The morning after Ricky Gervais let loose on his celebrity audience at the Golden Globes was bound to be a stormy one on social media—not to mention the DM’s of Apple, Amazon, and Hollywood Foreign Press executives. Predictably, many chatterers accused the comic of spreading right-wing talking points, of being just plain unfunny, and, for good measure, of transphobia. To my mind, the most striking response came from the Los Angeles Times’s television critic, Lorraine Ali, in a charge repeated by the New York Times: “Forget the escapist magic of Hollywood,” Ali wrote. “Nihilism was the name of the game.”
Talk about missing the point. Gervais was doing something comics have done through the ages: reminding us that the glamorous emperors might be naked, and the loudest singers in church the most corrupt. “Apple roared into the TV game with The Morning Show, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China,” he said in one particularly spit-out-your-coffee zinger.
Gervais’s politics are not easy to pigeonhole. He hates Trump, disdains climate-change deniers, and ridicules religion, calling himself a “godless ape” in his Twitter bio. Clearly, he has no love for corporate America. But he also finds elite identity politics and celebrity self-regard absurd. His heterodoxy means he is bound to offend some of his audience whenever he steps on stage. And so he did on Sunday night: “No one cares about movies anymore,” he riffed in his opening monologue to the assembled notables. “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you’ve spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.”
Finding this funny—and millions of us did—requires thinking your average Hollywood bigshot is no more knowledgeable or interesting on the great issues of our time than my great aunt Gladys, even though they genuinely think they are. It also requires believing that Hollywood machers have considerable power and money, which means that their opinions, unlike my great aunt’s, have the potential to matter. Like all self-inflated hypocrites, they need debunking.
Let’s admit that punching up, Gervais-style, usually comes with a whiff of envy. That’s especially true when it comes to Hollywood’s powerful, who have the added advantage of beauty, world fame, and wealth. Celebrities are to us as Olympian gods were to the ancients; the public wants to pore over details about their clothes, Los Angeles mansions, Aspen chalets, Cabo vacays, love affairs, yoga teachers, facialists, and plastic surgeons. We normal folks can only press our noses against the glass of dazzling parties like the Golden Globes—the name itself carries mythical undertones—with flowers flown in from Ecuador and Italy and a 100 percent plant-based meal, knowing that we will never be allowed in. It’s not fair.
And that’s exactly why Hollywood royalty should stay humble and respect their place in the cultural ecosystem. They are not politicians or Middle East scholars or historians or even ordinary people with an ordinary set of beliefs. They have uncommon power as a result of skills or gifts for which they have been celebrated and handsomely rewarded. They have every right—some might say, every obligation—to spread those rewards to the less fortunate: to fight the fires in Australia and help earthquake victims in Haiti and orphans in Darfur. But to use their position to lecture us about issues that they in all likelihood know about only from what they’ve heard on a friend’s podcast while running on the treadmill is something close to an abuse of power.
As if to illustrate Gervais’s point, several actresses took the stage to spread their wisdom to their captive audience of more than 18 million. Patricia Arquette descended into an incoherent rant: “In the history books we will see a country on the brink of war. The United States of America, a President tweeting out a threat of 52 bombs including cultural sites. Young people risking their lives traveling across the world. People not knowing if bombs are going to drop on their kids heads and the continent of Australia on fire. I beg of us all to give them a better world. For our kids and their kids, we have to vote in 2020 and we have to get—beg and plead for everyone we know to vote in 2020.”
Michelle Williams, a talented actress, decided that her gift endowed her with the perception to speak for America’s nearly 160 million women. Referring to the need to protect abortion rights, she urged women to vote in their “own self-interest.” “It’s what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them.” Reese Witherspoon tweeted to her compatriot: “Thank you for being a champion of women, you are an inspiration!” Note to Reese and Michelle: you are “championing” barely a half of American women. The rest are ambivalent or in firm disagreement with you.
In politicized times like these, there’s an increasing expectation that every public figure, organization, and corporation should take sides—generally the progressive side. Those who fail to come on board are deemed, at best, unwoke, or, as in the case of a hard-to-pin-down personage like Gervais, nihilistic. “The last thing anyone needed was for the smirking master of ceremonies to reprimand [the audience] for having hope, or taunt the room for trying to use their influence to change things for the better,” the Times’s Ali wrote. Gervais, she continues, should have been “brave enough to drop the tired agitator shtick and, for once, read the room.”
For many of us, that’s exactly what he did.
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