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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Reuters) - Coming of age tale "Boyhood" won the coveted Golden Globe for best drama on Sunday, while the quirky period caper "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was the surprise winner for best comedy or musical, in a big upset to awards season front-runner "Birdman."
The first major awards for the Hollywood film industry this year were scattered widely among many films, potentially setting up a complex race towards the industry's top honors, the Oscars, on Feb. 22.
The night took on a more somber tone from the beginning when stars like George Clooney and Helen Mirren showed their support for free expression and the victims of a deadly attack on a satirical French newspaper last week.
The president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which organizes the Globes, brought the room to a standing ovation by saying: "Together we will stand united against anyone who would repress free speech anywhere from North Korea to Paris."
"Boyhood" took three Globes from five nominations, including the night's top drama film honor, a reward for the unprecedented cinematic venture of making a film over 12 years with the same actors. The man behind the low-budget experiment, Richard Linklater, won best director and Patricia Arquette won best supporting actress.
If "Boyhood" goes on to win the Academy Award for best picture, it will constitute an extraordinary run for a film from the small studio IFC Films.
"When he came to us with this project 14 years ago, we said yes, the man has such humanity. He's so humble. He put so much of his own life into this movie," "Boyhood" producer Jonathan Sehring said of Linklater.
"Birdman," a satire of show business that led all nominees with seven nods, picked up best screenplay and best actor in a comedy or musical for Michael Keaton, embodying a comeback in both the film and real life.
But losing best comedy or musical to "The Grand Budapest Hotel" from director Wes Anderson was a big blow to the awards momentum of "Birdman." The colorful tale of a hotel concierge caught up in a murder mystery and art heist won only that award.
Up to 10 films can compete for the Oscar best picture. In the last two years, the winner of best drama at the Globes has gone on to win the Academy Award for best picture.
Another top drama contender to suffer disappointment was the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic "Selma," which made history with the first nomination for best director for an African American woman. It won one award: best song for "Glory."
"The Imitation Game," a British biopic about a World War Two codebreaking hero, walked away empty-handed despite the popularity of its star, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the heft of its distributor, the awards-savvy Weinstein Co.
The outcome of the 72nd Globes will not influence the Academy Awards slate, since voting for next week's nominees announcement is closed. But it can give crucial momentum to the Oscar race.
The Globes fortified the frontrunner positions of actors who portrayed extreme illness.
Julianne Moore won best actress in a drama as an early-onset Alzheimer's patient in "Still Alice," while Eddie Redmayne took best actor in a drama for his portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything."
Politics played heavily into acceptance speeches, from support for the Hispanic and transgender communities to calls to protect freedom of expression and solidarity after the deadly attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
George Clooney, receiving a lifetime achievement award and sporting a lapel pin declaring "Je suis Charlie," noted the "extraordinary day" in Paris and around the world as millions of people and world leaders marched to pay tribute to victims of Islamist militant attacks.
"They marched in support of the idea that we will not walk in fear," said Clooney. "Je suis Charlie."
The hacking of Sony Pictures also played out at the Globes, but in a more humorous way.
Third-time hosts Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler opened with a joke about the cyberattack, which the U.S. government has blamed on North Korea. The country, which denies it is behind the hacking, was angered over the studio's comedy "The Interview," which depicts the assassination of leader King Jong Un.
"Tonight we are celebrating all TV shows we know and love and all the movies North Korea was OK with," Fey said.
In television awards, the HFPA anointed "Transparent" as best comedy series, the first big award for original programing streamed online from retail giant Amazon Inc.. The show is about a divorced father transitioning to become a woman and how his grown children react.
In the drama category, Showtime's "The Affair" won for its first season, serving an upset to the favorite, the political thriller "House of Cards" from Netflix Inc.
But Kevin Spacey did win best actor in a TV drama series, his first Globe after eight nominations, for his role as the conniving politician Frank Underwood in "House of Cards."
Editing by Eric Walsh and Nick Macfie