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Is HFPA to blame for member's suicide?

December 22, 2005 |  6:45 am

"It now has blood on its hands."

That's the outrageous claim being made against the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. by a British media source reporting the suicide of a suspended HFPA member. Thus we witness a shocking new low in a favorite media sport: Golden Globe bashing.

Big Buzz magazine writer Nick Douglas recently hung himself in a thrift shop in Belfast, Northern Ireland, allegedly because he was depressed over having been suspended from HFPA for rules infractions.

"They basically took a livelihood away from a guy who was out there trying to earn a living," Barry O'Kane, managing editor of the local Belfast entertainment publication, told the New York Times. "It led completely, directly to what ended up happening to Nick."

But that allegation doesn't add up. O'Kane says he had to drop Douglas' column after Douglas was ousted from HFPA and no longer had access to celebrities. However, Douglas had only been an HFPA member for three years and O'Kane had no problem publishing the column during the previous eight years.

Furthermore, Douglas' yearlong suspension was technically over in September. His access to celebs had been fully restored to what it was previously, but HFPA wouldn't pay for his trips to out-of-town junkets and film festivals. That proviso will be reversed in another few more months, though. The worst of his troubles had passed.

At the time of his death Douglas was receiving medical treatment for depression, which suggests that he may have had deeper problems than not getting a freebie flight to New York to chat with Heidi Klum. Suicide seems like a rather extreme response to having to stay back in the HFPA hometown of L.A. where he could gab with Charlize Theron or Heath Ledger.

But Douglas didn't return to Hollywood after his suspension was lifted. He remained back in Belfast where he planned to work for a local radio station. At the time of his suicide, it looked like Douglas couldn't go back to Los Angeles and perhaps he was really most depressed about that.

The bottom line: HFPA cannot be blamed for his death. The group had the right to oust Douglas completely, but it had chosen only to suspend him temporarily for breaking its rules repeatedly and lying about it. Douglas had sold a photo of himself with Tom Selleck to a tabloid, a violation of member guidelines, then denied he'd done so when he was caught. He had been a wannabe actor, so he broke the rules again in order to circulate HFPA photos of himself with Tom Cruise while trying to drum up work. He argued often with other HFPA members and at one point was caught snitching unopened beers from a MGM party.

That's exactly the kind of cheesy, freeloader behavior that the old HFPA used to be accused of, before it established firm rules to clean up its act. Now members are monitored carefully. They must be because jealous media peers love to take potshots at the HFPA, whose Golden Globes telecast is the third highest ranked awards show on TV every year, generating nearly $6 million for the group.

"We are only as strong as our weakest link," former HFPA president Helmut Voss once bellowed at the office a few years ago while squaring off against a member protesting the decision that he could no longer vote for the Globes. I inadvertently overheard the whip-cracking scene while I was visiting the office doing research for my "Movie Awards" book. The member had failed to pen the minimum requirement of four published articles over the previous year and was begging to be allowed to vote anyway.

"No one will know!" the member pleaded.

"No," Voss said. "We are taking no chances. You can remain a member for now, but you cannot vote. That's final."

I wanted to applaud, but I would've revealed my unseen presence down the hallway where I was using the office copy machine.

More than two dozen years after the Pia Zadora scandal, HFPA is still smarting, suffering the mockery of Yankee journalists who make constant sport of the foreign freelancers. And even though HFPA leaders struggle valiantly to maintain ethical standards, they're still ridiculed often — and now are being labeled murderers.

Only in the past few years have U.S. film critics' groups enacted some of the same minimum membership ethical standards maintained by the Globes since 1990. But not all. While it's been 15 years since any HFPA member has accepted a freebie junket, Yankee journos accept them all the time from studios nowadays, then turn around and vote on that studio's films for awards. More than a thousand times a year an American journalist accepts free airfare, hotel and a daily stipend of at least $50.

Theoretically, that means that more than 1,000 Pia Zadora scandals could break out, if anyone bothered to scrutinize those writers closely. But no one does. Why? I firmly believe that the reason they get a free pass in more ways than one is because they're American.