Golden Globes: In This Most Idiosyncratic of Movie Years, Even the Wild Cards Were Tasteful

For once, the people who said they were shocked really looked shocked. Jodie Foster may have won some of the biggest kudos of the night for showing up in her pajamas and cuddling with her wife, actress Alexandra Hedison, on the couch, but when Foster won for best supporting actress in a motion picture and said, “Are you kidding me? I think you made a mistake,” there was no faking the lack of fakery. Her giddy bewilderment was real.

And why wouldn’t it be? Going into the 2021 Golden Globes, who was talking about “The Mauritanian”? Almost no one — even though it’s a pretty damn good true-life political thriller, and even though Foster, as a lawyer who fights for the rights of a man who was tossed into Guantánamo Bay in 2002 and held there until 2016, does her edgiest star acting since “Panic Room.” It’s the kind of flinty legal-eagle crusader performance that used to be routinely thought of as awards bait. But this has been a year when down is up, small is big, and the term “crowd-pleaser” is virtually a contradiction in terms. (Can there be a crowd-pleaser…when there are no crowds?)

If Foster thought the Golden Globes made a mistake, Rosamund Pike, winner of the award for best actress ­— musical or comedy for “I Care a Lot,” was so stunned you could have knocked her over with a feather. You could tell because of what a flat-out awkward speech she made, based on ideas (like ham-handedly recycling the film’s title) she had clearly toyed around with for a second or two without considering how they might sound. Yet if it sounds like I’m tweaking her, on the contrary: It’s my feeling that Pike, playing a character of luscious and highly relevant evil, deserved the award, even if she was barely on the radar of most prognosticators. I have no issue with Maria Bakalova, a critics’ darling for her role in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (she was perfect), but Pike’s performance takes you somewhere extravagant and new, full of a toxic kind of power that becomes, at times, almost perversely admirable.

And while we’re speaking of surprises (I didn’t say upsets — this was far too unpredictable a night for that), Andra Day, when her win for best actress in a motion picture — drama was announced, had one of those shock-and-awe reactions that went beyond surprise. Watching her face, you could feel the earth move, and I, for one, shared her joy, because her performance as Billie Holiday hits a scalding note of passion and defiant desperation.

It’s far from a perfect movie, yet by the end of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” you feel perilously close to her. I saw the film about two weeks ago, and Day’s acting hasn’t just stayed with me; it has stoked my spirit. The competition in that category was fierce — Frances McDormand in “Nomadland,” with her ravaged life force; Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman,” with her quality of slow-burn obsession. But shining a spotlight on Andra Day, only the second Black woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress in a drama, became one of those moments when the Globes, even given their endlessly documented cheesiness and corruption, can seem less encumbered than the Academy Awards.

For all the “Yes, it really does mean something” solemnity it’s now treated with, the Hollywood movie awards season — which this year will run close to eight months! —­ is something of a mutt. That’s because the whole thing is driven by a highly eclectic, and even contradictory, set of influences. They include, in no special order: the choices made by critics in their year-end awards; the movies and performances that achieve an ineffable buzz; the movies and performances that get a decisive promotional blitz from their distributors (which is part of the buzz, but not all of it); the films that connect with audiences; and, yes, the movies and performers that Academy voters truly, madly, deeply love.

The Golden Globes incorporate all those factors along with an added wild card: the fact that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a kind of star chamber, made up of 87 people of mysterious provenance who are infamous for awarding the talent that has most devotedly courted them, with everything from junkets to photo-op selfies.

The Golden Globes system, as we all know, is about as far from a paragon of purity as you can get. This year, though, a different wild card was flung into the awards season: One of those crucial factors was taken away. The degree to which movies connect with audiences has always been a key element of awards shows, a reflection of the art-vs.-commerce dialectic that’s defined Hollywood for a century. Yet this year, the audience/box office/popularity side of the equation has, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist. I mean, you can look up a few numbers, and they’ll tell you next to nothing. “Promising Young Woman” has made $5.3 million at the box office — not bad for an incendiary Sundance-breakout social vengeance thriller, but hardly conclusive. “Nomadland,” which was last night’s defining Golden Globes movie winner, taking home best motion picture — drama as well as best director for Chloé Zhao (the first woman to win that award since Barbra Streisand for “Yentl” in 1983, and the first Asian woman ever), has made just $1 million. Yet both those films have mostly been seen, and will continue to be, on streaming services.

How many people have seen them? You probably have no idea. I don’t. Hardly anyone does. “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Mank” were high-profile Netflix releases, showered with kudos and awards nominations, but how many people have seen them? To know the answer, we’d have to create a world in which Netflix reveals its viewing stats more than three times a year, when they try to make a few waves by sending out a media release that says that such-and-such a movie is their most popular attraction since their last popular attraction.

That absence of data has combined with the even more important fact that in the COVID era, the conversation about movies has slowed to a trickle. Before the pandemic, films came out in theaters, and some of them connected, and you could tell when a film connected — like “La La Land” or “Lady Bird” or “Get Out” or “Eighth Grade” or “Uncut Gems” — because people were talking about it. This year, I had the sense that even when major movies came out, most people scarcely knew about them. Awareness was scanty, and conversation was nil.

Movies, as a medium, were not meant to be experienced in the hermetic bubble of your home. And that sad, raw, unstoppable fact about the state of moviegoing in 2020, continuing right up to the present moment, defined the Golden Globes as much as the Zoom-call acceptance speeches, or the whiff of scandal that hung over the revelation-but-not-really of the HFPA’s catastrophic lack of diversity, with not one Black member among its 87 tenured flock. At an awards show, we want to see the honors go to great films and performances, but we want to feel that we’ve seen those movies, or that many others have seen them — that they’ve struck a chord in the culture. Otherwise, there’s a peculiar abstraction to it all. Popularity, in itself, is no guarantee of quality, but when there’s little to no sense that movies have won an audience, we feel we have less of an entry point  into them. And honoring them feels like less of a full gesture.

Last night, the Globe movie wins that felt most connected to the audience connection to those movies were the awards given to “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”: for best motion picture — comedy or musical and for its prank-the-world star, Sacha Baron Cohen, for best actor-comedy or musical. Yet it would frankly be surprising to see either of those wins echoed at the Oscars.

Other Globe wins might well be. In picking Chadwick Boseman as best actor — drama for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” the HFPA chose to honor a fine performance that carries an added element of heartbreak because, in its cockeyed joy and fury, it seems to contain seeds of the great Chadwick Boseman performances we’ll never get to see. And in spotlighting Daniel Kaluuya, winner of best supporting actor in a motion picture for the feral force of his work as Fred Hampton, the brilliant Black Panther leader in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the HFPA have raised the profile of a drama that lights a suspenseful fuse of social consciousness.

In a word, these awards — almost every one of them, I would argue — were worthy. However the HFPA got there, they got to the right place. But, of course, there are larger problems within the organization that aren’t so easily fixed. Over the last 25 years, as the awards-industrial complex became a bigger thing, so did the Golden Globes. But now, with the future of theatrical movies in limbo, the identity of the Globes themselves may be up for grabs. This year, they chose well. In future years, maybe that won’t seem like such a surprise.

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