By Caryn James | James on Screens January 17, 2011 at 6:58AM
If you were watching Ricky Gervais host the Golden Globes on Sunday, for the first hour you could tell you were watching a go-for-broke performance that would become -- and I‘m not exaggerating – legendary, a benchmark by which other flameout hosting gigs are measured. In his opening monologue Gervais took on Scientologists and accusations of bribery in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group that hands out the Globes.
He said that in the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor film I Love You Philip Morris, you had “Two heterosexual actors pretending to be gay,” which was “the complete opposite of some famous Scientologists.” There was a pause in the room as if the crowd was hearing him on a satellite delay, a beat while they put it all together and realized – whoa, he’s talking about gay Scientologist movie stars! Not knowing whether to laugh or groan, they offered a muted bit of each.
That was the first obvious disconnect between what was happening in the room and the way most of us were responding at home. The jokes might have been more daring than funny, but the risk felt exhilarating because Gervais wasn’t being outrageous for its own sake. He was targeting the hypocrisy of Hollywood and the inanity and self-importance of awards themselves. The idea of rewarding excellence in film and TV is a crazy, politicized business, which makes these awards shows full of smoke-and-mirrors pretense. It’s as if no one is meant to notice the Wizard behind the curtain, orchestrating the big-money campaigns, and Gervais’ specialty is pulling that curtain back.
He crossed lines of taste and civility at times, as risky comedy always does. He made one introduction, “Ashton Kutcher’s Dad – Bruce Willis,” and Bruce did not seem amused. Things got ugly when he said of Philip Berk, the much-mocked head of the HFPA, “I had to help him off the toilet and put in his teeth,” (OK, too far) and Berk later replied bitterly, “Ricky, next time you want me to help qualify your movies go to another guy.”
But Gervais inspired some sharper replies that made the show even more volatile. He introduced Robert Downey Jr. by saying his most familiar roles were at the Betty Ford clinic and the LA County Jail, and Downey came back with his own mockery, genially delivered (he is a good actor). “Aside from the fact that it’s been hugely mean-spirited with mildly sinister undertones, I’d say the vibe of the show is pretty good,” he said. Downey went into razor’s-edge jokes about his sexual intrigue with each of nominees for the Best Actress in a comedy. It was jaw-dropping fun to watch.
Then Gervais all but disappeared and the rest of the three hour show became lethally dull. That’s the pattern of most awards shows: a funny or flat opening, then endless thanks from the winners. But Gervais’ absence was so conspicuous that people on Twitter began a hashtag “RickyWatch2011.” He returned much toned-down. I would love to know what arm-twisting and litigious threats might have been flying around backstage; that would be a miniseries itself.
The Globes can be especially tiresome because -- and I truly love TV – the television awards just don’t have movie-star glamour. Katey Sagal can’t compete with Nicole Kidman in that department. There were a few good star-gazing moments: Angelina Jolie fixing Brad Pitt’s tie, Angelina posing as she leaned on Brad’s shoulder, Angelina – she couldn’t have been posing for this one -- caught on camera applying lip gloss.
There was a sweet moment when Claire Danes won for her role in the HBO movie about an autistic woman, Temple Grandin, and the real Temple Grandin wrapped Danes in a big bear hug. But mostly there were those snoozy thank-yous. Really, no one winning a big award should bore us with lists of agents and managers, not even if you’re Claire Danes, not even if you’re Terrence Winter, creator of Boardwalk Empire, and Martin Scorsese is on your list.
That tedium makes you appreciate the high-wire moments. Matt Damon, presenting a lifetime achievement award to Robert DeNiro, pretended not to know who DeNiro was until he was cast in The Good Shepherd. The routine didn’t entirely work, and neither did DeNiro’s joking response read haltingly from a teleprompter (he mocked the HFPA too!) but I loved the freshness and irreverence, the idea that they weren’t going to swallow the sanctimonious pretense of awards shows.
On the red carpet before it all began, Gervais said that when he hosted last year the HFPA asked him to return while that show was still going on, they were so happy with him. That’s not happening again, but I wouldn’t have missed Gervais’ weirdly honest implosion. I’d like to think there’s no going back to sanctimony after that, but I’m sure those Hollywood wizards can find a way.
Here's the notorious monologue:
(NOTE: This is a review of the 2011 Golden Gobes; you can find the 2012 review here.)