It's the most expensive movie in Hollywood history -- a $310-million epic that's also poised to become the highest-grossing global release ever -- but James Cameron's technologically groundbreaking "Avatar" had failed to prove itself as an award season favorite. That changed Sunday night, when the writer-director's futuristic 3-D thriller won the best drama Golden Globe.
In honoring movies as populist and American as any recently recognized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. -- among mainstream U.S. hits, the bachelor party disaster "The Hangover" was named best comedy or musical and "The Blind Side's" football fanatic Sandra Bullock won for best dramatic actress -- trophies were split among several Oscar front-runners, with no movie winning more than two trophies.
But "Avatar" won the two biggest.
In addition to being named the best drama, Cameron also was picked by the 83 foreign journalists who make up the HFPA as the top director. Cameron won the same Golden Globe statuettes -- and swept the Academy Awards -- with his last feature film, 1997's "Titanic," whose worldwide gross of $1.85 billion could soon be eclipsed by "Avatar," which has sold more than $1.6 billion in tickets around the world and shows scarce signs of slowing.
Cameron spent nearly five years making "Avatar," employing a new filming system (that married human performances and computer-generated imagery) and more than a thousand visual effects artists to craft a distant moon inhabited by 10-foot-tall azure aliens. Cameron thanked the people who worked endless hours on "Avatar" for creating "every blade of grass and every creature in it" and producer Jon Landau singled out 20th Century Fox for "believing in blue people."
With its box-office thrust and Golden Globes, "Avatar" heads into the final week of Oscar balloting (nomination votes are due Saturday) with more momentum than any of last year's awards-jostling releases.
"Up in the Air," the downsizing drama that entered the 67th annual award ceremony with the most nominations (six), went home with one award -- best screenplay for Sheldon Turner and director Jason Reitman. The musical "Nine," which had the second most nominations with five, was blanked.
The only other films to capture two Golden Globes were "Crazy Heart" and "Up."
"Crazy Heart," a tale of a down-and-out country music singer, would not have made it into theaters had Fox Searchlight not bought the movie from Country Music Television. Star Jeff Bridges, in a duel with "Up in the Air's" George Clooney, was named best dramatic actor, and the film's theme song, "The Weary Kind," was best original song.
Disney and Pixar's "Up," a fanciful but ultimately poignant tale of a widower's balloon voyage, won the Golden Globe for animated film and for Michael Giacchino's original score.
Because the Golden Globes presents five of its top awards in two categories -- drama and musical or comedy -- some of its winners may not be harbingers of other upcoming award shows, particularly the Oscars. In accepting his directing prize, Cameron even said that he had expected Kathryn Bigelow, the filmmaker behind the Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker" (and Cameron's former wife), to win the award.
While Bullock won the best dramatic actress tribute, "Julie & Julia's" Meryl Streep was singled out as top actress in a comedy or musical for her depiction of chef Julia Child, beating herself for her depiction of a divorcee in "It's Complicated." Robert Downey Jr., who played the title role in "Sherlock Holmes," won for actor in a comedy or musical. Christoph Waltz, a sadistic Nazi dubbed "the Jew hunter" in "Inglourious Basterds," took the Golden Globe for supporting actor, and Mo'Nique, who plays an abusive mother in "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," won supporting actress.
Germany's World War I movie "The White Ribbon" won the Golden Globe for foreign-language film.
The Globes are known best for their alcohol-infused informality -- there was as much action at the Beverly Hilton's bar as on its rain-soaked red carpet -- and Ryan Bingham, part of "Crazy Heart's" songwriting team, missed out on accepting his trophy because he was out having a drink.
Host Ricky Gervais (between sips of beer) even poked fun at the HFPA's borderline credibility during the broadcast, and there was no shortage of self-congratulation, especially in Cameron's acceptance speech for best drama.
But real life repeatedly intervened in the ceremony, perhaps most poignantly when Streep won for "Julie & Julia."
Streep said in her acceptance speech that she was "conflicted" about participating in an award show amid the death and destruction in Haiti, ultimately urging the television audience to "shoot some money to Partners in Health," a Boston-based nonprofit that brings medical care to developing countries.
Countless presenters, nominees and winners wore red ribbons to show support for the people of the devastated Caribbean nation, and several people mentioned Friday's Haiti telethon organized by "Up in the Air's" Clooney.
Although it left Beverly Hills holding the most important hardware, the evening did not start out well for "Avatar."
In the first category in which it was nominated, "Avatar" lost to "Crazy Heart" for original song, promptly followed by a loss to "Up" for original score. Cameron also lost in the screenplay competition, before the tables turned.
The Oscars have not traditionally been hospitable to science-fiction filmmaking, but Cameron (and, just as likely, "Avatar's" million of fans) is optimistic that could soon change.
"Hopefully this is part of a trend," Cameron said backstage. Science fiction, he said, "is not a genre but a form of legitimate drama."
Times staff reporter Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.