Movie awards shows are littered with performers, naturally, yet movie awards shows themselves are so often unperformative. That’s how you wind up with teleprompter-aided introductions where actors botch names or give acceptance speeches where they speak off the cuff, awkwardly reciting names no one knows. And while the 74th Golden Globes that aired this past Sunday night mostly stuck to that script, aside from, say, Kristen Wiig and Steve Carrell fervently committing to their bit, they also eventually emerged as something else.
Presentations of lifetime achievement awards usually involve a broad overview of the recipient’s career with a few light wisecracks thrown in just to keep the mood jovial. It’s a roast, basically, just more P.C. In presenting Meryl Streep with the Cecil B. DeMille Award, however, Viola Davis decided to forgo such standard issue nonsense. She gave a performance as much as an introduction, like a mini-one woman show, honing in on a theme, utilizing pauses to let her varying points linger in the air, even playing different parts, including a brief turn as her own husband. More importantly, Davis played the parts of both herself and Streep, deftly alternating personas in voice, facial expressions and posture, in a conversation about Streep dispensing apple pie making advice, imagining Streep as something like a less sinister Miranda Priestly crossed with that moment in “Doubt” when Streep, while interrogating Philip Seymour Hoffman, goes “hmmmmmmmmmmm.”
But Davis gradually allowed it to emerge that this conversation was less about recipes than an opportunity for Streep to observe behavior, filing mental notes about that behavior, waiting, as Davis said, “to share what she has stolen on that sacred place, which is the screen.” And in drawing on other attitudes and experiences rather than merely her own to sculpt a character she is, essentially, empathizing with others and, by extension, allowing us to empathize with all those attitudes and experiences too.
Taking Davis’s baton, Streep did not so much run with it as settle into place and wield the baton like an actorly weapon. Streep had notes in her hand, which she read from, or appeared to, for a second, before ignoring them, like they were a prop to reel us in, to lower our guard so that when she went there all our mouths would be left that much more agape. She’s a performer, see.
“An actor’s only job,” she said, “is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.” This tied, inadvertently or not, directly back to what Davis had cited as Streep’s supreme skill. But Streep wasn’t talking about herself so much as him. You know…him, our President Elect. Streep equated our President Elect’s run to the most respected position in our country to a performance, but suggested that it was the opposite of what great performers do, shunning the desire to even try and consider other attitudes and experiences and what they might mean. She accused Trump of turning his back on empathy.
Meryl Streep can sometimes feel like a deity, underscored incessantly, from someone even as incessantly disagreeable as Seth MacFarlane deferring to her reverence at the Oscars to The Onion article in the wake of Sunday night. It’s so easy to put movie stars on a pedestal, which is so many dislike movie stars, writing them off as cultural elites or coastal elites or liberal elites, or whatever the trendy elite is these days. They can emit that elitist air, admittedly, as they often do at awards shows, which might be why some people dislike bestowing gifts on one another galas so much. That’s what was so great about Streep’s speech. She did not get up there to pat her own back but to issue an even-keeled call to arms.
“Escape” gets cited in the popular discourse as such a vital reason for the movies, which was what “La La Land”, winner of so many Globes represents. But empathy is important too, creating work that is not important, per se, but an invitation to, as the esteemed Roger Ebert once wrote, walk a little bit in someone else's shoes. That, if you ask me, is this magic of the movies. Meryl Streep not only used her Sunday night platform to hold our President Elect accountable, she used it to cite “the responsibility of empathy”, directing it at all those performers in the room in rapt attention, holding them accountable to their art going forward too.