Going into last night’s Golden Globe Awards, there were two big stories: One was about fashion. In the wake of Hollywood’s recently formed anti-harassment and abuse coalition Time’s Up, actresses attending the ceremony were asked to wear black as a statement, an initiative that drew no small amount of predictable and wrongheaded internet scorn. The dress code was mocked as shallow, appearance-obsessed hashtag activism, and also as weirdly misaimed: After three months of relentless and enraging headlines about men abusing women, “Let’s change what we wear” sounded to some like victim-blaming, to others like performative emptiness.
The other story was about Donald Trump, specifically his absence. The print-ad slogan for the Globes was a photo of host Seth Meyers next to the slogan, “Hollywood, we have a lot to talk about,” and he didn’t mean the president. In run-up interviews, Meyers made it clear that he had very little interest in revisiting the Trump commentary that pervaded last year’s show: “If [Trump] tweets that he’s disappointed we didn’t bring him up, I’d be thrilled,” he told The Hollywood Reporter, and remarked to the New York Times that “this year, it seems more fair to focus in. Especially because the industry that is celebrating itself has a lot to answer for.” This seemed to set up the unsustainable idea that some kind of high wall exists between Trump and sexual-harassment scandals, that there is no intuitive connection between the women who were overridden when they said that Trump assaulted and degraded them and the Weinstein moment in Hollywood and all that has followed it. Harvey, after all, is the problem Hollywood can solve; Trump is the problem it can’t. He was going to shape the collective mood inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel no matter what.
That’s a lot of political freight for an awards show that, even among awards shows, is known for being devoid of any significance whatsoever: Eighty foreign journalists handing out two dozen Ferrero Rocher–looking statuettes to every movie and TV star they can get to show up, which is, of course, all of them. In the context of the Academy Awards, in the context of honor and prestige, in the context of any possible definition of the word “meaning,” the Golden Globes is an empty vessel. Which, oddly, has made the show the perfect vehicle for Hollywood to let America know what’s on its mind. That can’t happen at the Oscars, because at the Oscars people want something. But at the Globes, people just want to say something.
For the last decade or so, the show sold itself as the “party of the year” — translation: The Oscars, but drunk. In the Trump era, the brand has shifted to The Oscars, but woke. Last year’s show, which aired two weeks before the inauguration (which was approximately 100 anxiety-years ago), was anchored by a lifetime-achievement-award acceptance speech by Meryl Streep, who excoriated Trump for casual cruelty and hostility to immigrants so effectively that the president-elect was bestirred to tweet that she was overrated. That show felt like it kicked off Hollywood’s version of the Resistance — some of the actresses on the telecast would be seen at pro-immigrant rallies just a few weeks later — and last night’s telecast felt like the second-season premiere.
The prelude was not promising. NBC’s red-carpet show may have been the first ever in which the interviewers, all desperate not to say anything meme-able, looked more nervous than the stars. (Al Roker was smiling, but his eyes said, “Please don’t ask me about Matt Lauer.”) Their eager chatter repeatedly gestured toward the idea of having a conversation while desperately trying to prevent one from happening. Positive. Important. Important. Positive. Diversity. Empowered. Power. Powerful. Platform. Change. Meaningful. Movement. “I think it’s powerful that a lot of women feel empowered to speak,” said Sam Rockwell. “This is an important conversation to have!” said Carson Daly. “Girl power!” added Natalie Morales, beaming out subsonic waves that said, “GO TO COMMERCIAL NOW.”
Preshows are always awful, and this was, too — except for one element: The actresses who were the whole point. The vast majority of them were ready with thoughtful, substantive, and intelligent remarks, which, with the skill of celebrities who have had to gently power past many an obtuse questioner to make their point, they managed to deliver.
And those black dresses? As a visual corollary to what was about to happen inside, they worked perfectly. They conveyed unity while allowing for personality. They said, we’re all different and we all have stories to tell, but we’re on the same page tonight. To create an activist gesture, especially in fashion, is always to invite contempt from people who imagine that you don’t understand the gap between symbolism and action, but nobody who makes these efforts thinks they’re a substitute for actual change. Gestures are about visibility, profile-raising, and strength in numbers, and in that sense, the black-clad Globes belonged to the same tradition as pink pussy hats and red ribbons. It’s a way to stand up and be counted — and if you doubt that the use of clothing has deep roots in social-progress movements, go check out the Whitney Museum’s current exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” and see what Edward Kienholz did with military uniforms and Senga Nengudi did with panty hose.
Once the show started, the women took over. As host, Meyers was unobtrusive, moving through the requisite thrusts at Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and then getting out of the way. He was the right man for the job, given that this year no man was right for the job, and if he didn’t own the evening, he deserves much credit for knowing that he wasn’t supposed to. Meyers didn’t seem to be around all that much after the first 15 minutes, and one reason may have been that he was confident enough to know that he didn’t need to step in to give the show shape or a story line: Woman after woman, whether as presenter or winner, was doing that. Their speeches were like the black dresses: all individual, and all one. Each speaker seemed to add a panel to the quilt. Nicole Kidman (a winner for Big Little Lies) talked about her mother as an advocate for women’s rights and heralded her creative partnership with Reese Witherspoon. Rachel Brosnahan (a winner for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) used her acceptance speech to push for the telling of women’s stories. Elisabeth Moss (a winner for The Handmaid’s Tale) read a statement from Margaret Atwood. Laura Dern (another Big Little Lies winner) spoke about “the culture of silence” and the need for restorative justice, in an especially strong acceptance speech that was the closest thing to a Time’s Up mission statement made on the show. Jessica Chastain and Geena Davis both cited the salary gender gap, and a sardonic Natalie Portman and a flurried Barbra Streisand each noted the all-male lineup of directing nominees, which was especially conspicuous since non-nominee Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird walked off with Best Picture and Actress prizes. It wasn’t the most suspenseful Globes, or the funniest, but — much rarer for an awards show — it felt cohesive, a glimpse not just at women, but at a community of women working in unison.
And then there was Oprah Winfrey, who got the Streep slot. As a general rule, if you make an eight-minute Golden Globes acceptance speech and the Twitter talk afterward is about whether you should run for president, you did well. Winfrey’s speech was steeped in her uncanny ability to assess any room and any moment. There are few American figures who can synthesize the autobiographic, the historical, the political, and the inspirational the way she can, and her stem-winder had much of the crowd up out of their chairs, first to cheer and then to keep listening, rapt as delegates on a convention floor. She began with herself, as a little girl, watching Sidney Poitier win Best Actor at the 1964 Academy Awards, a gently intersectional reminder to the audience that racial inequity must remain any part of a narrative about Hollywood, or American, abuse; then she moved into a nod to the importance of journalism (implicitly connecting her speech to Streep’s last year and to The Post); then she transitioned gracefully into the responsibility of Hollywood’s storytellers, and connected that responsibility to the plight of women whose stories have been too infrequently heard (in particular the late Recy Taylor) and finally to Me Too and the movement it has spawned. “Their time is up! Their time is up!” she incanted as the audience thundered approval. And suddenly, Donald Trump was back in the room, where Seth Meyers probably knew he’d end up, despite his best efforts. Winfrey was the emotional climax of the midterm-year Globes, and given that awards shows are so often bathetic orgies of self-congratulation, it’s impressive that “We did it, guys!” never seeped into her tone. Follow-through is everything, but the crack of the starting pistol matters, and this year, the sound it made was something like: We’ve had it. We’re coming for you.