“Folks at home, you would not believe the high-wattage, mega A-list stars we are looking at right now,” Tina Fey marveled, opening the 2014 Golden Globe Awards in a maroon Carolina Herrera dress and Lorraine Schwartz jewels. “There are so many stars in this room tonight, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed.”
“Yes, this year is good!” her co-host Amy Poehler agreed, dressed in a form-fitting Stella McCartney gown and thick, gold bracelets. “Matt Damon is here, from Behind the Candelabra.” The Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom burst into applause. “Matt, on any other night, in any other room, you would be a big deal. But tonight, and don’t take this the wrong way, you’re basically a garbage person.” The room, this time, erupted into laughter.
Were any garbage people watching? Even if only a fraction of viewers at home were actually in the waste disposal (or janitorial or sanitation) business, couldn’t Poehler have called him something less nakedly contemptuous of our most necessary and least rewarded workers? Something more pertinent to Hollywood’s own gilded microcosm? Maybe “you’re basically a female screenwriter” would have struck a more appositely satirical tone? Reflecting the priorities of the times, Poehler was careful to gender-neutralize the occupation — Damon was a garbage person — while oblivious of the trenchant class hierarchy topped by all those high-wattage, mega A-list stars, whatever their roots.
At least Ricky Gervais, hosting the Golden Globes in 2020, spared us the bullshit. “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.” The audience tittered.
Gervais continued: “Well, you say you're woke but the companies you work for in China — unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney.” The camera cut to a constipated-looking Tim Cook. “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.”
Another awards season has come and gone. This year’s was obviously odder than the rest, but it was still replete with ethical posturing addressing everything except the golden elephants in the nation, squashing the physical and economic health of masses so desperate to be entertained after work that they watch Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston pretend to be news anchors on Apple TV.
Of course, hating Hollywood actors as ambassadors of political idealism has become its own sport. The New York Times, a few days before this year’s show, admitted that, “increasingly, the ceremonies are less about entertainment honors and more about progressive politics.” It cited a recent analysis that “indicated that ‘vast swaths’ of people turned off their televisions when celebrities started to opine on politics.”
This could be because, for all the Times’s talk about its “progressive” politics, there are no radicals in Hollywood. Most seem to be centrist Democrats. They kowtow to war. They thank the troops. They hate red presidents and love the blue ones. In 2010, Kathryn Biglow dedicated her Best Director Oscar to “the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world”. (She said nothing about the godforsaken civilians in their crossfire.) Meryl Streep nearly cried during her lifetime achievement award at the 2017 Golden Globes, heartbroken over the “bully” in the Oval Office. Sean Penn, accepting his Oscar for Best Actor in 2009, said he was “very, very proud to live in a country that is willing to elect an elegant man president.”
Like JP Morgan and Google, the Hollywood establishment appears happy to boil down our jeremiad of political failures and corruption to a burbling black-and-white (and rainbow) stew. Skin-deep and sanctimonious, their hip little nostrum doesn’t seem to have produced much more than tender sensations of inclusion. But by weeping at all the right times, by uttering (or tweeting) all the right shibboleths, our stars, just like our tech barons, investment bankers, and eight-term Congressmen, inveigle public applause and acclaim. We love to hate them, but the liberal majority still agrees with their politics.
There is, to be fair, some difference between JP Morgan and Chris Rock, between Google and Renee Zellwegger. The barons and bankers are a bit more strategic with their sloganeering — they cue earnest emails and pop-up ads that tell us how much these or those lives “matter”, while lobbying out of sight against unionization and higher taxes. The Hollywood actors are a tad more like us. They’re absurdly wealthy and inaccessible, yes, but they once lived in their cars or waitressed and now occasionally read screenplays about proletariat life. They’re also on the same Internet as the working and activist classes, scrolling through the same frenetic political chatter.
So maybe it’s the political chatter that has gotten worse. After all, topical speeches at Academy Awards telecasts weren’t always so compliant. They didn’t always receive the loud, unanimous applause that comes of consensus. In the 70s and 80s, there were on-stage censures of the Vietnam War, Native American disenfranchisement, and Israeli apartheid. As late as 2003, Michael Moore was booed by the Kodak Theater for upbraiding Bush Jr.’s “fictitious” but fashionable (i.e. New York Times-endorsed) war: “We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you.”
