A lot of people still like to talk about the Golden Globes as if they were the less-serious, more-fun, loose-cannon, everyone-in-the-room-is-relaxed-because-they’ve-had-a-few-drinks alternative to the Academy Awards. Okay, that is what they are, and on some level always will be. At this point, however, consigning the Globes to that description may also be a neat way of staying in denial over just how much, in the last 10 years, the once tatty, second-tier Globes have attached themselves, like a big golden mosquito, to the Oscars and sucked up a healthy dose of their mystique.
The difference may come down to how much you weigh perception and reality. Anyone close to the industry — or in it — knows that there’s a universe of difference between the voting body for the Oscars (the 5,783-member Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences) and the one for the Golden Globes (the quirky, at times nearly cult-like-in-their-anonymity 90-member Hollywood Foreign Press Association). But to the overwhelming majority of viewers at home, the difference may be academic, or negligible, or downright non-existent.
Tonight, when you saw Casey Affleck, in his man-bun and thatchy beard, get up and give his totally classy and humane and measured acceptance speech, or when Emma Stone, in her acceptance speech, got up to deliver one of those outpourings that tingles with so much homespun sincerity and glistening gratefulness that you marvel at how exquisitely it reveals the beauty of the actress’ soul (even as you realize, in the back of your mind, that you’re seeing another piece of sublime acting)…or when Ryan Gosling, in his acceptance speech, struck the perfect balance of modesty and bravura…or when the whole way that “La La Land” began to dominate the night (beginning with the opening Jimmy Fallon sketch, which sealed the film’s freeway-jam musical number as an iconic sequence) became less a one-award-after-another coronation than a way of sharing with the audience everything that’s great and thrilling and paradigm-shifting about the movie…well, it would be accurate to say that this all felt like a warm-up to the Oscars, but it would also be accurate to say that it felt like a preview that carried close to the full excitement of what it was previewing. Watching tonight’s Golden Globes, and thinking ahead to the Academy Awards, even a lot of passionate moviegoers who loved all of these performances and films might be justified in thinking: What, really, is the difference?
In the past, a key difference has often been this: The same people didn’t win. The members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have their own priorities, which may include how much a famous actor or actress has ingratiated him or herself into their have-a-selfie-with-the-star schmoozefest circuit; the results have tended to reflect that. For decades, there was a sleazy but harmless back-scratching voodoo to how, exactly, one read the annual winners’ slate of the Golden Globes. But as the Globes have come up in the world (in terms of TV ratings, but also in terms of that hard-to-quantify yet all too real yardstick known as respectability), the HFPA members’ relationship to their awards has changed. After all, they’re only human. They used to crave a kind of elbow-rubbing celebrity access. Now they crave something more, something beyond mere respectability. Should we dare to call it…good taste?
Just look at tonight’s winners. (I agreed with most of the TV winners I was familiar with, from “Black-ish” to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” but I’ll speak here only of the movie winners.) The accolades for Stone, Affleck, and Gosling. The nods to Damien Chazelle for his writing and directing of “La La Land,” and to Justin Hurwitz for his extraordinary score and great song (“City of Stars”). The win for Viola Davis, who gave a performance of searing majesty in “Fences,” and, even more boldly, the win for Isabelle Huppert, who would not have been my choice for Best Actress in a Dramatic Role, but whose subversively jaunty performance in “Elle” as a rape victim who has zero patience for victimhood has been so lionized by the film critics of two continents that I’d be betraying my profession if I didn’t salute the Golden Globes’ eagerness to honor the audacity of Huppert’s achievement. My point is not that the HFPA voters were right or wrong. It’s that in each and every case, they were tasteful and bold. This was not your hack-entertainment-journalist father’s Golden Globe Awards.
The sense that something disarmingly artistic was going on was only enhanced by the profound one-two punch of Viola Davis presenting the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Meryl Streep and Streep’s extraordinary speech paying tribute to the power of what acting really is. Davis’ beautiful words, in which she evoked the spiritual awe in which she held Streep (notably when she was on the set with her shooting “Doubt”), carried, to me, a liberating subtext: In this first year after the #OscarsSoWhite outcry, I felt like she was telling the world that art, in the deepest sense, knows no color. That in America, we are all each other’s idols.
Streep answered that by making the brilliant and inspiring point that acting is the living definition of empathy — it literally places us in other people’s shoes — and that Donald Trump, whom she correctly pegged as an actor, is a failed actor because he uses the illusions he creates not to enhance empathy but to snuff it out. Streep had the best line of the night, cutting through decades of glib Hollywood-bashing (“Who is Hollywood, anyway, but a bunch of people from other places?”), and she made what may be the canniest (and least gratuitous) social-protest speech I have ever heard at an awards show. It was moving, provocative, sharper-than-thou. And we all witnessed it…at the Golden Globes.
What can the Academy Awards do for an encore? I’m no awards prognosticator, but in all likelihood the Oscars will probably feature a fairly high percentage of the same winners. I don’t necessarily expect that “Moonlight” will take the Best Picture prize from “La La Land,” yet its win for Best Dramatic Feature at the Globes certainly pushes its chances forward — and more to the point, what a stunning move on the HFPA’s part! Call it what you will: I call it supremely…tasteful. And it’s a sure sign that the Golden Globes have changed the game, mostly for themselves.