December 18, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Let’s face it: you can’t bestow a New Star of the Year award upon Pia Zadora and expect to be taken seriously. And yet 17 years after that dubious distinction, the Golden Globe Awards — through which the Hollywood Foreign Press Association honors its favorites in movies and TV — have evolved from showbiz sideshow to heavyweight industry institution. Last January’s star-studded Globes telecast on NBC drew 24.3 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched awards show of the year (after the Oscars and the Grammys). The Globes have also evolved into the single most important predictor of Academy Award outcomes: Of the six major Oscar winners last year, five of them also won Globes.

In that regard, the Dec. 17 announcement of this year’s Globe nominations should throw a klieg light on what has been an especially tough-to-handicap Oscar race. ”We all anticipate that Saving Private Ryan will be nominated” for an Oscar, says Bob Levin, marketing president for Columbia TriStar. ”But after that, there’s a lot of, ‘Well, what about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ [The Globes] are going to focus the potlight.” Agrees six-time Globe nominee James Woods, currently the subject of a Best Actor campaign for Trimark’s bleak drama Another Day in Paradise, ”Sure, the Foreign Press had some problems in the past, but I think [the Globes] matter more than ever. And in a wide-open year like this, they can really help create buzz for small films.”

Just what films, big or small, will make the Foreign Press’ final cut? In the drama category (the Globes give comedy a separate berth), insiders expect shoo-ins Ryan and The Truman Show to be joined by Terrence Malick’s long-awaited The Thin Red Line, the John Travolta courtroom thriller A Civil Action, and the costume drama Elizabeth, a rumored favorite of the Foreign Press, leaving Oprah Winfrey’s tepidly received Beloved as the odd film out. Among comedies, the Golden group is said to adore Gwyneth Paltrow’s Shakespeare in Love, which could share space with Robin Williams’ Patch Adams, Miramax’s sleeper Little Voice, and the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail. Since the Globes often make room for box office sensations, expect to see There’s Something About Mary on the ballot as well.

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