Awards season is how Hollywood shows off — promenading on red carpets in glitzy couture before getting drunk on someone else’s champagne, the perks of being in the not-so-sacred calling of show business. There’s quite a bit of preening involved along every step of the journey, from the pre-show boilerplate responses to Giuliana Rancic to the fake-surprised polite applauding for the winners; watching along at home is both feeling a part of something grand and feeling a bit left out from the spectacle.
But the Screen Actors Guild Awards is one of the most collegial and welcoming events of this season. More than the Oscars and Golden Globes, which both feel saturated with pomp, the SAG Awards are an ode to not just filmmaking, but to the specific craft and profession of acting, and to the empathetic power of performance. Instead of being the face of a film, or the voice for an issue, as is frequently the case at some of the broader events, the performers honored at the SAG Awards are more wholly themselves — actors charting a career trajectory in an odd, exalted profession, one that Ashton Kutcher lovingly referred to as one of “professional liars.”
Last night, as the nation was convulsed by President Donald Trump’s executive order that placed a travel ban on immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, the SAG Awards were both overshadowed by the cloud of strife outside of the Hollywood bubble — and, at the same time, buoyantly, unshakably defiant. Here in a community of peers — in a union event that is as much about the power of organized labor as it is about honoring standout performances — the actors of Hollywood embraced the thorny mantle of activism with a gusto that mirrored the protesters taking to the streets in airports across the country.
Critics of Hollywood’s politicking are quick to decry the industry’s outspoken politics as a form of elitist snobbery — and to be sure, regardless of how “right” it is, self-satisfied liberalism does alienate conservative Americans. What was wonderful about the speeches at the SAG Awards is that they were not self-satisfied. They were impassioned, frustrated, and dry; they were vehement and funny and on the verge of tears. But there was very little of that straw-man smugness on display last night; instead was the heartfelt communication of actors who — even in the depths of an industry that can be deeply cynical and profoundly manipulative — believe, wholeheartedly, that art is a force for change, and performance, a conduit for compassion.
Demonstrating that range, on one hand was Bryan Cranston, winning for his portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in HBO’s “All the Way,” who jibed that his character, the venerable and profane president, would have encouraged “Number 45” — that’s Trump — to not “piss in the soup all of us got to eat.” On the other was Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in her speech for outstanding female actor in a comedy series, remarking with shaking hands that her own father was a religious refugee, fleeing persecution in Nazi-occupied France. Mahershala Ali, accepting for his role in “Moonlight,” found that his voice broke as he tried to convey what he’d learned playing his character Juan: “Playing a gentleman who saw a young man folding into himself as a result of the persecution of his community. Taking that opportunity to uplift him, and telling him that he mattered, that he was okay, and accept him. I hope we do a better job of that.” Lily Tomlin, winning the SAG life achievement award, mused blackly over what she would next write on her protest sign, before turning her award around so that the Greek mask for tragedy, not comedy, would face the audience.
And the two crowning moments of the night — the cast awards, which went to “Stranger Things” on the TV side, and “Hidden Figures” on the film side — were unadorned statements of purpose. David Harbour, speaking on behalf of the cast of “Stranger Things,” was delivering his monologue so righteously that his costar Winona Ryder seemed a bit worried that he’d strayed too far off book. But his words echoed the core sentiment of the evening: He told the room what they already suspected, which is that they deeply mattered. “This award from you, who take your craft seriously, and earnestly believe like me that great acting can change the world, is a call to arms from our fellow craftsmen and women to go deeper,” he said to the room. “We will hunt monsters,” he said, in a nod to the show and a mission statement for the industry.
And more succinctly, from Taraji P. Henson, speaking on behalf of the cast of “Hidden Figures”: “This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside. … Love wins every time.” It was the capper on a night that was a vision of optimism, a beacon amidst a lot of darkness, an appeal to the better angels of all people, everywhere.
One can only hope it was noticed at the White House. President Trump demonstrated after the Golden Globes that he takes awards show speeches to heart — just another example of his lifelong obsession with the opinions of the glitterati. And yet last night was a litany of speeches opposing him — his agenda, his surrogates, his rhetoric, his aesthetics. It’s a real quandary for him — and a bizarre, awful opportunity for the industry. Perhaps the thing that will get through to our incredibly sensitive president is several sleepless nights wondering how he can get the cool kids at SAG-AFTRA to like him. Perhaps, as hundreds of thousands of people around the world suffer as the result of his actions, it is the only thing that can pull the strings on this frail, pathetic man.