The Introverted Politics of the 2017 Golden Globes

The awards-show stage is a time-honored setting for advocacy. Sunday’s version, however, found Hollywood advocating for itself.

Paul Drinkwater / NBC / Reuters

Meryl Streep, honored on Sunday with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Cecil B. deMille award for lifetime achievement, used her acceptance speech to make an extremely bold claim. “You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now,” Streep told her fellow actors and creators. “Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners, and the press.”

The crowd laughed. They might have laughed louder, though, had Streep’s dark joke not already been used, almost word for word, earlier in the evening—by Hugh Laurie. Accepting his Best Supporting Actor award for his work in The Night Manager, the Brit suggested that the incoming presidential administration might somehow bring an end to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (and, with it, the Golden Globe awards that body gives out each year). The mechanism for the dissolution? Unclear. The reason for the dissolution? The association, Laurie said, “has the words ‘Hollywood,’ ‘foreign,’ and ‘press’ in the title.”

The actors’ comments were, on the one hand, extremely typical of awards shows, whose rituals tend to merge Hollywood’s sense of its own cultural significance with a passing awareness of the struggles of the world beyond Wilshire Boulevard. Talk of politics—Sean Penn on Proposition 8, Jared Leto on Ukraine, Patricia Arquette on equal pay—is extremely common on the stages of those shows, as celebrities use their cultural influence to effect political change. The 74th incarnation of the Globes, though, saw advocacy of a different strain. Streep and her fellow celebrities used their time on the stage of the Beverly Hilton not just to speak up for others, but also to speak up for … themselves. Hollywood, according to Hollywood, is at risk. Its denizens are, or at least very soon will be, oppressed.

Laurie suggested that Sunday’s show would be the “last ever Golden Globes,” punctuating the claim by remarking, “I also think that, to some Republicans, even the word ‘association’ is slightly sketchy.” Streep noted that “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”

If we kick them all out. We’ll have nothing to watch. That Streep would make such observations on the Globes stage was, as the Los Angeles Times’s Steven Zeitchik put it, “a powerful act of political defiance.” The observations themselves, however, were also the kind of claims that might be dubbed, in other quarters, truthful hyperbole. Here was Streep, the consummate Hollywood partisan, making the consummate “you’ll miss us when we’re gone” argument. (Mixed martial arts!) Here was the decorated actor suggesting that the culture wars have become so asymmetrical that they could reasonably end with an annihilation of Hollywood itself.

Streep also used her speech to make another, related argument: that she and her fellow actors and creators, far from being members of the global elite, are in fact Just Like Us—and thus just as vulnerable as the rest of us are to the forces of political oppression. “I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey,” Streep noted. “Viola [Davis, who introduced Streep] was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island,” Streep informed the Globes auditorium. “Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids in Ohio.”

So the culture wars, whatever some of the warriors might have to say about it, cannot simply be a matter of elite-versus-regular-people—because even the elite, under Streep’s logic, are regular people. And even the elite, as such—even the wealthy and powerful denizens of Hollywood—can be victimized.

The Just Like Us posture was reflected by the producers of the Globes themselves. After Streep concluded her speech, the NBC telecast aired a pre-recorded segment featuring actors who were up for awards during the evening sharing the jobs they did before Hollywood anointed them as celebrities. Casey Affleck shoveled snow. Viola Davis flipped bingo cards. Robert DeNiro worked as “a golf boy.” The segment was meant to be a spoof on the Screen Actors Guild Awards’s “How I got my SAG card” montage; it was also, though, a frame-by-frame insistence on the everypersonhood of Hollywood’s demigods. Stars are people, too. They shovel snow, too. They, too, are part of an interconnected political system in which all of us are under existential threat.

The ostensible source of that threat, Donald Trump, was a spectral presence during the evening’s proceedings. Laurie merely alluded to him, the actor’s warnings playing out as predicates whose subject was merely implied. Streep invoked him—she remarked on Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter, and on “this instinct to humiliate”—without ever mentioning the president-elect by name. So, perhaps, did La La Land ’s producer, Marc Platt, when he observed in his Best Comedy acceptance speech that films can help us not just to dream, but “to dream more urgently.”

What does it mean, to dream urgently? And how will films continue to help people to do it? The Globes ceremony was, in the end, revealing not just about Hollywood’s love for itself—La La Land, the consummate film about filmmaking, emerged with the most Globe awards ever granted in one evening—but also about its sense of its own moral purpose. The telecast presented itself, for all its wacky antics, as an epic battle: kindness versus cruelty, good versus its absence, a Hollywood that emphasizes inclusion and understanding—“we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy,” Streep put it—pitted against a Washington that so often fails to see beyond the self. Here were some of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world, claiming their averageness by way of their empathy. But here, too, was Meryl Streep, the master of American drama, acknowledging—warning—that empathy, far too often, is not enough.