The Golden Globes prides itself on being a rollicking bash and unpredictable live TV. Snarky, bleeped jokes, boozed celebs saying damnedest things, and bizarre picks in the TV categories like Mozart in the Jungle — the Drunk History version of the Oscars.
Maybe motivated by backlash to frequent emcee Ricky Gervais, maybe nudged by network partner NBC, or maybe responding to our divided, touchy political moment, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, in their infinitely curious wisdom, decided to play it safe and sane this year, tapping people-pleasing late night party clown Jimmy Fallon to front the star-humping frivolity. But beyond the pre-recorded song-and-dance opener, a spirited, affectionate parody of La La Land, the city of stars didn’t game for Fallon’s brand of fun and games. It didn’t even seem in the mood to shine.
The presenters were mostly all business and seemingly sober, the winners were mostly thoughtful and serious, acting the part of gracious if abashed. The worries of the world – and specifically, worry over President-elect Donald Trump – weighed heavily on their smoothed brows and fuzzy faces. (The hottest fashion look for men? Revenant grief beards.) Hugh Laurie was feeling apocalyptic, accepting his trophy for The Night Manager with a joke about this being the last Golden Globes. His costar, Tom Hiddleston, who also picked up some hardware, tried to use his moment in the limelight by turning our attention to suffering in the Sudan, but his I’d-like-to-get-serious-for-a-sec anecdote of humanitarian workers binging The Night Manager backfired on him, an attempt to highlight the value of Hollywood entertainment in general that ended up sounding ridiculously self-serving. (The story would have been better if it was actually about another show, ideally one in his category.) Jake Gyllenhaal, tasked with introducing Deadpool, a nominee for best picture, musical or comedy, couldn’t muster an iota of enthusiasm for it. The funniest bit of the night ironically summed up the downbeat tenor of the evening: Kristen Wiig and Steve Carell exchanging mock-tragic recollections of seeing their first animated films. Future generations will remember this Golden Globes the way Carell remembers his “Fantasia Day,” if they remember it at all.
I did wonder if perhaps some of the attending and participating celebrities were uncomfortable with the event, or even trying to lightly sabotage the show by being decidedly un-starry in protest of NBC. The network — which is currently airing a new edition of Trump’s old reality show The Apprentice (he’s still a credited, paid producer, too) — has been accused of normalizing the president-elect, most notably with his controversial appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last year, when Fallon, a resolutely non-political comic, tousled his hair and treated him with kid gloves. Fallon did take a shot at Trump during his Globes monologue with an in-passing joke likening the president-elect to King Joffrey, the petulant boy ruler on Game of Thrones. It played, to me, like a bid to get back on the right side of history, or at least, on the good side of his audience.
I was rooting for Fallon to succeed and thought he could. The Golden Globes and Fallon are made for each other, on a spiritual level, at least. Both aspire to unpretentious, good-time entertainment. But Fallon wasn’t just unfunny, he was bad at being Jimmy Fallon. He vamped poorly during his monologue when the teleprompter broke – a shocking fail given his profession. He dug his hole deeper with a risky impression of Chris Rock doing a riff on The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which not only made me squirm but got me thinking that Chris Rock would have been an infinitely more interesting host for this show. (Although I wasn’t a huge admirer of his Oscar hosting last year.) His “Chastain and the Redmayne” hip-hop serenade of Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, set to Cypress Hill’s “Insane in the Membrane,” wasn’t “Uma-Oprah” awful, but it was close and cringy-embarrassing for everyone involved, including us. His shouty, exuberant introductions of the presenters honored his fanboy brand positioning but were at odds with the “Can we service our Oscar agendas while not making a big deal out of all this?” mood of the room. Like most Globes hosts, Fallon faded away as the evening progressed. He wasn’t missed.
Actually, the show was hurting for any kind of identity at all until Viola Davis — a winner last night for her blistering turn in the film Fences — took the stage again to give the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award to Meryl Streep. Suddenly, a bland and lachrymose ceremony that seemed to be content to be a mere dispenser of trophy baubles found spark and meaning. Davis’ tribute to her acting inspiration, colleague, and friend was a raw, poetic salute to Streep’s formidable personality and vital talent. “She is an observer and a thief,” said Davis. “She waits to share what she has stolen on that sacred place, the screen. She makes the most heroic characters vulnerable; the most known, familiar; the most despised, relatable. Dame Streep.” The camera cut to a teary Streep, nodding as if Davis had cut her to quick in the best possible way, which made this line from Davis — speaking, it seemed, for at least two generations of actresses — even more impactful and real: “You are a muse. Your impact encouraged me to stay in the line. Dame Streep, I see you. I see you.”
Streep — always extraordinary at accepting awards — gave a speech that saw all of us and inspired everyone. With a voice hoarse from a week of lamentation (she had attended the funeral of her friend, Carrie Fisher), Streep used her time to speak powerfully to the moment. She, too, grieved Trump’s election. But instead of making like Laurie and indulging apocalypse, she tried to rally those in her field and others, including journalists, to do their jobs and to do them well on behalf of all Americans, particularly those most threatened by his example and promised policies, in hopes of impacting the culture in redemptive ways. She closed her speech by recalling something Fisher had once told her: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” Streep’s remarks erred with grandiosity and erred with a whiff of smugness. (YOU’RE WRONG ON FOOTBALL, MERYL, JUST WRONG.) (But I’m with you on MMA.) But her points were clear and correct. On a night haunted by the reality of Trump that few had the guts to engage directly, Davis and Streep teamed up to give us a scene that reconciled the frivolity of the occasion and the gravity of our era by reminding their peers of their better calling as artists and reminding everyone in culture making and culture keeping industries the importance of pursuing great work that speaks the truth and holds those in authority accountable. They also seemed to find a way to enjoy themselves on the stage, thereby accomplishing something else few could do last night, too.
Streep’s words also helped to frame the narrative of the entire show. The best winners were those that celebrated diversity and honored beautifully made, soulful work born of pain, resilience, and world-facing engagement. They also acknowledged and celebrated diversity. Moonlight won best picture, drama. Tracee Ellis Ross won best actress, comedy, for her work in ABC’s black-ish; she dedicated her victory to “all of the women, women of color, and colorful people.” Atlanta picked up two awards, one for best television comedy and best actor, comedy for Donald Glover, who spoke nervously yet eloquently of the show’s inspiration. It was an example of the HFPA’s storied penchant for using their TV categories to jump on hot new things, but also a rare example of the HFPA giving the award to a hot new thing that truly deserved it. (Unfortunately, they upheld the tradition of questionable calls in other categories: another rookie, Netflix’s good-not-great The Crown, won best TV drama.) The night belonged to La La Land, the bittersweet, Technicolor ode and scold to absolute and absolutist Hollywood dreamers. It sucked up seven awards, the biggest haul of any movie at the Globes since Midnight Express picked up six in 1979. It was at least one award too many for Damien Chazelle’s enjoyable and precious valentine to his industry, and my Twitter feed tells me I should protest this. The film is now officially this year’s Really Good Movie That Suddenly Becomes Worst! Thing! Ever! Just Because It Wins Too Many Awards at the Expense of Other Worthy Things. (Last year, it was The Revenant.) But don’t worry, La La Land. I won’t hold the Globes against you.