On Wednesday, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced that Scarlett Johansson would not be eligible for Best Actress for her stellar performance in Her — a performance that relies entirely on her voice as she plays a Siri-esque operating system who falls in love with her user (Joaquin Phoenix). The news threatens to derail Johansson's budding awards show campaign, which began with a surprise Best Actress win at the Rome Film Festival earlier this month (though Warner Bros. has announced that they will still campaign on Johansson's behalf for consideration at the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Awards).
As always, there's a part of me that's tempted to ignore both the Golden Globes and their ever-questionable judgment altogether. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a small and legendarily murky group that has drawn charges of shady ethical practices for decades. One recent, notorious case alleged that HFPA members were flown to Las Vegas to see Cher perform in 2010. Her dismally reviewed Burlesque was subsequently nominated for Best Picture in the Musical or Comedy category.
Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Whatever their actual value, the Golden Globes remain a kind of cultural touchstone — the first big step on the way to the Screen Actors Guild and the Academy Awards, and a valuable way for underdogs to build up buzz. This isn't the first time the HFPA has made a questionable call that eliminates a large swath of performers or films with a single swoop. Andy Serkis was deemed ineligible for his remarkable motion-capture work in both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. A conflict arose earlier this year when the HFPA tried to ban Sweden's More Than Honey from the Best Foreign Language Film category, deciding — for whatever reason — that documentaries weren't eligible. The film's producers successfully appealed for More Than Honey's inclusion, but the HFPA has since introduced a new rule that ensures no foreign-language documentary will be eligible for the category again.
But this is a bigger problem than Johansson's role in Her, or the inscrutable rules of the HFPA; it's a problem with awards ceremonies, which claim to honor the best in film but end up turning, time and time again, to the same basic conception of what makes a film award-worthy. Why would any group organized to honor film deliberately exclude a large number of films from their consideration?
If I was a studio, the lesson I'd take from the HFPA snub is simple: Don't push the envelope, because conventional films have a much better shot at a nod during awards season. There's a reason we all implicitly understand what an "Oscar Bait" films look like: Because organizations like the HFPA keep making rules and rulings that narrow the scope of what it means to be an awards show contender.
None of this is to say that Johansson even deserves to win the Golden Globe for Her. Johansson's performance in Her is remarkable, though I wouldn't necessarily say that she's better than Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, or Julie Delpy in Before Midnight, or several other worthy contenders. The question isn't whether Johansson deserves to win the award; it's whether or not she even deserves a chance to compete. Awards shows, which generate massive amounts of buzz, are vital to the success of riskier work like Her, a film that was daring enough to cast one of the most famous, beautiful actresses in the world without ever showing her on screen. Let voters decide for themselves whether or not she deserves the prize — but don't give them an excuse not to consider it.