the gold rush

Try As They Might, the Golden Globes Will Never Top Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Gladiator!!!’ Moment

The most unhinged envelope-opening ever is exactly why we love the Golden Globes. Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

To everyday movie fans, the Golden Globes is the awards ceremony where all of your favorite actors and actresses go to get drunk in front of cameras. As such, the history of the Golden Globes is filled with deliriously off-script moments, far more than its fussy, formal Oscar cousin is. Yet for as many ramble-y acceptance speeches and off-color Jack Nicholson jokes that have occurred over the years, none of these moments can match Elizabeth Taylor’s 2001 performance as a Globes Best Picture (Drama) presenter, when all hell (and Dick Clark) broke loose.

Retired screen legends are often courted for the job of doling out the biggest prize at awards shows, but few of Elizabeth Taylor’s caliber are amenable to doing so. So, when she was introduced by Jeff Bridges that night in 2001, an astonished audience immediately rose to their feet to greet her. At the start of a new millennium, they were still starstruck by one of the greatest actresses — one of the biggest celebrities — of all time, on this particular stage.

The presentation started without incident. But, like a slow-motion atomic bomb, Taylor soon began prematurely opening the envelope containing the Best Picture (Drama) winner. The teleprompter was instructing her to read the names of the nominees (Gladiator, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Billy Elliott, Wonder Boys, and the Austro-Hungarian intergenerational family drama Sunshine — the Globes-iest nominee that year), yet there she was ignoring protocol, ripping into the gold paper like an overeager kid on Christmas. She only halted when a person in the audience caught her attention, alerting Taylor to the hasty behavior. “I’m new at this!” she called out in response. “I usually like to get them,” she added of the statues. It’s one of the more underrated aspects of this beautiful disaster: Taylor herself was charmed by the events as they were unfolding.

Then Dick Clark came out to assist.

These were the more freewheeling days, when Dick Clark Productions and the eponymous icon shepherded the televised cocktail party. Taylor greets him with the bemused delight of Snow White to a forest creature. When she finally begins reading the nominees, the train momentarily back on the tracks, it’s with the high-drama articulation of old Hollywood, as if each syllable of each title conveys the films’ gravitas. She was giving us a show! A sense of occasion! Which is how she got carried away again. “It’s flashing ‘ENVELOPE,’” she says, nodding again to the cursed teleprompter, though she might as well have been talking about the collective psychic energy of the audience trying to will her on. After a brief struggle with the envelope she’s already partially destroyed, Taylor abruptly ends the suspense, ascending to the heavens of her upper register to announce the winner with exquisite mania: “Gladiator!!!

Part of the joy of Taylor’s mishap is the good company it keeps: The moment occurred only three years after Christine Lahti missed her Best TV Actress win owing to a mistimed trip to the ladies’ room. In fact, this year’s Best Actress front-runner, Renée Zellweger, would have a bathroom mixup at the same ceremony as the “Gladiator!!!” Heard ’Round the World. It’s the Globes! Anything can happen!

Yet not since “Gladiator!!!” has there been a Globes presentation so perfectly awry. Not Jodie Foster outing herself as single, or Meryl Streep shouting out (and mangling the names of) Adepero Oduye and Mia Wasikowska. Not Emma Stone screaming an apology for playing an Asian character in Aloha, or Jack Nicholson casually mentioning the Valium he’d taken. Not Mary-Louise Parker winning a bet by thanking her newborn son for her cleavage, or Jacqueline Bisset’s stream of consciousness about forgiveness, her gaze eerily fixed on the middle distance.

The hope that the Globes might once again give us something as deliciously unhinged persists anyway. (Olivia Colman’s 2019 “my bitches” acceptance speech provides light in the darkness.) Because this is what’s so special about the awards ceremony, with its booze and its bawdiness. Actors enter into the broadcast a little less uptight than they might be come the Academy Awards, and lower stakes plus lubricated celebrities equals an evening that feels delightfully like it’s on the precipice of chaos.

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The Globes Can’t Top Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘Gladiator!!’ Moment