devine) were all the rage, and Saving Grace starred Blethyn as a plucky woman whose husband dies, forcing her to grow pot to make ends meet. We’re not talking Breaking Bad here — this is all very wacky and forgettable. Of course Blethyn is perfectly lovely in it, but this is a pretty minor film.
Least Deserving: Hugh Jackman, Kate & Leopold (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: The Globes are notorious for being wowed by stars regardless of the quality of the movies they’re in. As proof, look no further than this wrongheaded nomination — Jackman’s first — for a movie you probably haven’t thought about in years. He plays a 19th-century duke who gets transported to modern-day New York, where he falls in love with a high-powered, Meg Ryan-type executive (played, appropriately, by Meg Ryan). Kate & Leopold received some undue attention at the time once reviewers pointed out a weirdly incestuous plot point that was cut out at the last moment before the film opened. Jackman has done a lot better work since this, but a year after breaking through as Wolverine in X-Men, he was suddenly the sort of person the HFPA would give serious attention to.
Least Deserving: U2, “The Hands That Built America,” Gangs of New York (Best Original Song)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: For years, the most notable thing about the Irish band’s win was Bono’s dropping of an F-bomb during his acceptance speech, setting in motion a prolonged battle within the FCC about whether or not it counted as being obscene. Unfortunately, that silly skirmish ended up being more interesting than “The Hands That Built America,” a soggy ballad that was far less deserving than Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which the Academy righly gave the Oscar a couple months later.
Least Deserving: Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: I’m in the “Actually, Tom Cruise is great (despite all the problematic things about him)” camp, but the HFPA’s decision to nominate him for The Last Samurai smacks of the group’s fondness for superstars. (To date, he’s received seven Globe nominations, winning twice.) In hindsight, the pick is even cringier because it’s for the kind of white-savior movie that, thankfully, has finally fallen out of favor in Hollywood. At least the group had the decency to nominate Cruise’s co-star, Ken Watanabe, for Best Supporting Actor as well.
Least Deserving: The Phantom of the Opera (Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: This category is permanently weird — comedies and musicals aren’t necessarily the same thing, so why bunch them together? — but, in theory, I can sorta appreciate the rationale. Dramas are always valued more than comedies, whether it’s on a critic’s Top 10 list or at the Academy Awards, so why not honor movies that aren’t so serious? But this nomination for a truly terrible musical indicates that the HFPA let the show’s reputation as a beloved favorite outweigh everything else. (The movie’s star, Emmy Rossum, also got nominated.) Directed by the late Joel Schumacher during the midst of his artistic low point — this was after his Batman movies — this Phantom is gaudy and schticky. A truly embarrassing nomination.
Least Deserving: Will Ferrell, The Producers (Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: As opposed to the Best Actor and Best Actress categories, which are broken up into drama and musical/comedy, the Supporting Actor award makes no distinction, which means that the HFPA considers those simply the five best performances, period. Inexplicably, the group decided that Ferrell’s turn as Franz Liebkind, the Nazi-loving mastermind behind Springtime for Hitler, was one of those five. Actually, the choice wasn’t that inexplicable considering that the poorly-reviewed film adaptation of the Tony-winning sensation (which was itself adapted from the original Oscar-winning movie) received four Globe nominations in total. Ferrell is fine in The Producers, but his performance is nothing special. Also, seriously, the movie musical isn’t any good.
Least Deserving: Letters From Iwo Jima (Best Foreign Language Film)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Clint Eastwood ambitiously released two World War II films in 2006: one that showed the conflict from the American side (Flags of Our Fathers) and one that revealed the Japanese perspective (Letters From Iwo Jima). Both are very good, but Letters is the superior movie. So why pick it as that year’s Least Deserving Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, a category where it ended up winning? Because I think it violates the spirit of the category, which is meant to honor movies made by international filmmakers.
Technically, it’s true that Letters is in a foreign language, but it’s an American production made by an American director. The Globes don’t have a problem with this: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto was nominated that same year, and this year we have Minari in the category. And, listen, the whole idea of what constitutes a “foreign” film is a subject of endless debate these days. (The Oscars even recently changed the category to Best International Feature Film in response to the problematic nature of “foreign.”) But it simply feels like cheating to honor Letters. (And in case you’re wondering, the Globes don’t allow foreign-langauge movies to compete in the drama or comedy/musical best picture categories, which is also dumb.)
