The reputation of the Golden Globes seemed to be on an upswing in recent years. For the past decade, the annual awards had become a reliable indicator of the Oscars, and members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the honors, appeared to be improving their questionable ethics policies.

It's been almost 30 years, after all, since the group named Pia Zadora the "newcomer star of the year" for her role in the thoroughly inept "Butterfly" — after Zadora's sugar daddy, Meshulam Riklis, wooed Globe voters with free trips to Vegas and private screenings in Beverly Hills. (For perspective, consider that Zadora beat Kathleen Turner in "Body Heat.")

But when the Globes air tonight on NBC, those long-ago shenanigans will be on many minds as the five nominees for best motion picture — comedy or musical are displayed.

Among the nominees are the critical disaster "Burlesque," starring Christina Aguilera and Cher; "The Tourist," a failed star vehicle for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie; the widely reviled "Red," which flopped domestically; and "Alice in Wonderland," which gets a measly 51 percent favorable rating on opinion tracker Rottentomatoes.com.

Only one nominee in the category — "The Kids Are All Right" — has significant critical support. Overlooked were critical hits "Easy A" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World."

And then, in December, came the biggest blow in years to the Globes' reputation. Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times reported that Sony Pictures treated voters to a live Las Vegas show featuring Cher, then let them meet her backstage, before the voting. Sony, the distributor for "Burlesque" and "The Tourist," subsequently secured unexpected Globe nominations Dec. 14 for both movies.

Goldstein went on to deride the 81 voting members as "for the most part obscure foreign entertainment journalists with little of the cachet of the 6,000-plus voting members of the Motion Picture Academy." If you talk to the top award-season consultants, they can barely disguise their lack of respect for the HFPA members, who often put themselves in indelicate situations."

Despite the renewed questions this year, the annual Globes telecast does have a couple of things going for it.

Unlike at the staid Oscars, Hollywood celebrities can eat and drink — and drink again — during the Globe presentations, and this can lead to a few less-than-rehearsed moments.

And the Globe voters always seem to nominate movies that have big stars, even if those movies are highly questionable — ensuring that the star power for the evening will be high.

Such strategies are somewhat understandable, considering that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gets most of its money by selling the rights to broadcast the show. If the ratings are poor, the group will have diminished clout in future bargaining sessions. This year, NBC is reportedly paying $6 million for those rights.

Ricky Gervais, the acerbic British comedian, will host this year's telecast for the second time. So it will be interesting to see whether he addresses the latest scandal. He's known for being impolitic, but there's probably a limit to what he'll say tonight.

Among the expected highlights:

• A close race for best motion picture in the drama category. All of the nominees are worthy: "The Social Network," "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," "The Fighter" and "Inception." Notably absent from the nominees: "True Grit."

• The presentation of the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Robert De Niro.

• The race for best actor in a comedy or musical, where Depp is nominated twice, for "The Tourist" and "Alice in Wonderland," but the critical favorite has to be Paul Giamatti for "Barney's Version," which is scheduled to open in Austin within a month.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

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‘The Golden Globes'

7 p.m. tonight on NBC