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It’s not news that the Golden Globes, as an awards show, are a bit of a joke. But, my, has that joke gone stale.
The joke resurfaces every few years, sometimes from the ceremony’s stage itself. In 2016, host Ricky Gervais dinged them as “worthless,” likening the honor to “a bit of metal that some nice old confused journalists wanted to give you in person so they could meet you and have a selfie with you.”
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted Sunday night’s ceremony in unprecedented times: Because of the pandemic, each emceed from a different coast with a few dozen celebrity presenters and only masked first responders in the audience.
And because of controversy surrounding the legitimacy and inclusivity of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which votes on the awards, they were hosting in the face of serious backlash and even a boycott. Many celebrities ahead of Sunday night shared a #TimesUpGlobes graphic with the mission statement “a cosmetic fix isn’t enough,” following the revelation that the group has not a single Black member in its ranks of 87.
Ahead of Sunday’s telecast, a pre-show hosted on NBC by This Is Us’s Susan Kelechi-Watson and The Weakest Link’s Jane Lynch teased that the HFPA would be making a statement about its non-inclusive membership during the telecast. They plugged it as a reason to tune in, like the Grammys would hype a performance by Beyoncé or the Emmys would an Oprah speech. Where a sheepish tone or atonement would be expected, the telecast seemed instead to choose opportunism—and, more pathetically, it even failed at that, as became clear when the promised statement finally came.
It took only about three minutes for Fey to make the first joke about the controversy in her opening monologue, with presenters Sterling K. Brown and Kelechi-Watson as well as winner Sacha Baron Cohen later ridiculing the organization from its own stage. Still, it was the HFPA that did what it has done best for decades: reveal its own punchline, apparently not understanding the laugh was at its own expense.
That was this case this year when it nominated Netflix’s stale croissant of a TV series, Emily in Paris, for two major awards, snubbing Michaela Coel’s blistering triumph of what television is even capable of, I May Destroy You, and failing to nominate any of the year’s Black-led awards contenders for Best Picture: Da 5 Bloods, Judas and the Black Messiah, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and One Night in Miami.
It was certainly the case when three HFPA members took the stage Sunday to address its inclusivity problem. Each delivered a breezy speech so perfunctory, vague, and deflecting that they might as well have been making their own case for negligence and irrelevance. It was truly an embarrassment, such a monstrous whiff that there was no fighting the reflex to laugh.
But you could also argue there’s no punchline here at all.
Last week, The Los Angeles Times published a damning investigation into the organization’s long history of scandal and unscrupulousness, which escalated the backlash.
This is not a revelatory characterization for an award organization whose reliably bizarre slate of nominees is universally chalked up to its notorious movie-star obsession—never forget, Golden Globe nominees Johnny Depp and Angelina for The Tourist—and whose reputation for trading votes in exchange for lavish gifts and access to celebrities stretches back to Pia Zadora’s infamous 1982 win. (Apparently voters were flown to Paris to visit the Emily in Paris set, hence those questionable nods.)
But having decades of “self-dealing” and “ethical lapses,” as the Times characterized them, packaged so incriminatingly on the crest of outrage over nomination slights makes the case (for some) that the Globes should be discredited, not aired on NBC, and not given its glamorous spotlight at the prime of Oscar season—especially after reports of its lack of inclusivity.
Short of reconfiguring Sunday night’s ceremony to assert its own legitimacy by giving each award of the night to Michaela Coel for I May Destroy You with a brief pause for a show-stopping rendition of “It Was Agatha All Along” by Kathryn Hahn, it’s unclear if there was anything the HFPA or NBC could have done to correct for the sins of this year’s nominations or atone for the organization’s shady practices in any satisfactory way.
But even grading on the curve of an attempt to stage a live production like this during the pandemic, the Globes failed to meet even the lowest bar.
The irony is that this year’s hideous mess of a telecast did actually make the case for why award shows matter.
An explosive speech on the power of storytelling, diversity, and major platforms by Jane Fonda. The authenticity of stirring moments from the likes of Minari director Lee Isaac Chung and Nomadland director Chloé Zhao in their historic wins. The strength and inspiration of Chadwick Boseman’s widow Taylor Simone Ledward. Or the grace and forward thinking of a community of diverse creators who, while bruised by the myopia and narcissism of an influential organization too inept to mint its potential for good, still showed up for a complicated pandemic award show because they at least knew the power of the stories they were telling. (And, sure, also like winning trophies.)
But the point is that, in relying on the labor of others—particularly women and people of color—to do the work it should have been doing all along, the Globes has embarrassed its reputation beyond the forgiveness its designation as “Hollywood’s boozy and kooky nonsense party” has warranted in its past. If now is not the time to sober up and detail a plan of action, then when?
Three HFPA members who came on stage and said two sentences each about doing better. They ended those speeches with, “Thank you, and we look forward to a more inclusive future...” The concept of “doing the bare minimum” is writing an angry later aghast at how little effort the organization put in. The statement was such a Mad Libs of meaningless buzzwords I wonder if Emily in Paris wrote it.
Here’s the thing about Sunday night’s telecast: The conversation surrounding the HFPA’s scandals was so loud there was nothing else about the ceremony that could have possibly superseded it. The fact that, as far as live Hollywood award shows shot on two different coasts in the middle of a pandemic while winners deliver acceptance speeches over weak Zoom connections go, the telecast was perfectly fine doesn’t even matter.
Fey and Poehler were perfectly fine. Their monologue was perfectly fine.