I suppose I could whip up a Glenn Greenwald-ish recapitulation: The aftermath of 9/11 both organically and coercively instilled a national cap on political dissent. Anti-Bush and anti-war commentary tended to choose satire over vitriol, mainly because non-American lives couldn’t subordinate military ones, and terrorism couldn’t be conceptually upended. A decade later, a series of identitarian movements clambered to the top of the zeitgeist, shifting political (and, implicitly, ethical) parameters primarily to matters of race, gender, and sexuality. Then, with the election of a loud, mendacious, incompetent president who delighted in pressing the buttons of an increasingly agitable Left, these parameters attained near-religious primacy. Matters of neoliberal deregulation, wealth inequality, corporate malfeasance, labor rights, universal healthcare, the military industrial complex, and education became secondary or altogether inaudible. Corporate America followed suit, having nothing to lose. And so did Hollywood.
I’ve delivered many an Oscar acceptance speech in my bathroom. Every vain little queer boy has. And I grew up in another hemisphere. But American movies, like American tractors, Oreos, and oil, are avidly imported by the rest of the world. With these movies (and TV shows and music) comes the gravitational pull of American celebrities. In the late 90s, I’d drive past village children in India and Nepal wearing Titanic t-shirts featuring Leo and Kate’s love-tangled faces. In the early aughts the faces changed to Britney and Avril, and then later to WWE wrestlers. Nowadays, it seems celebrity-blazoned clothing has gone out of style even in the remotest shantytowns, but this could be because images of famous folk, like all things, are localizable on cheaply available smartphones.
As a child, I didn’t have much trouble with my imaginary acceptance speeches, despite very few members of the puffed and powdered Oscars crowd looking anything like me. Still, there is something nice about the recent visual diversification of nominees and presenters. The new, makeshift carpet of identitarian eggshells has minimized the othering of actors and themes that used to be deemed “foreign” or, to put it in distinctly American terms, “ethnic”. In other words, as minorities and immigrants are tokenized less by the culture, casting directors and awards shows are duly harping less upon Asian, Indian, Arab, and African faces. (Riz Ahmed, for example, went from playing a reluctant fundamentalist to a heavy metal drummer.)
But if we are to speak more broadly about our political and economic realities, aspiring to win an Oscar, even making it onto the ceremonial stage, accomplishes close to nothing. The vast majority of us never come within a thousand miles of an invitation. Thus another foible of the American psyche: aspiring to millionairedom, to winning the lottery, to becoming a famous actor, rapper, athlete, executive, or influencer — anything but a garbage person — means the middle class need not be revolutionized with the zeal of one tending to one’s dreams. Unyearned as a respectable ceiling of practicable futures, the middle class rots.
Hollywood may not always hold sway over the public imagination, but it continues to give us celebrities of the highest magnitude. (Our compulsions to gossip, gape, envy, and idolize are more or less congenital.)
Perhaps the industrialization of celebrity makes inescapable what is inevitable and superlative what ought to be subjective. The presupposed reverence of magazines and talk shows exists without the slightest bit of irony. Walter Benjamin famously said that as art became reproducible, its receptive emphasis shifted from “cult value” — which depended on the “aura” of the original work of art, to which we in turn bore a ritualistic proximity — to “exhibition value.”
“With the emancipation of the various art practices from their ritual,” he wrote, “go increasing opportunities for the exhibition of their products.”
Benjamin applied this to movies by noting the commodification of the actor’s reproducible image: “The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the ‘personality’ outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity.”
Our stars — our phony, propagated commodities — needn’t be saintly, but couldn’t they be a little more self-effacing? Couldn’t their political stunts be a little more brazen, their performances a little more avant-garde? Alas, bohemianism will always preclude the wealthy. The Golden Globes were (literally) cancelled for representational reasons. Not for our garbage people.
As long as our award shows give us no real flag burning, no radically progressive contrarianism — and as long as our celebrities canoodle our politicians and live in $100 million mansions — the Oscars, Globes, Grammys, and Emmys may as well scrap the gushy, bandwagon moralizing and take Ricky Gervais’s advice: “If you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God, and fuck off, OK?”