Meryl Streep Golden Globes
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'La La Land' swept the night, but the mood in the room was far from lighthearted

Last night’s telecast of the Golden Globes were defined not by glitz, glamour, or even the mysterious non-movie “Hidden Fences,” but instead by a pervasive feeling of discomfort. The anxiety around the first few minutes of the live telecast never quite faded away, as presenter Jimmy Fallon failed to find a rhythm and the direction was so sloppy it read amateur. The host, who has incurred derision from all sides for his naive treatment of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, began the opening monologue with a joke about Trump losing the popular vote. It wasn’t quite clear if he wanted to be making jokes about Trump or simply felt like he had to, but either way, his delivery was tentative and half-hearted. And as the Hollywood Foreign Press’ choices for the winners started to spool out, the anticlimax of the choices — especially on the film side, where “La La Land” swept with seven Globes — made for a tentative, half-hearted evening.

You could call it opening-night jitters. Even for these seasoned veterans of show business, there’s a new kind of stage to walk out onto now. After all, Sunday night’s awards show was not just about honoring the best of film and television, but also the beginnings of how Hollywood will face the new political establishment — an establishment now headed by longtime Hollywood wannabe Trump, the nation’s president-elect.

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Hollywood has aligned itself against or at least in conversation with the political establishment before, styling itself as a liberal bastion of enlightened race relations and truth-telling progressivism. But Trump’s rise to power is different from even the most questionable conservative candidates of the last few decades — a rumbling at the foundations of our public sphere. Furthermore, in the last few years, Hollywood — again, especially on the film side — has found itself to be a maligned symbol of the establishment, in terms of its limited representation when it comes to both race and class.

Hollywood’s elite had reacted, in an era of institutional liberalism under President Barack Obama, by becoming guarded and defensive, both a little self-questioning and a lot more self-satisfied. It is no accident that the films that have done best at awards shows over the last few years are films about Hollywood’s relationship to itself — “The Artist,” “Birdman,” “Hugo,” and now, “La La Land.” It’s understandable. This is a group of people who makes, or tries to make, a lot of money out of the creative process — and then struggles with the way their art is digested by the audience and made into the world around them.

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But last night, it didn’t feel like enough. “La La Land” is a good film, but it does not tell us anything about Trump’s America. By the end of the film’s sweep, it was beginning to feel less like a flight of fancy and more like an albatross. Trump — a media candidate if there ever was one — comes from something about Hollywood. Which might be why it felt that underneath the night’s frustration and disappointment with politics was a frisson of fear. Trump rode a wave of anti-establishment anger to the White House in an election that disorients and disrupts some of the most fundamental underpinnings of what has been widely assumed to be the American political process. What can moving pictures and making faces on-screen say to a population so disenchanted?

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The depicted answers to that question varied quite a bit. In the camp of “I studied abroad once” was the very well-intentioned Tom Hiddleston, who won best actor in a limited series for “The Night Manager.” In his acceptance speech, he pivoted earnestly but awkwardly to a story of children in South Sudan that ended, lamely, with the revelation that the children’s doctors had binged his show. Hugh Laurie, who also won an acting award for “The Night Manager,” opted for dark humor — drily commenting that the night’s awards would be the final Golden Globes ever. Isabelle Huppert, accepting best actress for “Elle,” ended her speech with a line that addressed the political mood of the evening: “Do not expect cinema to put up walls and borders.” (The line, which is lovely, was obscured by Huppert being played off the stage.) On the lighter side, Sofia Vergara, clad in a very revealing Zuhair Murad gown, did a presenting bit where she misread “annual” as first “anal” and then “anus,” laying on the thick accent that she plays up for laughs. And Fallon, at one juncture, introduced Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, and then segued into a fake-rapping bit where he rhymed using their last names as perennial hype man Questlove provided accompaniment. Chastain and Redmayne almost cringed away from the performance as they walked to the microphone.

Here it is: the discomfort. Sincerity was either too dark or too saccharine; distraction felt blind to context or without substance. The Globes are typically the industry’s least serious awards show, defined by spectacle more than substance. But perhaps 2017 is too murky for Hollywood’s typical celebrations. On one hand, the art of film and television is one of entertainment — of distraction and technique, spectacle and laughter. On the other hand, it is a medium with goals so lofty and fragile that to say them aloud is to watch them disappear — understanding, connection, equality, hope. Awards shows live in the unholy overlap of these two goals — an attempt to make good and do good at the same time — which might be the primary reason that they are simultaneously awful and transfixing to watch.

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It fell to the grande dame of Hollywood to deliver the night’s state of the union. The finest moment of the evening was the segment where Meryl Streep accepted the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement from presenter Viola Davis. For once, it was the speech — the pair of speeches — that really elevated the evening from merely an expression of Hollywood’s collective ego to a larger meditation on why the industry does what it does. (Say what you will about Trump, but he sure does inspire self-reflection in angsty liberals.)

Streep — both as an acting icon and as the one at the party winning a lifetime achievement award — had a unique opportunity to say something profound. And what she did say — which appeared to unfold to hushed, pin-drop silence in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton — directly addressed the discomfort of the night, smoothing over the blunt preachiness of other sincere efforts and finding the core seed of empathy and communication that is at the heart of entertainment. Because Streep is herself — and represents in some ways the best impulses of Hollywood, if not always the best decisions — it was also delivered with an effortless, rapturous grace. As someone who has watched so many of her performances on film, it was possible to see the fount of emotion where so many of her performances emerge from. And though it is very possible to question some of Streep’s language — Ohio somehow got grouped in with “foreigners,” a room full of millionaires became a stand-in for the disenfranchised, and the phrase “mixed-martial arts” snuck into the speech somehow — it was hard not to see how thoroughly she cared, how deeply she felt the need to speak out. Streep’s earnest feeling was the most electric moment of the night, because of how powerfully she could communicate that she wanted the world to be a better place.

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