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Rushfield: In the Room Where It Kinda Happened
Observations from on the scene in the Beverly Hilton
"What's the mood in the room?" friends texted repeatedly during the show last night. They wondered, is it strained, is it awkward? Are folks feeling strange about being there?
You might wonder, given that one year ago, Hollywood’s boycott of the show forced the unprecedented broadcast cancellation of a major awards show and that as recently as a day ago, it was still a question mark whether people would show up.
Well the answer from the Beverly Hilton, I texted in response last night, was, "The mood is people saying hello to friends. More or less like a wedding." It was only uncomfortable in the usual Hollywood uncomfortableness of having conversations while the person you talk to constantly looks around to see if there's someone more important they might talk to.
But apart from that, given the manic hobnobbing, you'd have to dig pretty deep to convince a visitor from Mars that this community was so indignant about this voting body they almost ran it out of the business just two minutes ago. You'd be hard-pressed to find any sign that this wasn't 2019, or more to the point, 1989.
Hollywood is a place of very social people, one friend explained. And when they see 2000 people they want to talk to, they get excited.
I've declared many times that — having paid my dues in blood on the awards beat (ask me sometime about the year I went to 17 in 3 months) — the Globes are the only show I would attend voluntarily, and last night reminded me of why that was true. Not only was the starter salad and "Icelandic salmon with citrus-scented celeriac puree" not bad at all, but the famed festive conviviality of the Globes, despite everything, prevailed. It helps to be at tables, instead of trapped in theater seats for four hours. It helps that the room is wide rather than deep, enforcing a spacial democracy where everyone walks freely through and among the tables at the breaks, plopping down in any open seat (to the horror no doubt of whatever stars I plopped down next to).
It certainly helps that the Jeroboams of Moet flow freely at every table. But most of all it helps that no one (including possibly the HFPA) takes this event as seriously as cancer, as is the case with certain other awards shows I could name. If half the room is off in the bar during the TV acting awards, no one's heart is broken over missing three or seven speeches.
The big conversation topic of the night: the looming strike possibility, and the grief that would bring. The consensus: nobody knows what the Guild has in mind, and nobody knows how the streamers are planning to react. So a lot of fingers crossed, holding of breath.
And in theory — and it's played out in the past — it's a lot easier to communicate fun if people are actually having fun.
So what was all that about? Who can say at these point? Who can even keep track of what Hollywood was indignant about 10 minutes ago. The scuttlebutt among some at the show was how one of the leaders of the publicists' movement had been declaring for that past week, as she prepped her clients for the show, that she had never, in fact, wanted to boycott the Globes.
(Indeed, from our great Ankler Poll, note the amnesic winning answer to this question.)
Play to the Room vs. Play to the Audience
Efforts to laissez les bon temps rouler met a speed bump however with the opening monologue. Mocking the HFPA is practically de rigeur in the host's open — a reliable set piece of any curtain-raising routine. But Jerrod Carmichael didn't just take a couple of swipes at the organization; he built his entire act around its misfortunes.
If the HFPA and the awards industrial complex came thinking that we were going to turn a page for good tonight, that notion survived all of two minutes into the show, as Carmichael took a seat on the stage to have an honest heart-to-heart with the people in the room about what was going on here.
From where I sat, it actually played pretty well and got a fair amount of laughs. But the effect was to bring the elephant who had been shoved out into the corridor onto center stage.
As one HFPA member said at the bar an hour into the show when asked how she thought it was going — "That fucking monologue!"
When you've got a show desperately pleading, please don't hate us, it makes it harder to focus on the big picture. And where is the big picture for Awards Inc.? Well, not good…. the iceberg has been hit. The Titanic is underwater. And beautifying the shards of floating deck furniture isn't going to get this ship back across the Atlantic.
Turning the page seemed very much on the group's mind last night. The diversity angle was hit in both presenters' and award picks last night early and often. But as a wise friend pointed out, from the Hollywood perspective, they did something even more important — spread around the prizes between the studios. Best comedy for Searchlight; animated for Netflix. Warners/HBO got its coveted acting prize for Austin Butler, and wins for White Lotus and House of Dragon. ABC/Disney got Abbott Elementary. And the biggest prize of them all, best dramatic film went to Universal, which as it happens owns the network that the HFPA will be anxiously renegotiating with within a few hours after the ratings come in.
