The problem with Robert De Niro wasn’t that he brought politics to the Tony Awards. It was that he brought the wrong kind.
“F–k Trump,” he announced when he took the stage to introduce Bruce Springsteen. “It’s no longer down with Trump, but f–k Trump.” The stars sitting in front of him roared in approval. Those at home heard bleeps instead, but they didn’t miss the message — and they weren’t as receptive to the rhetoric.
De Niro hadn’t angered only conservatives. Plenty of card-carrying liberals and culture critics were mad, too. The sentiment may have earned their sympathy, but the delivery, they complained, was a total flop. The issue for these Tony fans wasn’t that De Niro was distracting from the art the event exists to celebrate, or even that he had used his introduction to upstage the man it was supposed to set up. It was that De Niro had struck a discordant note during a night when, otherwise, the political tenor had been pointed but restrained.
Andrew Garfield, who won for his role in the revival of “Angels in America,” exhorted his countrymen to “just bake a cake for everyone who wants a cake to be baked.”
Glenda Jackson thanked those who received her from Britain so warmly for being “welcoming, and kind and generous,” adding that “America has never needed that more. But then America is always great.”
The Parkland, Fla., kids sang.
None of this is surprising. Liberal audiences have always wanted politics at their award shows, from the Tonys to the Oscars to the Emmys to everything in between. But these television-watchers want a prettier type than De Niro delivered on Sunday night. They’re looking for something that’s inspirational and aspirational all at once.
Though the celebrities who appear onstage at award ceremonies aren’t technically playing a part, they’re still performers, and those of us watching at home are still an audience. We’re on the couch for the same reason we go to the theater: We want to see a spectacle and, better yet, we want to see something that takes us out of our everyday lives. In this case, we want to see people we admire acting out our dearest fantasies of an America working right, where we believe all the correct things and express them the correct way. We want to see the best version of ourselves in our country’s most public personas.
That’s why Sean Spicer’s intrusion at the Emmys galled so many spectators: Someone widely despised by the intelligentsia had suddenly become a member of the cast, corrupting the story viewers were counting on these actors to tell them. It’s why the initial reaction to Hillary Clinton’s prerecorded reading of “Fire and Fury” at the Grammys first met with approval – and then, when Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called people out for tolerating the book’s smear against her, they started to change their minds. There are rules. They’d been broken.
Meryl Streep’s stirring address at the Golden Globes last year felt like a third-act call to arms — “Disrespect invites disrespect.Violence incites violence” — and watchers were right there with her. “F–k Trump,” on the other hand, is more “Beavis and Butt-Head” than Henry V at Agincourt.
We don’t want to feel as if we’re butt-heads, too. But the truth is, saying everyone should bake everyone else a cake won’t change the minds of any actual bakers, and all the welcoming, kind and generous people in the nation can’t change an administration’s cruel and unwelcoming policies.
Throwing around curse words with no substance behind them is not an admirable form of resistance, and De Niro isn’t going to persuade Trump voters to join his side by doing it. Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we think the meaningful statements of more decorous celebrities holding aloft their trophies are going to accomplish anything, either. Their speechifying might make us sleep better after the credits roll, but in the end, whether an awards ceremony is full of subtle criticisms or crude slurs, it’s all just a show.