It’s a volatile time in America, and so it has been, relatively speaking, a volatile time for the award shows that Hollywood annually throws itself. In recent years, whether because of #OscarsSoWhite or Donald Trump, there has been the possibility that the usual glitzy spectacles will be spiked with something pointed and political. But award shows are like ocean liners: The seas may be rocky, but save a few spilled drinks and a speech by Meryl Streep, they are plodding, steady, and likely to dock just 10 minutes late (unless Warren Beatty is the captain). There may be a few wild moments, but invariably Hollywood history is celebrated, baby steps are heralded as signs of great progress, dresses are worn, and agents are thanked.
At the most recent Golden Globes, hosted by Seth Meyers, black dresses were worn and agents were thanked, but the night had a gangly, electric feel to it. The harassment and assault cases that have roiled the industry since the Harvey Weinstein news broke inspired a group of powerful women to create Time’s Up, an initiative to create real change and parity in Hollywood, whose most visible move was to ask women to wear black on the red carpet. Women in Hollywood may be underpaid, underserved, undervalued, harassed, prematurely aged-out, and belittled, but they are, also, the engines of show-biz glamour. It’s the dresses, not the tuxes that make award shows award shows.
The men wore black, too, often with a “Time’s Up” pin and an even more ubiquitous accessory: nerves. Meyers, in his opening monologue, compared himself to a dog being rocketed into space because he is the first male host of an award show in the #Metoo age. He apologized profusely for not being a woman. He did a whole bit with Amy Poehler in which he welcomed her razzing him for being a mansplainer. He confronted the issue head on, with tough jokes about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey that weren’t bad but fell flat anyway: The room was too taut to laugh.
Meyers was basically the only man all night who would make mention of these issues. All evening, women like Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman, Frances McDormand, and Rachel Brosnahan, who were winning for thematically appropriate work like The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, would talk about the issues, and the men would win and barely say anything at all.
When it comes to politics, Hollywood knows itself to be a bastion of liberal elitism. Most award shows begin with self-deprecating jokes to this effect. But the entertainment industry is marginally uncomfortable with this perception, aware that it is used as a cudgel against it and may turn off some paying customers. What was clear tonight was that the women of Hollywood do not believe that sexism, misogyny, and harassment are partisan issues—or, rather, if they are, they don’t care. They are also workplace ones. Reese Witherspoon, to pick a high-profile supporter of Time’s Up, has been extremely careful to keep her actual political party affiliation out of the public eye and her Instagram feed. She’s one of those celebrities with a bipartisan fan base who encourages everyone to vote, but not who to vote for. But she has been a leader of Time’s Up and is devoted to creating good work for herself and other actresses. Witherspoon would never give a speech about the president—but she wants there to be change in Hollywood, and she said so over and over again at the Globes.
Just as the momentum of the night was starting to ebb, Oprah arrived to accept a lifetime achievement award, and to give a rousing oratory that crescendoed in the words “Their time is up!” If it seemed impossible to follow this moment, Natalie Portman did, by sliding the phrase “all-male” into her introduction of the nominees for Best Director. The night felt like it was leading up to Oprah, but it was Portman who explained the mood: This is what the anxiety and nerves had been all about, the fear that someone in the room would call out other people in the room, instead of the bad values outside of it. Portman broke the fourth wall of award shows: She called out the award show itself. (This is not something that is done, even when, say, an award show has been so habitually racist or sexist that no person of color or woman has ever won in a particular category before. Instead of saying “what the hell took so long?” we say “progress.”) Portman broke with precedent, with protocol, with decorum. She might just as well have said, “You’re sexist.” The Best Director nominees looked ashamed.
Almost immediately after, Lady Bird, which was directed by Greta Gerwig, won two big awards, further making Portman’s point: Why hadn’t Gerwig been nominated for Best Director? Then Frances McDormand won. A no-bullshit artist of the highest order, she seemed to be genuinely moved by the night’s energy. “We’re not here for the food,” she said of her fellow actresses. “We’re here for the work.” By the time Barbra Streisand came out to present the last award of the night and wonder why no woman has won Best Director since she did 34 years ago, she was almost piling on. Almost, but not quite.