But talking about conflicts of interest is silly here, once you step into the Thunderdome where the company throwing the before and after party and also owns all the trades covering it is also in partnership with the show's producer. I mean, we're all just friends here right?
Which brings us to the larger question. The Globes’ troubles might have some unique specifics but they occur within the context of a general cratering of the awards complex, and one wonders — what did last night do for that?
When you've got a show desperately pleading, please don't hate us, it makes it harder to focus on the big picture.
And where is the big picture for Awards Inc.? Well, not good.
You would think, given the response across the sector that this is just a little seasonal downturn we're experiencing, off a couple points; we can make a tweak here or there and trust it will all be well again in the springtime.
Not how it really is: the iceberg has been hit. The Titanic is underwater. And beautifying the shards of floating deck furniture isn't going to get this ship back across the Atlantic.
There's a distinct air of unreality about all this, in the air in the Hilton ballroom. But in fairness, it's there everywhere else on the awards circuit. But the chummy masters of Hollywood greeting, parceling our awards, correcting 20 percent for past misdeeds, and listening to three hours of people making speeches about themselves — who the hell is this for?
To put it another way: if there were no awards shows and you were designing this from scratch today, would you do anything that looked remotely like this?
Which, as another friend pointed out, is why the Carmichael monologue was such a disaster. He started the show saying, hello entertainment fans, I'd like to sit down right now and talk about us.
What percent of the people watching do you suppose had any clue about the HFPA's issues? My guess: about two percent. So let's not just make a couple of jokes about it, deflate the tension, but open the show by getting everyone up to speed so they really focus on that.
As I say, making fun of the HFPA is a standard part of the openings, but the requirement is making fun of them in a way that is fun, that plays not to the room, but on TV.
Again, I thought the opening was pretty funny in the room for what it was, not really thinking about the bigger picture at the moment. But my phone lit up with people asking — how awkward was that?
Which nails precisely the disconnect here. All of this, the whole thing, the chumminess, the circuit, the speeches, the barely seen films, the gripes, the protests… it's all about us speaking to each other.
Let's recall, the whole point of this is not because people at the top of the industry aren't rewarded enough for their work so we need to give them some prizes to compensate for the salary gap; it's a promotional event. A series of promotional events highlighting entertainment products.
‘Half Measures Avail Us Nothing’
Tonight the HFPA had to grope its way back into the good graces of the industry. And that they did. The boycott is exorcised.
But how are they —and this whole sector — going to grope their way back into the good graces of the viewers?
One way would have been to take a big swing. No reflection on the merit of either of these films, but if Top Gun had taken home the big prize, that ludicrously popular film would have emerged with a story tonight.
The result might have been people talking about movies. Instead, again we talk about ourselves... not noticing that that big ocean liner we were riding on isn't here anymore.
Looking ahead to the Oscars, in an alternate reality, if this became a race of Top Gun, Avatar, Elvis, Glass Onion, Everything Everywhere, Pinocchio, and even less seen but massively crowd-pleasing movies like Ron Howard's Thirteen Lives, and including the now twin-runners Banshees and Fablemans — that could be an exciting race; even in a horrible movie year like this one passed, that could be a fun race. One can imagine ratings creeping back up dramatically for a race like that.
But what are the chances anything remotely resembling that is going to happen?
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying about defeating the demon of addiction “Half measures avail us nothing.” That’s about where the awards sector is at right now. Tweaks and little fillips to the format — we know exactly where that will lead. There might have been a time when that could’ve moved the needle, but we’re waaaayyyy past that now. So it’s time for some big, hard turns… or just resign ourselves to the fact that these will be industry events for us, perhaps available to those who care on a streaming channel.
Maybe film can survive fine without a bunch of big awards spectacles celebrating it — we'll find out soon! Plenty of industries do a-ok without spending seven months out of the year consumed with celebrating themselves. But I ask again, what kind of industry throws away its own promotional vehicle, and what does that say about its will to survive on a larger scale?
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