By the age of nine, Pia Zadora — a little girl from Hoboken, New Jersey — had already starred in her first feature film, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and was appearing regularly in a Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. When she was 19, the sultry and sinewy Zadora — by then an accomplished stage actress and singer — traveled with a production of the musical Applause. One night after a performance, a chance meeting would drastically alter the direction of her life as well as the future of the Golden Globes.
The Vision and The Vixen
Meshulam Riklis was the owner of the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, a chairman of the board at the Rapid-American Corporation, which owned Dubonnet, and held lofty positions in companies that owned Dewar’s, Samsonite, and Playtex — he could have anything he wanted. After witnessing a gorgeous blond vixen light up the stage in a performance of Applause, he eyed the next thing on his wishlist: Pia Zadora. Riklis careened backstage through the gatherings of cast, crew, and swarms of people before finding himself standing before Zadora. At the time, the Wall Street tycoon was 49, Pia was only 19.
“My gut said no,” she said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “He was too old.”
Still, Riklis persisted, and after courting the young starlet for four years, the pair married in 1977. Immediately, the magnate went to work, incorporating Zadora into a marketing scheme meant to turn his wife’s Broadway fame into Hollywood glory. Riklis placed her in Dubonnet commercials and print ads, and she began a residency at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas.
The Jersey girl was living the lavish life with Riklis: they shared a Beverly Hills mansion equipped with a team of bodyguards and a helicopter. But the commercials and ads were just an appetizer. Riklis had higher ambitions for his wife, and they included stardom on the big-screen. With Riklis as the primary benefactor and producer, Zadora would star in Butterfly, a film based on John M. Cain’s novel about a father and daughter who engage in an incestuous relationship.
The film featured Stacy Keach as Zadora’s dad and sexual partner while Ed McMahon and Orson Welles appeared in supporting roles. On January 21st, 1982, the nominations for the Golden Globes ceremony were released, and Pia Zadora was included in the list of actresses for the “new star of the year in a motion picture” award for her performance in Butterfly. Skeptics immediately began pondering the validity of her nomination — the film still had not been released, and almost no one had seen or heard of it.
On November 4th, a few months before the Golden Globes nominations would be released, Riklis invited at least a dozen member from the Hollywood Foreign Press to see Pia’s act at the Riviera, followed by an exclusive screening of Butterfly. In December, Riklis held another private screening and lunch for even more HFP members. The multimillionaire was also able to gain Zadora placement in Playboy and New York magazine. His efforts proved to be enough to help Pia snatch the award away from Kathleen Turner, who was pegged to win for her role in Body Heat.
Within weeks of the win, rumors started circulating that Riklis had lavished the HFP in the months leading up to the nominations announcement. The biggest piece of evidence was Butterfly itself: it was universally panned. Even worse, the film was nominated for 10 Razzies, winning three including worst actress and worst new star for Pia Zadora. “These rumors are ridiculous,” Riklis said to People magazine in 1982. “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?”
Marianne Ruuth, president of the Foreign Press Association, said the HFPA had no hand in the voting process anymore.
We have nothing to do with it; it’s all in their hands. 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.
Despite the claims of the HFPA and Riklis, the court of public opinion was already in session, and CBS — who owned the broadcasting rights to the Golden Globes — decided to negate their contract in 1982 over the controversy. The Golden Globes was without a home.