Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. president Aida Takla-O'Reilly (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
A year after he left many at the Golden Globes cringing with his caustic barbs, Ricky Gervais will return to host the award show Sunday night. More pressing than the winner of the twin best picture awards may be the question of whether the British comic will stage another velvet-roped cage match, applying verbal pile drivers to normally cosseted celebrities.
If Gervais returns with his expected bile, one of the hottest hot seats at the Beverly Hilton could be held by a diminutive academic and entertainment writer, Aida Takla-O'Reilly. The veteran journalist represents a twofer in Gervais' target-rich worldview. She is both a senior citizen (last year the host mocked Cher, Bruce Willis and Hugh Hefner — all judged to be aging, or aged) and leader of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (HFPA), sponsor of the annual awards.
HFPA President Takla-O'Reilly helped work through the sour feelings of some of the 83 members of her organization over last year's Gervais performance. She flew to Paris last summer to meet the comedian (who co-created the British original version of television's "The Office") and helped pave the way for his return to the Globes.
The network broadcasting the award show, NBC, was said to be intent on getting Gervais back at the microphone, believing that a little controversy can't help but spark viewer interest. The three-hour telecast drew 17 million viewers each of the last two years, significantly more than in 2009.
At the announcement of the Globe nominees last month, Takla-O'Reilly praised both the "magnificent" network and "that naughty, naughty schoolboy, Ricky Gervais." (At a meeting with television writers Friday, Gervais said he had no regrets and felt "bulletproof" about his material.)
Takla-O'Reilly, 82, is one of the old guard at the HFPA, having seen many controversies persist over the years — including whether some of its members truly function as journalists and whether lavish vacations and gifts influence Golden Globe votes. The latter accusation came up last year in a lawsuit by the organization's former publicist. The group is also in a legal fight with Dick Clark Productions over control of the telecast.
Through it all, associates said Takla-O'Reilly has defended the organization and Golden Globes with a jaunty, can-do attitude. It looked a year ago like it would take more than bonhomie to smooth over egos damaged by Gervais' bruising performance.
He introduced Robert Downey Jr. as someone best known for his time "at the Betty Ford Clinic and the L.A. County Jail." He compared then-84-year-old Hefner to the "walking dead." He quipped of an Angelina Jolie/Johnny Depp film: "It seemed like everything was three-dimensional this year, except the characters in 'The Tourist.'" The Globes' sponsor was not spared. "I had to help the HFPA president off the toilet," Gervais said, "and pop his teeth back in."
A few stars returned fire from the stage, including Downey, who said Gervais' salvos had been "unusually mean-spirited, with mildly sinister overtones." Then-HFPA President Philip Berk said after the show that the host had "crossed the line" and added "some of the things were totally unacceptable."
But when the HFPA membership voted in June for a new president it chose Takla-O'Reilly, who had gained a reputation in a previous tenure as president for working amicably with the Globes broadcasters. Takla-O'Reilly had previously helped move the Globes telecast from CBS to NBC.
Like many other members of the association, the Egyptian native writes for a publication little known in the U.S. It is Young Plus, a glossy teen-oriented magazine published in Dubai. An expert in African-Caribbean folk tales and Franco-African literature, she earned a PhD in comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris and taught for many years in the department of pan-African studies at Cal State Los Angeles.
Takla-O'Reilly has been a member of HFPA for more than half a century. During her mid-1990s tenure as president, she had to answer persistent questions about whether organization members were more preoccupied with junkets and swag than journalism. "To think that we are going to change our vote for one candy bar undermines the intelligence of our people," Takla-O'Reilly told one interviewer at the time. "Just because we have an accent on our tongue doesn't mean we have an accent in our brain."
The HFPA's current publicist declined to let Takla-O'Reilly sit alone for an interview before Sunday's awards. "She is an 82-year-old woman and they are involved in lawsuits," said the representative, Keleigh Thomas Morgan. "So, yes, I am going to sit in."
That might have sounded like the lead-in to a Gervais joke, but it wasn't. The Times declined the interview.