Ricky Gervais Almost Got It Right on Hollywood Hypocrisy

At the Golden Globes, the host told celebrities not to lecture about politics—as he lectured about politics.

Ricky Gervais at The Golden Globes
There’s a sense that events like the Golden Globes have been hijacked by liberal causes in the past few years, but debates over the propriety of politicking at awards show go back decades. (Paul Drinkwater / NBC)

Here’s a strong line from Ricky Gervais’s monologue at last night’s Golden Globes: “Apple roared into the TV game with The Morning Show, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China.”

Simple, sharp, speaking truth to power, and nailing an obvious hypocrisy: check, check, check, check. But then Gervais went on to tear into the folks in the room:

Well, you say you’re woke, but the companies you work for [run sweatshops] in China—unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you? So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.

In a generally sour speech—Gervais had earlier emphasized how little he cared about the Golden Globes, and had suggested that Dame Judi Dench licks her nether regions—this was the acid-bomb climax. There was no conciliation, no wink in Gervais’s voice. It’s tempting to call this his moment of moral clarity, and it was likely aimed to be played on loop by Fox News and other outlets that make a habit of questioning Hollywood’s pieties. The passage is so close to saying the necessary thing about those pieties: that they’re often directed at broad causes rather than specific situations stars might actually have the power to change. But Gervais instead devolved into something more incoherent and regressive.

It’s certainly important to call out the business practices of the tech and media companies that have swallowed U.S. entertainment. Apple just admitted to violating labor laws in China. Amazon allegedly makes dangerous demands on its workers (the company denies this) and cuts deals with ICE’s detention-center contractors (which it defends as an acceptable business practice). Disney is accused of exploiting communities that live around its theme parks and spying on children (the company denies both accusations). Every controversial tactic, undeniably, gets laundered through the appeal of these companies’ entertainment divisions. It stands to reason that one of the few kinds of critics who could bring meaningful attention to such tactics would be the famous actors these corporations hire. If Gervais had made that idea the focus of his jeremiad, he’d have been breaking ground: confronting the most famous employees of America’s most important, and often ruthless, bosses.

Instead he swung broader: against “wokeness” and the general phenomenon of using the awards stage as a platform for social issues. There’s a sense that events like the Golden Globes have been hijacked by liberal causes in the past few years, but debates over the propriety of politicking at awards show go back decades. Some observers argue that onstage politicking has killed viewership for such events, even though the more obvious reasons for declining ratings are structural. But Gervais is arguing for a less topical show not on the grounds that it would be more entertaining or more in line with what the average viewer wants to see, but that it would be less hypocritical.

Of course, to tell stars to shut up because they’re affiliated with Amazon and Apple is to call for a greater silence. Amazon controls 40 percent of e-commerce in America and almost half of cloud computing; Apple commands huge market share in smartphone sales. The question of whether there’s any ethical consumption under capitalism doesn’t need to be answered here, but a world in which shopping with Amazon Prime or watching Moana on Disney+ invalidates the consumer’s political voice is a world with almost no political vocalizing whatsoever. If a viewer has a problem with, say, Michelle Williams making an onstage stand for abortion rights, is it really because she works for FX, a Disney subsidiary? Or is it just because of what she’s saying?

What Gervais might have asked for—if his posture weren’t simply grab-bag exasperation with Hollywood—was better political speech. The kind that goes beyond, say, Laura Dern spinning Marriage Story’s rich white divorce themes to somehow be a “global look at what divisiveness is and how we must all come together as one for the sake of something greater.” Gervais’s best jokes were indictments of Hollywood complicity, as when he called out people in the room for having collaborated with Harvey Weinstein and hobnobbed with Jeffrey Epstein. Strikingly, the most potent speeches of the night also portrayed Hollywood as part of larger systems and problems, or at least took on larger matters with a whiff of self-deprecation.

Take Patricia Arquette. “I’m so grateful to be here and celebrate this, but I know tonight, January 5, 2020—we’re not going to look back on this night in the history books,” she said as she accepted the supporting-actress award for Hulu’s The Act. “We will see a country on the brink of war, the United States of America. A president tweeting out a threat of 52 bombs, including cultural sites. Young people risking their lives, traveling across the world. People not knowing if bombs are going to drop on their kids’ heads. And the continent of Australia on fire.”

These were big, big issues to take on. But the upshot of the speech was simply that viewers do a reality check and realize how little this particular awards show matters in the face of more pressing issues—a rather Gervais-y message, really.

Then there was Joaquin Phoenix, who toward the end of the night thanked the other celebrities in the room for having sent well-wishes to Australia—but suggested they could all do more to fight climate change. “We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs for the awards sometimes, or back,” he said. On the one hand, this was making a social statement of the sort that Gervais suggested celebrities should not bother with. On the other hand, it filleted Hollywood’s hypocrisies in just the way that many of Gervais’s jokes did. It’s almost as if bemoaning “political” speeches is incoherent, and it’s what gets said, to whom, that matters.