They were the first to directly address the inclusivity scandal, with Poehler saying, “Look, a lot of flashy garbage got nominated. But that happens—that’s like their thing. But a number of Black actors and Black-led projects were overlooked.”
“And look, we all know that award shows are stupid,” added Fey. “The point is, even with stupid things, inclusivity is important, and there are no Black members of the Hollywood Foreign Press. I realize, HFPA, maybe you guys didn’t get the memo because your workplace is the back booth of a French McDonald’s, but you gotta change that.”
It wasn’t a scorched-earth condemnation, but it also certainly wasn’t toothless—and it was funny. It should have been the comedy-tinged appetizer for the meal eventually served by the HFPA, who should have delivered a strong and action-oriented statement that left no question that change was on the horizon. Instead it was like they served the food and then hurriedly cleared the plates before anyone realized the meals were undercooked.
In other words, they seemed to hope that a business-as-usual show, as much as that could be staged in these times, would be a distraction: “Yes, we’re probably racist...but look! It’s Salma Hayek!” No matter how funny Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo are as their Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar characters, how deliriously bizarre a bit with Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson is, or how unintentionally funny Tracy Morgan’s mispronunciation of Soul was, there was no distracting from it.
In fact, the show’s best moments drew direct attention to it.
The astounding thing about Jane Fonda is that she manages to be an even better version of Jane Fonda every time we need her to be. This year’s Cecil B. DeMille Award recipient, we knew she would deliver an important speech, but as the Globes backlash intensified, so did the stakes for her remarks. And, wow, did she deliver.
It may be the first Globes speech to name-check both Buddha and Tommy Tune, but she also—and so eloquently—drew the connection between Hollywood, platforms like an award-show microphone, and elevating all voices that encapsulated why so many people are so upset about what some might dismiss as a silly, dumb awards ceremony.
“There’s a story we’ve been really afraid to see and hear about ourselves and this industry: The story about which voices we respect and elevate and which we tune out,” she said. “A story about who’s offered a seat at the table and who’s kept out of the rooms where the decisions are made.”
In the classiest move of the night, she then cited the films and TV series, some nominated and some pointedly not, that enlightened her to the experiences of underrepresented people: Nomadland and the wanderers; Minari and immigrants; Judas and the Black Messiah, Small Axe, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and One Night in Miami and what it means to be Black in this country; Ramy and the experience of Muslim Americans; and the snubbed I May Destroy You and surviving sexual violence.
It’s the frustrating thing about the open secret of the Globes being a frivolous awards organization with random nominees and winners. That may be true, but it is also a telecast on NBC that does wield influence.
Money is spent on these awards campaigns. Rising stars are given trophies on television, and, when they’re people like America Ferrera or Gina Rodriguez or Viola Davis or Chloé Zhao, it means something to those who are watching at home and see themselves represented. Opportunity is given to winners. Boosts are given to Oscar hopefuls. People watching at home might see a TV series or movie win an award and decide to watch it—that on its own matters. Even at the Golden Globes, the image of a storyteller holding a trophy signals that their voice is important.
It’s cool to scoff at the Golden Globes and make a personal pledge to ignore them. But what if there was a demand to make them matter? They already do, but they should earn that privilege. That’s the great ending line from Fonda’s speech: “Art has always been not just in step with history, but has led the way. So let’s be leaders.”
For crying out loud, the history-making three-woman slate of directing nominees were three of the five ever nominated in the show’s 78-year history. Chloé Zhao is only the second to win, following Barbra Streisand’s Yentl victory in 1983. Zhao’s Nomadland is the first film directed by a woman to ever win Best Picture - Drama. Demand better; don’t just write it off.
An award show like the Golden Globes serves dual purposes. It’s meant to entertain and it’s meant to be a catalyst for progress. That sounds pretentious, and there’s no way around it. But that’s why it’s supposed to be OK that the Globes are also a drunken party. That’s the fun part.
This year created great moments of entertainment in spite of impossible circumstances. I would watch tributes to Jane Fonda and Norman Lear for hours. Baron Cohen delivered two great speeches. Andra Day, Rosamund Pike, and Anya Taylor-Joy had those kinds of unexpected (and maybe undeserved???) award-show coming out moments that are thrilling to witness. And may we all watch all future award telecasts either as seemingly high as Jason Sudeikis appeared to be, or at least wearing a pair of Jodie Foster’s pajamas.
Then there was the night’s emotional highpoint, when Boseman’s widow delivered powerful words to an audience that needed to hear them. “He would say something beautiful, something inspiring, something that would amplify that little voice that tells you you can, that tells you to keep going,” Ledward said. “I don't have his words, but we have to take all the moments to celebrate the ones we love.”
The issue with the Globes is how do you square those moments against the unsavory ones. Against its reputation for bad taste (though at least this year’s winners weren’t so bad, if the nominations were a bit wild)? Against its failure to course correct after decades of criticism? Against its seeming refusal to see this particular moment surrounding inclusivity as a crisis for the organization?
That’s where the boycotts come in. That’s where the call for NBC to stop broadcasting the show and give it its power comes in. But that’s where, at the very least, a demand for change comes in.
It’s tempting to shout, “Cancel the Globes!” But I’m not sure that’s a feasible solution. Whatever the HFPA thought it was doing to save itself with Sunday night’s telecast, however, didn’t make a case in its own favor. At what was a turning point for the show, it took a nosedive toward more shame. The work from there gets even harder. I still argue it should be done.
Anyway, in the spirit of Our Lord and Savior Jane Fonda, we will end this article the way all pieces of good writing should end from now on: “And happy birthday to Tommy Tune!”
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