“…And the winner is…Pia Zadora in Butterfly” Huh? Pia who? In what? At first, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s choice to receive its Golden Globe award for “new star of the year in a motion picture” seemed merely unlikely. Pia Zadora was, to put it mildly, a long shot in competition with favorites like Elizabeth McGovern and Howard Rollins from Ragtime and Kathleen Turner from Body Heat. More mysterious, though, was the fact that Butterfly had not yet been released in the United States. So almost nobody in Hollywood had seen Zadora’s portrayal of a nymphet who tries to seduce her backwoods father. The peculiar circumstances of the award started the Hollywood rumor mill buzzing with speculation—especially after the film opened this month and critics used phrases like “spectacularly inept” to describe Pia’s performance. Had her husband, megamillionaire Meshulam Riklis, 58, somehow bought the prize for his saucy, sexy, 26-year-old second wife? “You should hear what they’re saying,” snipped L.A. columnist Jeff Silverman. “Quel scandale.”
If not a full-blown scandal, I’affaire Zadora is at least an eyebrow raiser. Riklis, a corporate tycoon and film producer, has long taken a keen interest in his wife’s career. He is principal owner of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas; she sings and dances there. He is chairman of the board of the Rapid-American Corporation, the conglomerate which owns Dubonnet; she appears in Dubonnet’s TV commercials. He put up most of the money to produce Butterfly; she was cast in the starring role. Such coincidences in her career had fueled gossip that Riklis was playing William Randolph Hearst to Zadora’s Marion Davies. But with the Golden Globes, the reckless Riklis went even further.
On Nov. 4 he invited a dozen members of the foreign press who were in Las Vegas to a night at the Riviera so they could catch Pia’s act. Six weeks later another small group of voting writers enjoyed lunch and a private screening of Butterfly at Riklis’ Beverly Hills mansion. Next, a publicity blitz was mounted with spreads on Pia appearing in Playboy and New York magazine. On Jan. 21 the foreign reporters voted on their awards, and nine days later Pia was hailed as the winner before an incredulous crowd at the Golden Globe dinner in the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
In some minds, the Zadora award resuscitated memories of 1968, when the Federal Communications Commission “admonished” NBC, which televised the Golden Globe ceremony. An FCC report said the network “misled the public as to how the winners were selected.” At that time, commission official Steve Sewell charged, the awards were not determined by a poll of the correspondents, as advertised, but instead by informal politicking among the association’s board members. Sewell said there were also indications that the winner was required to attend the ceremony; if he or she refused, another winner was picked. That controversy may have prompted NBC to drop the program for nearly a decade. But the voting procedures were amended and the FCC had no further complaints on that score. Marianne Ruuth, a Scandinavian correspondent who is president of the Foreign Press Association, says that the voting is now handled by a national accounting firm, Arthur Young and Company. “We have nothing to do with it; it’s all in their hands,” she maintains. “There is no way this award can be bought. I’m really amazed at the furor. It’s being caused by people who haven’t seen the young lady perform. It’s not even an acting award—it’s a newcomer award.”
Riklis also denies any impropriety in his method of wooing the foreign press corps (there are 80 voting members). “These rumors are ridiculous,” he insists. “The by-laws say okay to a screening in the home. Other people take the judges out to fancy restaurants—what’s the big deal?” Pia too seems genuinely distressed over the mass snickering that her award set off. “When Rik told me the press claims we bought off the judges, I felt so bad that I was sorry I won,” she says. “It hurts me terribly, and it’s not true.”
When Riklis met his winsome wife in 1973, she was in the chorus of the road show of Applause. Despite a long résumé of parts on Broadway (mostly minor)—a legacy of her days as a child star—Pia seemed consigned to the road forever. Since she took refuge under Riklis’ gilded wing, however, she has performed at casinos in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City and appeared on all the major TV talk shows. Her first album, entitled Pia, will be released in April. Meanwhile Riklis is financing another film vehicle for her, a light comedy called I Love New York. He is not the least discomfited by his investment in hyping his wife’s career. “Bo Derek would be nowhere without her husband,” he says, “and most of the young starlets are married to their producers.” Pia, though grateful, is confident she could have made it on her own. “Who knows,” she says irritably, “where I’d be without him?”