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The Golden Globes: the problem isn't just Ricky Gervais

The normally clever-to-brilliant Ricky Gervais resorted to nonstop insult comedy as "the host" of the Golden Globes last night. He appeared to be auditioning for a dinner-theater version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" His main game was "Get the Guest."

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When he wasn't putting down easy targets like Charlie Sheen or joking about the vanity of "Sex and the City" stars and the age of Cher, his staggeringly lame fallback position was to list the lesser credits of A-listers like Bruce Willis.

His idea of daring was to contrast the formidable industry standing of Tom Hanks with the milder accomplishments of that often genial and sometimes inspired comic, Tim Allen. Why even try to drive a wedge between Woody and Buzz Lightyear? No wonder Hanks said, "We can recall back when Ricky Gervais was a slightly chubby but very kind comedian," and Tim Allen finished the thought -- "Neither of which he is now."

But let's be fair: Gervais merely reflected the emptiness of the occasion.

Sure, a lot of deserving movies and performers won Golden Globes last night, and there were Baltimore connections to almost all of them. "The Social Network," shot in small part on the Johns Hopkins campus, won four awards (for best drama, director, screenplay and score). Baltimore-bred Bart Walker, who helped shepherd the best comedy, "The Kids Are All Right," to the screen, got an onstage shout-out from producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte. Melissa Leo, a Baltimore favorite from her time shooting "Homicide" here, took home a best supporting actress prize for her performance in "The Fighter" (for my money, her rare over-the-top performance). Colin Firth, who won in the most talent-packed category (best dramatic actor), regally stood up for "The King's Speech," a movie whose plot pivots on the global social-climbing of Baltimorean Wallis Simpson. And on the TV side, Al Pacino, in accepting the best actor prize for "You Don't Know Jack," hailed director Barry Levinson, "who did so much for this movie and found an eloquence and did so much for me."

But the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives the awards, has always been an industry joke. Now it's turned into a blatant and grueling public joke. The group has no journalistic or artistic credibility whatsoever. It merely creates a show that's a marketing tool for the studios and a celebrity-laden event for NBC. The broadcast is supposed to be a slap-happy party. Last night it was a cross between a forced celebration and a Comedy Central roast.Christian Bale, accepting his best supporting actor award for "The Fighter," mocked HFPA members as a frivolous, self-absorbed bunch who couldn't conduct a proper interview. Robert De Niro, holding his Cecil B. DeMille Award for career achievement, said, "The important thing is we're all in this together –- the filmmakers who make the movies, and the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press who in turn pose for pictures with the movie stars."

Several talents rose above the occasion. The classy, funny Firth said that his award was all that stood between him and that mid-life-crisis accoutrement, a Harley. Annette Bening (best comic actress for "The Kids Are All Right") graciously thanked her costar Julianne Moore first, then closed with "thank you to the 1962 Winner of the Golden Globe for 'Most Promising Newcomer', my husband Warren Beatty." And the crew of the "Social Network" actually spoke literately and generously about filmmaking, the power of collaboration, and their movie's antihero, Mark Zuckerberg.

But all that propelled the evening was the cheap suspense of wondering how far Gervais would go and who would slap him down. Robert Downey Jr., did it most deftly, asking, with a deadpan, "Aside from the fact that it's been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I'd say the show's going pretty good so far, wouldn't you?"

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