David Bowie died late last night, which is not, itself, strictly related to last night’s telecast of the Golden Globes. The rock legend was 69 years old and lost his battle with cancer after an incredible, decades-long, massively influential career. The news broke in Hollywood on one of the industry’s most decadent, glamorous nights, as the Globes afterparties were in full swing. Bowie was the perfect pop icon for an event like the Golden Globes, precisely because he was so endlessly versatile—a musician, an actor, a political force, and a performance artist. (He was nominated only once — for best original song for a motion picture, "Theme from Cat People," 1983.) His dedication to using fashion as a means for transforming both himself and pop culture was so transformative that ultra-elite design houses Louis Vuitton and Gucci sponsored “David Bowie Is…” a large-scale traveling exhibition featuring Bowie’s art and life. He’s one of the reasons we take red carpets, on-stage variety show performances, and even Lady Gaga seriously—because Bowie showed us just how brilliant those mediums could be.
Certainly, last night’s Golden Globes telecast, nearly live from the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, did not live up to the standard he set for celebrity or spectacle. The three-hour long show was one of the most embarrassing and messy awards telecasts in recent memory. It was a thoroughly unenjoyable evening, from beginning to end—staring with host Ricky Gervais’ studied cynicism and ending with the unsatisfying victory of Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” a film that until now has been entirely a vehicle for star Leonardo DiCaprio to win an Academy Award. The winners for the Golden Globes always favor the new and the absurd—and the moneyed, of course—but this was not merely a blitz of ridiculous, self-serving fabulism; this was a three-hour slog where no one seemed to care about anything. Presumably someone in Hollywood still loves pop culture, but none of that love, appreciation, or wonder at the art of making narrative come to life was on display last night.
Bowie was a justification for Hollywood being the way it is. He married the money and corporatism of Hollywood with a sense of vision and purpose that made the entire ridiculous industry seem, for a few tantalizing moments, worth all its attendant nonsense. The German Foreign Office credits him with helping to bring down the Berlin wall. He did an ad in 2013 for Louis Vuitton, in which he played anti-war song “I’d Rather Be High” on a harpsichord; he graced “Saturday Night Live” with one of their most purely creative performances in 1979, wearing a massive plastic tuxedo that he couldn’t walk in, live on NBC. He refused to be knighted by the Queen of England, because, as he said, “I seriously don’t know what it’s for.” He wore dresses and makeup without comedic intent or shame; he married (pioneering Somali supermodel) Iman and challenged MTV to diversify their music programming. This was a man who was more glamorous than you, but you were thankful for it; he was both successful and talented, using his fame and resources to do odd and surprising things, like voicing Lord Royal Highness in the made-for-TV “SpongeBob SquarePants” movie, or moderating the walk-off in “Zoolander” after Ben Stiller optimistically wrote him into the film. He used his considerable powers for good, but more than that, he found a way to make all of the glitz and superficiality of Hollywood mean something.
This is in direct contrast to the existence and performance of Ricky Gervais, the night’s smarmy master of ceremonies—a fact that both men seemed to understand well, if this clip from “Extras” is any indication. (“He’s banal and facile / he’s a fat waste of space.”) A couple of years of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have spoiled us for telecasts that at least approach the important combination of well-written and entertaining. Gervais’ brand of humor was an acidic letdown right from the get-go. The transphobic humor was particularly staggering—not just because it’s offensive, but also because the industry has moved past that so far that two of the decorated nominees last night were “Transparent” and “The Danish Girl.” Jeffrey Tambor, nominated for the lead role in “Transparent,” offered stony-faced indifference to Gervais’ crack about “Bruce Jenner”’s driving, either because Tambor was truly offended or because he knows just as well as I do that “South Park” did the same joke, better, last year. Eddie Redmayne gave Gervais a quizzical, confused look onstage when Gervais feigned confusion at the fact that Redmayne was a man nominated for “The Danish Girl.” Leaving aside politics, social justice, and sensitivity, it just wasn’t funny.
But it wasn’t all Gervais’ fault. There was also the odd, repeating problem—initiated by Gervais, and then picked up by more and more participants at the night went on—of long periods of edited-out silence for the viewing audience at home, as the production team caught cursing and slurs and made the feed safe for broadcast at primetime. Of course, it’s probably better that the entire American audience wasn’t subjected to Gervais and Mel Gibson trading barbs about “sugar tits,” but it made for a fundamentally exclusionary broadcast, on a night where the whole point of televising the thing is to bring the viewing audience into Hollywood’s glamor and in-joking for an evening of sparkly navel-gazing (figurative and, in the case of Kate Hudson, literal).
It was hard to connect to anything in this broadcast, from the jokes to the cheese. Almost none of the winners seemed truly present in their speeches, aside from Rachel Bloom, for “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Jon Hamm tried to hit the points of a dozen other victory lap speeches he’s made, collecting awards for “Mad Men”’s Don Draper. Christian Slater seemed to be reading off of the teleprompter in his head. Taraji P. Henson, while adorable and entitled, appeared to be drunk. Quentin Tarantino was also drunk (and very incorrect). Oscar Isaac seemed genuinely touched, but couldn’t find a way to tell the audience that. Lady Gaga and Kate Winslet both probably deserve some special sub-category of awards for acting so surprised and humbled and honored, in a room that minutes previously had determined, via laughing at Gervais, that none of these awards matter in the slightest.
So if the winners don’t matter, and the telecast itself doesn’t matter, then what the hell are we all doing here, watching Amazon series “Mozart In The Jungle” walk off with multiple undeserved awards while Tom Hanks has to shout, dad-like, at the room of Hollywood luminaries before they’ll listen to him honor Denzel Washington with the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement? Surely even a hack-job awards show like the Golden Globes know that even if they don’t believe it matters, it’s their job to make us believe it.
There is a nice justice, though, in knowing that merely by the act of dying, Bowie elegantly trumped the Globes’ circus and charade. I don’t mean to put the man up on a pedestal completely, or to bring down a night that did mean something genuine for at least a few creative people. But there’s a difference between the real thing and not the real thing, and today, everyone knows it.
WATCH: A look back at the legacy of David Bowie
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