By Bob Tourtellotte
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Hollywood prepared for its annual party and prize giveaway, the Golden Globe Awards, on Sunday but as much as Tinseltown's eyes will be fixed on which films and stars will be honored, its ears will be listening for barbs from show host Ricky Gervais.
The British comedian returns to the Golden Globe stage for the third straight year to host the champagne-soaked bash where prizes are given for best films, TV shows, actors and actresses in precursor of the more staid Oscars. A-list stars from George Clooney to Angelina Jolie are expected to attend.
But last year Gervais ruffled the feathers of many stars in attendance, making fun of poor choices among several nominees, like box office bomb "The Tourist," by the very group that gives out the honors and hired him to entertain -- the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA).
His often disparaging comments earned the wrath of some celebrities and critics, and initially the HFPA said he would not return. But Gervais was eventually hired back by the organization's chief who cheekily observed that he'd been a very "naughty boy" in 2011. Now, Hollywood is both wary and excited at the prospect of what he might say.
While Gervais hasn't given away any of his jokes yet, he did tell reporters at a gathering of TV critics this past Friday in Los Angeles that his verbal jabs were already written down.
"I have specific targets. I've written the gags, although targets isn't the word I'd use -- subjects maybe," he said.
"I've got nothing against anyone in the room, I've worked with many of them, I like many of them, I admire most of them. They're just gags. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings or give them a bad name or undermine the moral fabric of America. I'm a comedian, I rather they laugh than gasp but I'll cherish the laughs along with the gasps," Gervais added.
The Golden Globe Awards are given out by the roughly 90 HFPA members at a gala dinner and ceremony in Beverly Hills that is annually among the key events during Hollywood's awards season because of the media exposure it brings.
Honors bestowed on TV shows often lure audiences that can turn a little-seen program into a hit, and films and stars that are declared Golden Globe winners often go on to compete for Oscars, the world's top movie prizes given out later this year.
But veteran Hollywood awards watcher Tom O'Neil of website Goldderby.com notes that in recent years, as more awards shows have aired on TV and Oscar organizers have made changes to their nomination process, the HFPA's influence has waned.
"Six of the last seven years they haven't picked the same best movie. 'Slumdog Millionaire' is the only one," said O'Neil.
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. Late last week, it was named 2011's best movie at the Critics' Choice Awards and appears a good bet to take the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy.
HFPA voters also pick a winner of best film drama, and "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. Although civil rights drama "The Help" also has been well-received in Hollywood this year.
Among actors and actresses, Meryl Streep looks to be a good pick to claim the trophy for best actress in a drama playing former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." She faces a challenge from Viola Davis in "The Help," after Davis also picked up the Critics' Choice trophy.
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 Leonardo DiCaprio for "J. Edgar" and Brad Pitt in "Moneyball" in the best drama actor category, and "Artist" star, Frenchman Jean Dujardin, is the odds-on bet for best actor in a film musical or comedy.
Among TV shows, thriller "Homeland" is one of the new shows competing for best drama, taking on others such as "American Horror Story" and "Game of Thrones." Best comedy nominees feature past favorites such as "Glee" and "Modern Family."
The three-hour Golden Globe Awards show airs live on NBC on Sunday night, starting at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT on Monday).
(Reporting By Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Sandra Maler)