It was a night of bubbles, big and small.
From the champagne on the tables at the Golden Globes on Sunday to the competing realities that the ceremony brought into sharp relief, an otherwise dreary night on the annual awards-show slog was awash in effervescence.
The most notable example, of course, was the speech Meryl Streep delivered upon receiving the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s award for lifetime achievement. Recalling the performance that affected her most profoundly in 2016, she described a moment on the campaign trail when then-candidate Donald Trump mocked disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, “someone [Trump] outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it,” Streep said, “and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”
President-elect Trump tweeted later that Streep is an “overrated” actress and “a Hillary flunky,” incorrectly claiming that he wasn’t making fun of Kovaleski (which he did, it bears noting, to distract his audience from the fact that Kovaleski caught him in another lie, about Muslim Americans celebrating on Sept. 11, 2001).
The exchange had a predictable, even ritualistic air about it, especially Trump’s canny timing of his tweetstorm to deflect attention from the impending spectacle of several of his executive appointees heading into Senate confirmation hearings without having been vetted for possible ethics violations.
Least surprising of all was Streep using her platform for something other than a litany of thank-yous or a career valedictory. Almost from the inception of the medium, Hollywood has had an interest in politics, whether by way of studio moguls currying favor with presidents; stars and filmmakers gamely doing their bit to help with the World War II propaganda effort; or activists such as Marlon Brando and Jane Fonda — along with such successors as Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie — leveraging their celebrity to bring attention to their most passionate causes.
There’s no doubt that the efforts of wealthy, publicity-conscious stars on behalf of the globe’s most dispossessed can smack of dilettantism at best, rank opportunism at worst: Witness Tom Hiddleston’s ill-advised remarks upon receiving a Golden Globe for his work in the AMC series “The Night Manager” by mentioning that it was a hit with Doctors Without Borders volunteers in the South Sudan, and expressing humble gratitude that watching the show “could provide some relief . . . for the people who are fixing the world where it is broken.”
The reason Hiddleston’s self-serving comments rankled was their strong whiff of careerism; but, just as often, it’s clear that actors’ embrace of particular issues springs from sincerity rather than cynicism. It should surprise no one that people who make it their life’s work to enter the physical and psychic lives of the characters they’re playing, no matter how loathsome or incomprehensible, would be prone to super-attuned fellow-feeling in real life. It’s completely understandable that people practiced in the vocation of listening, and responding accordingly, who have been privy to suffering or injustice will be compelled to do something: That’s what acting is.
And it’s on the basis of empathy, not ideology, that Streep delivered her critique of the president-elect, which is perhaps why it was powerful enough to get under his admittedly onion-thin skin. In fact, Streep’s speech wasn’t political at all; rather than call out positions or policy, she made a plea for decency and understanding, the kind of moral imagination she and her colleagues spend most of their lives refining, and in which Trump, so far, seems supremely uninterested. (Those who insist that entertainers are in no position to delve into politics might be profitably reminded that a reality-TV star was just elected president: Those bubbles have now morphed into one.)
For their simplicity and sincerity, Streep’s observations were quickly ascribed to the liberal West Coast bubble, with TV and radio pundit Meghan McCain tweeting, “This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how — you will help him get reelected.” McCain is on to something, albeit for the wrong reason: It wasn’t Streep’s distress with Trump’s lack of decorum or kindness that pointed up the movie industry’s hypocrisy, but a line that came a little bit later in the speech. “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence,” she said. “And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.”
Streep’s audience applauded enthusiastically as she took Trump to task as a poor role model. But what of their own position of power to reinforce values, norms and behavior? This is an industry with an enormous symbolic and financial reach across the globe, one that makes most of its revenue from cartoons and comic-book movies, few of which were represented at the Globes on Sunday night. And even then, it represented its own version of contradictory bubbles: The award for best animated feature might have gone to “Zootopia,” the hugely successful parable celebrating pluralism, tolerance and mutual respect, but the only other nominee from the top-10 box-office earners was the Marvel spinoff “Deadpool,” a snarky wish-fulfillment fantasy of antisocial aggression and unchecked id.
Although wildly different in sensibility, both movies were flocked to by millions of people in nonpartisan droves; if there were a time when no one could go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, now the money lies in exploiting our seemingly endless capacity for cognitive dissonance. Our moviegoing bubbles may be as distinct as our political ones, but they’re more porous, favoring compassion one minute, cruelty the next. The question, as the culture continues to boil and simmer over the next four years, is which one will be the first to burst.