The story of the past year, beginning with an inaugural speech of darker bile and greater bunk than any in my lifetime, has been the abdication and outsourcing of the moral authority that the presidency of the United States once had.
On Sunday night, Hollywood, of all places, picked up the slack.
I watched the Golden Globes and, yes, I noticed the false, sometimes cringe-worthy notes of hypocrisy and unwarranted self-congratulation. Movies and the rest of the entertainment industry have done more to promote degrading, confining stereotypes of women than to shatter them. And the social activism of many stars dovetails conveniently with the enhancement (or rehabilitation) of their personal brands. It’s virtue signaling in Valentino.
But in this anxious moment of absent leadership, I also noticed that the actors, writers, directors and others who walked the red carpet and took the stage were having the kinds of conversations, and articulating the sorts of values, that the embattled and embittered people holding the reins of government are currently unwilling or unable to.
They talked about diversity, decency and, yes, women: how frequently they’ve been unheard, how cruelly they’ve been mistreated and marginalized. And while these homilies weren’t exactly new, they had never had such timeliness and urgency and had never been such a resounding answer to silence.
Sterling K. Brown, who won best performance by an actor in a television series, drama, for “This Is Us,” thanked its creator, Dan Fogelman, for a character who wasn’t colorless. “You wrote a role for a black man that could only be played by a black man,” Brown said. “I’m being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And it makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me or dismiss anybody who looks like me.”
I never get eloquence like that about racial progress from Donald Trump’s White House.
“This is ours to share,” Nicole Kidman said to her female co-stars in “Big Little Lies” as she accepted the award for best performance by an actress in a limited series or motion picture made for television. “Wow, the power of women.”
If Trump ever uttered that sentence, it would be in terror, not celebration.
America is upside down and inside out. There’s meaningless make-believe in the capital of politics. There’s meaningful politics in the capital of make-believe.
The opening monologue by the host of the Globes, Seth Meyers, flicked at this reversal. Looking into the audience at the actor Seth Rogen, whose 2014 movie “The Interview” displeased a certain foreign power, Meyers said: “Hey, remember when hewas the guy making trouble with North Korea? Simpler times.”
Frances McDormand also mined the Hollywood-versus-Washington territory when she won for best performance by an actress in a motion picture, drama, for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Praising the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the Globes, she said, “Let’s face it: They managed to elect a female president.” (Her name is Meher Tatna.)
These of course were the Globes for which most women dressed in black, not in mourning but in solidarity, as a way to mark a raised consciousness about sexual abuse and harassment and the fresh determination to fight them.
But the sartorial departure didn’t pack quite the punch that it was intended to, partly because a monochromatic palette didn’t change the plunging necklines, gaudy jewelry and glamorous fillips of every other awards show. This was more simplification than sacrifice.
And one effect was that on the red carpet, interviewers asked women about sexual harassment and men about their recent professional achievements. The battle against inequality begat more inequality.
Oprah Winfrey redeemed that, with a gorgeous speech about how a yesterday of discrimination becomes a tomorrow of hope. One of the best routes, she noted, are role models. She recalled what it meant to her, when she was younger, to see Sidney Poitier receive Hollywood’s highest accolades. And she wondered aloud what it might mean for little girls Sunday night to see hergetting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.
As I listened to her, I thought about something that Saoirse Ronan said last week when, as part of the TimesTalks series, I interviewed her and Greta Gerwig in an auditorium in Manhattan about the movie “Lady Bird,” which Ronan starred in and Gerwig wrote and directed. (It won the Globe on Sunday night for best motion picture, musical or comedy, and Ronan won for best performance by an actress in a motion picture, musical or comedy.)
Ronan told me that since making “Lady Bird,” she found herself wanting not just to act but to direct, because she’d watched Gerwig and actually seeinga woman in that job, right in front of her, had make it seem possible in a new way. It had put that aspiration into her vocabulary.
Hollywood at its best puts more aspirations in more people’s vocabularies. It did that last year, and the Globes were a reminder. As a recent story in The Times noted: “The three most popular movies at theaters in the United States and Canada in 2017 – ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ – were each driven by female characters, something that has not happened in at least 37 years, as far back as full box office data is available. The top comedy of the year, ‘Girls Trip,’ was also anchored by women, as was the top film to play in limited release, ‘Lady Bird.’ “
“Lady Bird” and “Wonder Woman” were both directed by women to boot.
There were assertive female characters at the center of “Lady Bird,” “Three Billboards,” “I, Tonya,” “The Post” and “The Shape of Water,” to name some of the movies that got the most attention at the Globes. There were women-centric plots in “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to mention two television projects that won big.
In Washington I find less encouragement. I hope that 2018 will be a different story.
And I hope that Hollywood, which still has such a very long way to go, takes to heart Rachel Brosnahan’s words when she won the Globe for best performance by an actress in a television series, musical or comedy, for her work in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
She noted that there were “so many women’s stories out there that still need and deserve to be told,” adding: “So as we enter this new year, please let’s continue to hold each other accountable and invest in and make and champion these stories.”