By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - What will Ricky Gervais say and about whom will he say it? Those are the two most pressing questions heading into Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards, not what will win best film or TV show.
The Golden Globe Awards annually is among Hollywood's most-watched honors programs where A-list stars come out to wine, dine and rub elbows, and the trophies that are given out often bring the type of industry exposure that can lead to Oscars.
But in 2011, Globes host and Ricky Gervais ruffled the tuxedos and gowns of celebrities such as Robert Downey, Jr. and even Golden Globe organizers -- roughly 90 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association -- with jokes about their reputations.
Initially, the HFPA said he would not be invited back, but in a turnabout late last year, they and TV network NBC which airs the program issued an olive branch and invited the British funnyman to return. Now, the question is, what will he say this time.
"People say, is there anything you shouldn't joke about? I don't think there is. I just think it depends what the joke is," Gervais told talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in a segment to be aired on her program on Thursday.
"Comedy comes from either a good or a bad place and I was just teasing them, ya know," he added. "It wasn't a room full of wounded soldiers. These are the richest, most privileged people in the world."
Indeed, Hollywood royalty ranging from George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt to Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep are nominated for awards, as are the casts of TV comedy "Modern Family" and newcomer drama "Homeland", who will be on hand in Beverly Hills for the awards show.
Because they are widely-watched on TV and in the industry, the Golden Globes are seen as a harbinger of which movies and stars may win Oscars -- the world's top film honors given out in February by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
A heartfelt Golden Globes acceptance speech for best actor or actress, for example, may endear Oscar voters to a star and propel them to victory throughout Hollywood's film award season.
"The Golden Globes is your Oscar audition," said veteran awards watcher Tom O'Neil of website Goldderby.com.
HOLLYWOOD'S SILENT AGE HIT
Silent-era film "The Artist," a romantic tale shot in the style of old Hollywood, heads into Sunday night's ceremony with six nominations, more than any other film, including best comedy or musical. The movie has charmed Hollywood this awards season and looks a sure pick to claim that prize, but could face competition from popular comedy "Bridesmaids."
Golden Globe voters also pick a winner of best film drama, and in that category "The Descendants," starring Clooney as a father trying to keep his family together during a crisis, has the strongest shot at walking off a victor, O'Neil said.
Among actors and actresses, Streep looks to be a good pick to claim the Golden Globe trophy for best actress in a drama for her portrayal of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady," although she could face a challenge from Viola Davis in "The Help."
Michelle Williams competes for best actress in a movie musical or comedy in "My Week with Marilyn" against the likes of "Saturday Night Live" comedian Kristen Wiig for "Bridesmaids."
Clooney with "Descendants" takes on DiCaprio for "J. Edgar" and Pitt in "Moneyball" in the best drama actor category, and "Artist" star, Frenchman "Jean Dujardin" is among the top nominees for best actor in a film musical or comedy.
While the film categories are most closely watched because of their impact on the Oscar race, Golden Globe voters pick TV favorites, too, and have a tendency to elevate new shows and fresh faces.
Psychological thriller "Homeland" is among new shows competing for best drama series, taking on other newcomers like "American Horror Story" and "Game of Thrones." Best comedy program nominees feature past favorites such as "Glee" and "Modern Family."
O'Neil said "New Girl" actress Zooey Deschanel could easily take the stage for best actress in a comedy, solidifying her status as this year's hottest fresh face on TV.
But regardless of who wins what, all eyes -- and ears -- will be fixed more closely on Gervais. Let the Globes begin.
(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Jill Serjeant)