75th Golden Globes Brought Home by the Righteous Fury of an Avenging Oprah (Column)

For an awards ceremony so preceded by agitation for change, the 75th annual Golden Globes, on paper, were surprisingly conventional. On the television side, the Hollywood Foreign Press followed Emmy buzz to “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and, as usual, honored a glitzy debut show led by a female ingenue in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The film honorees were spread across more films, but also didn’t shock: “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” which didn’t get much traction at other awards shows, managed to sway the Hollywood Foreign Press as predicted, and the Globes have long had a weakness for performers playing historical figures, like Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour.”

On one hand, the Globes tend not to set agendas but to follow them — and the winners that rose to the surface were exceptional in how much they featured female roles and female stories. But for all of the enthusiasm demonstrated by the red carpet attendees and host Seth Meyers, the awards show itself felt gripped by inexorable forces it still can’t shift. That the women who chose to protest sexual harassment in Hollywood did so by wearing black felt more significant as the night unfolded — it’s a color that blends in and doesn’t make a scene, a color that most of the men were going to wear anyway. Sometimes even the most well-intentioned efforts for progress can be easily subsumed into the grinding gears of an unjust system.

To be sure, the pre-show efforts paved the way for a red carpet that was unlike any of the modern era: A parade of black-gowned women, accompanied by non-Hollywood activists and intellectuals — such as Michelle Williams, who was accompanied by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, or Meryl Streep, with Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance director and 2014 MacArthur fellow. Red carpet mainstays like hosts Giuliana Rancic and Ryan Seacrest were a little flummoxed by how political their jobs had suddenly become, and seemed to be practicing an expert facial expression that at least looked like they were listening. The New York Times, which had a crucial role in the unfolding of the sexual harassment and misconduct revelations that rocked the industry, sent not just their reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who broke the Harvey Weinstein story, but also Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist Darin Winter, who caught a few of the ungracefully candid moments of the scene.

The glimpses of the red carpet machinery desperately struggling to adjust to a new world order were predictive of what we saw onstage. Much like justice, the 75th annual Golden Globes first moved too slowly — and then dizzyingly quickly, lurching from a couple of long acceptance speeches to a blitz of categories that went by in an eye blink, the speakers all clearly being prompted to wrap it up as soon as they got onstage. Host Seth Meyers brought the mood of one of the strangest red carpets in modern history to a cathartic, rollicking opening monologue. But he was clearly nervous, too. “It’s been years since a white man was this nervous in Hollywood,” he joked early on, with a note of energized panic that characterized his entire performance. But his own anxiety seemed to mirror the room’s — a room that seemed to respond with relief at his decision to be ruthless about the elephants in the room, even if he was anxious getting the jokes out. In a beautiful moment at the end of his monologue, he handed the floor to Amy Poehler, sitting at a table, who went long mocking him for “mansplaining” a joke setup to her. It was obviously a stunt, but Poehler’s confident chewing of the scenery — taking up the Globes’ precious run time with a gag that only kind of worked — was what eventually made Meyers’ performance seem so successful; when push came to shove, he ceded women their time.

But then: After a long buildup to the awards, and a successful opening monologue, the awards just kind of… kept going, without much fanfare or pizzazz. It seemed as if the energy of the preamble couldn’t quite match with what is a pretty boring format of handing out awards and listing nominees, especially as sped-up times meant that past Nicole Kidman, very few of the honorees got a chance to say anything interesting or meaningful. Midway through, Andy Samberg, presenting with Poehler, ended a bad joke with a shrug: “What are you going to do? It’s a weird year.”

It certainly was. There was a lot of goodwill at the awards, but it was often presented in the least sexy way possible; exhortations towards equality and fairness delivered from a rich person on a podium are usually not very interesting, even if those people are wearing black dresses. And in a strange, sour note, Catherine Zeta-Jones came onstage with her father-in-law Kirk Douglas — a moment that proved divisive on social media, where some viewers recalled that the venerable star had been rumored to be accused of sexual assault. The rumors are just that, rumors. But it was a frustrating and off-key note on a night that was otherwise so celebratory and so looked towards the future; a suggestion that the firmament of Hollywood cannot wholly be separated from the abuses it was built on, no matter how many pins you wear. Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Louis CK didn’t exist in a vacuum; their enablers, who take various forms, were in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton last night. It’s an inconvenient truth.

But if the show’s pacing reflects the arc of justice — slow and optimistic, and then fast and a little disturbing — then justice hits a turning point as soon as Oprah is involved. It turns out, the #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #WhyWeWearBlack soundbites on the carpet and onstage were just the canapés preparing the audience for the main course: Oprah Winfrey accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award and delivering a rousing speech that seemed to reach every remaining doubt and fear, boiling down to nothing less than a mission statement for the future. I don’t know if there is anything to say that tops her own words, so here’s her final few lines:

“I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say, ‘Me too,’ again.”

Oprah began her speech by discussing Sidney Poitier before moving on to figures beyond Hollywood: Rosa Parks and a young black woman Parks worked with named Recy Taylor, who in 1944 was abducted, raped, and tortured by six white men and who never saw her assailants brought to justice. And in a way, what Oprah was saying was that the world was much bigger than that room — this room where no one is as persecuted as Taylor was, and where no one is as brave as Parks would go on to be. But by introducing Poitier, and closing the way she did, she reminded Hollywood of its role — to be a light for others, and to encourage and inspire those without the same voice and platform.

When Natalie Portman followed her up by immediately commenting that the directing nominees she was about to announce were all men, it was like a squirt of lighter fluid on a raging fire; if Twitter can be believed, thousands of us all screamed in unison. It is as if Oprah was allowing us all to say the thing that is been burbling under the surface of this movement all along — an anger that will require bigger gestures than wearing black and honoring female directors, to be quite honest. The Golden Globes could barely contain the anger and frustration that wasn’t somehow glamorous, and in a way, it seemed like Oprah was one of the few people there that knocked down the idea of talking all this talk at a big, expensive Hollywood party. Not for nothing did her presence stand in contrast to the winners, who were largely white women.

What is there to say that tops that? Oprah Winfrey — a woman who beat every demographic injustice weighted against her by speaking to those who felt the way she did; a talented actress and sharp mogul who is somehow wealthy, talented, successful, and generous all in one swoop.  I left this awards show hoping the future looks like Oprah. We could do a lot worse.

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