Least Deserving: Julia Roberts, Charlie Wilson’s War (Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If Julia Roberts is in a movie, she will probably get nominated for a Golden Globe. To date, she has nine nominations (including one for television), and has won three times. Her work in Charlie Wilson’s War as Joanne Herring, a politically-active socialite, is fun, but it’s not exactly bravura or even that interesting. But because it’s Roberts, the Globes threw a nomination her way regardless. Put it this way: The HFPA has been heavily criticized this year for its lack of Black members, and Ruby Dee’s acclaimed (and Oscar-nominated) turn in American Gangster is conspicuously missing from the Globes’ list of 2008 Supporting Actress nominees.
Least Deserving: Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: To date, this is Hoffman’s most recent Globe nomination, and he’s had his share. (He’s won five and also received the group’s Cecil B. DeMille Award.) Last Chance Harvey was a Before Sunset-esque love story about two middle-aged characters (Hoffman and Emma Thompson, who was also nominated) who meet randomly at an airport bar, deciding to spend some time getting to know one another. Obviously both actors are champs, but this is the sort of cream-puff film that doesn’t amount to much. It’s safe to assume, though, that the Globes loved Last Chance Harvey because it had famous people in it.
Least Deserving: Tobey Maguire, Brothers (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Drama)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: This forgotten English-language remake of the Susanne Bier drama concerns a soldier (Maguire) who is presumed dead overseas, only to come home and discover that his grieving wife (Natalie Portman) has fallen in love with his brother (Jake Gyllenhaal). Amazingly, this is Maguire’s only Globe nomination, and the fact that it’s for a film that basically vanished during that year’s award season suggests that the former Spider-Man’s profile was high enough to impress the starstruck HFPA. Bier’s film is an absorbing and emotionally fraught experience — the remake, much like Maguire’s performance, is very so-so and not worth seeking out.
Least Deserving: Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: You could make the argument that Depp is even less deserving for the other nomination he got in the same category that year, The Tourist, and I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. But, honestly, I find him far more insufferable in Alice in Wonderland, where his Mad Hatter is peak Quirky Depp — which is to say, peak irritating and self-amused. Depp is another superstar who got Globe nominations for everything — we all like him in the first Pirates of the Caribbean, but he even got a nod for the mediocre sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest — but it’s a sign of his decreasing popularity that the HFPA hasn’t shown him any love in a decade. If you can’t get these folks to treat you kindly, you really have slipped status-wise.
Least Deserving: Madonna, “Masterpiece,” W.E. (Best Original Song)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: The pickings were pretty slim for Best Original Song that year — offerings from Gnomeo & Juliet and Machine Gun Preacher were among the unexciting contenders — but Madonna’s win felt especially egregious because “Masterpiece” was far from a hit and it was part of a poorly-reviewed movie that she directed. But, hey, she’s a big star, so of course she took home the prize. Actually, the best part of her victory was the war of words that happened between her and Elton John and his husband David Furnish. John had written the nominated song from Gnomeo & Juliet, and Furnish was mad she won. “Madonna winning Best Original Song truly shows how these awards have nothing to do with merit,” Furnish later wrote on Facebook. “Her acceptance speech was embarrassing in its narcissism.” Imagine being this annoyed about losing a Golden Globe.
Least Deserving: Every nomination for Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: This starry, middlebrow romance featured Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor as mismatched individuals who must work together to bring a sheik’s crazy vision to life: He wants to import salmon so that they can thrive in a Yemini river. The HFPA are the type of group that falls for a film like this, giving it three nominations — one for each lead actor, and one for Best Comedy/Musical. But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is hopelessly hokey, and even if you’re a fan of Blunt and McGregor, this isn’t them at their best. Deservedly, it was never heard from again that award season.
Least Deserving: U2, “Ordinary Love,” Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (Best Original Song)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: They’re back! Originally, I thought I wouldn’t have any double Least Deserving winners in order to spread the wealth, but U2 took home a second Golden Globe for this completely generic contribution to the subpar Nelson Mandela biopic. Even more shocking is the fact that they beat a really clever nominee (“Please Mr. Kennedy” from Inside Llewyn Davis) and “Let It Go,” which was so obviously the more deserving choice — and I say that as someone who’s far from the biggest Frozen fan and would be happy never to hear that song again. “Ordinary Love,” on the other hand, is a song no one has thought about (or heard) since.
Least Deserving: Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Others would probably pick Christopher Waltz or Amy Adams, who were both nominated for Big Eyes — Adams actually won — but I’m a defender of that film. Instead, I’d rather focus on The Hundred-Foot Journey — and, be honest, do you even know what this movie is? Clearly, then, you’re not in the HFPA, which can’t get enough of director Lasse Hallström, whose films have often been catnip for the group, even if just about no other organization cared about, say, The Shipping News or Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (see above). Helen Mirren can thank him for her nomination for The Hundred-Foot Journey, a light drama based on the Richard C. Morais novel, which concerns two rival restaurants in a charming French town. Mirren is lovely in the film, but the movie is the kind of pleasant mediocrity that the Globes help prop up for no good reason.
Least Deserving: The Martian (Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: I like this Ridley Scott movie a lot. But it is neither a comedy nor a musical. So what happened? Well, Fox, the studio that put out The Martian, decided to enter the Matt Damon vehicle as a comedy, figuring that this sci-fi survival story would have a better chance there than in the crowded drama category, which included The Revenant, Spotlight and Mad Max: Fury Road. And the Globes decided to go along with it, pitting The Martian against actual comedies such as Trainwreck and Spy. No surprise, The Martian won, ensuring a fresh wave of criticism about how clueless the HFPA is. The Globes changed their rules afterward to prevent that sort of thing from happening again, but then again, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood competed (and won) as a comedy a few years later, so it doesn’t feel like much has changed.
Least Deserving: Simon Helberg, Florence Foster Jenkins (Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: We also would have accepted Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who won the category for his work in Nocturnal Animals, beating out Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali (who ended up winning the Oscar). But Taylor-Johnson at least got a BAFTA nomination as well. Simon Helberg was the real head-scratcher as Cosmé, the aggrieved pianist working with the painfully untalented singer Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep). Best known for The Big Bang Theory, Helberg overacts badly as Cosmé, and yet the hammy performance charmed the HFPA, which ignored much better work from Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges, who was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.
Least Deserving: Jessica Chastain, Molly’s Game (Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture — Drama)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: This two-time Oscar nominee is one of her generation’s best actors. Still, the Globes tend to overaward her, especially recently when she hasn’t been quite as good. She snagged nominations for A Most Violent Year and Miss Sloane, and then right after she got another nod for Aaron Sorkin’s showy character study of a wheeler-and-dealer in the world of high-stakes poker. Her performance in Molly’s Game is predictably good, but by this point she’d started getting into a rut of playing tough-talking, pitiless characters who run roughshod over everyone around them. The familiarity started to dim the impressiveness of the achievement. Not that the HPFA cared: Chastain is a big star, and so she became a shoo-in for nominations.
Least Deserving: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Poppins Returns (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Mary Poppins Returns was a shockingly disappointing follow-up to the Disney classic, but that didn’t stop the film from receiving four nominations. But the nod that was most baffling was for Miranda. As this past year’s Hamilton film proved, the acclaimed composer has a way with a melody, but as an actor, he’s merely serviceable. (Yes, I know he got nominated for a Globe for Hamilton for his performance — don’t even get me started…) But without the epic framework of Hamilton, he proves absolutely lost in Mary Poppins Returns, failing to match Emily Blunt’s sharp take on this beloved story. Miranda is insufferably cutesy in the film, dragging it down each time he shows up on screen. Apparently, the HFPA watched a different movie than I did.
Least Deserving: The Two Popes (Best Motion Picture — Drama)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Four of the five nominees in this category I have no issue with: The Irishman, Joker and Marriage Story were all in my Top 10 that year, and lots of people like 1917. But The Two Popes is a deeply average film, telling the story of Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and soon-to-be Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) in an overly adorable way. A better movie was right there for the HFPA to pick, which was Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s marvelous adaptation. And it’s not like the group didn’t see the film: Saoirse Ronan was nominated for Best Actress (Drama), and Alexandre Desplat was up for Best Score. Little Women’s omission makes The Two Popes’ nomination seem all the more puzzling. (The film also got a screenplay nomination, which Little Women did not.) Gerwig later called out the HFPA for the snubs. She had every right.
Least Deserving: James Corden, The Prom (Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical)
What the Hell Were They Thinking?: Honestly, there were so many worthy contenders this year. Music is an abysmal film, and Glenn Close (bless her) just isn’t that good in the unfortunate Hillbilly Elegy. But I hold a special place in my heart for my dislike of The Prom — especially Corden’s performance as Barry, the vain Broadway actor who joins his pals to help a gay Indiana teen attend her prom. There are few celebrities I find more nails-on-chalkboard irritating than the Late Late Show host — his coy smugness makes me want to jump out a window — and he amps it up for The Prom, where he plays a gay character with such a cutesy flamboyance that it’s insulting. Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson put it best, writing, “Corden, flitting and lisping around in the most uninspired of caricatures, misses all potential for nuance, and thus never finds even a hint of truth in the role. And this is in a movie that’s supposed to be about empowering queer people!”
That Corden gets a pass on doing retrograde clichés like this is bad enough — that the Golden Globes sought to nominate him is even worse. But, as we’ve seen, it’s hardly surprising for a group that often makes dunderheaded decisions.