Ricky Gervais and award show politics: cancel culture ain’t dead yet!

Gervais holds those behind the silver screen accountable
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY
SKYLAR CHEUNG/THE VARSITY

Of all the things Ricky Gervais declared while hosting the Golden Globes in early January, his signature line, “I don’t care,” is perhaps the most unpleasant.

However, I think that we’re in need, culturally, of a little unpleasantry — and not just for comedy’s sake.

What Gervais “doesn’t care” about is, on the very surface, the risk of offending big-time actors, producers, and the film industry at large. But more than that, he has suggested that he doesn’t care much about their politics, at least not while they’re on stage, all dolled up and grasping their little gold statuettes. I, too, am losing faith in the performative politics of award shows.

Now, I’ll admit that in a certain way, I love celebrity culture. I love to see films and television shows compete against each other, I love to see what I love win, and I love to watch acceptance speeches — especially if they’re teary, and especially if I think that said tears are warranted.

But another part of me, some part of me that is political, despises it. Maybe even disgusted by it: sometimes by the choice of the winning film, sometimes by the volume of tears, but most of the time by what I believe are political performances.

This is the age of the quasi-presidential speech at award shows, those short  — or long, if they’re mega-famous — calls to action, filled with the repetition of “we must” and customary finger-wagging. For Gervais, celebrity culture is deserving of no praise because no celebrity deserves to cry political tears. For Gervais, celebrities are deserving of ridicule, the sort that comes from a political place. It’s a sort of disbelief; a “shut up, you don’t really care.”

Gervais’ message is a difficult one. In a way, it is one that might suggest that celebrities have no business talking about politics. However, I don’t think that he would like to undermine the good that celebrities can do with their respective platforms; there is no doubt that they can do good, since causes can, and have been, brought to light by Hollywood.

But as of late it can’t be denied that the intersection of politics and celebrity has been dark and disappointing. His is not an apolitical plea, but a request. Brash as it is, Gervais wants Hollywood to understand their problem with virtue signaling — that disconnect between their personal politics and that of the awards season.

I think that Gervais is speaking to a kind of cultural complicity of a Hollywood that has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffery Epstein. It seems that he exclaims, “Shut up, I know he was your friend, but I don’t care” to those who are easily roused for superficial political causes, but slow to make sustained contributions outside of the Hollywood bubble; to those who are slow to give up their ties to exploitative corporations and people and things.

Commenting Apple’s new drama, The Morning Show, Gervais declared that it is “a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing — made by a company that owns sweatshops in China.” We should question the very clear divide between public and personal politics; it is that divide that manifests as the hollowness I have felt when observing the celebrity culture of recent years. 

But still, many were displeased by Gervais’ hosting job: how dare he try to discourage political commentary? To that I say: he’s certainly not the only one.

Soon after what would be Gervais’ fifth, and latest, Golden Globes gig, it was announced that long-time collaborators Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would be hosting next year’s awards. Collective sigh? Well, Fey has something to say about political speeches, too. She expressed a similar sentiment about the 2016 Oscars, where she told Howard Stern, “Halfway through I was like, ‘This is some real Hollywood bullshit’… Why are you yelling at me about corporate greed? You’re all so rich!”

And Joaquin Phoenix, who won the Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, suggests in his winning speech: “Sometimes we have to take that responsibility on ourselves, and make changes and sacrifices in our lives… We don’t have to take private jets to Palm Springs.”

Phoenix received no pushback, perhaps because he occupies a space in celebrity culture that someone like Gervais does not. Or perhaps it was simply because Phoenix is charming in a way that Gervais is not.

But also, Gervais is the comedian host. His quips were anticipated, besides the one on Judi Dench.

This is Gervais’ brand: curmudgeonly, cocksure, apathetic. In no world would he have come on stage to swoon and worship and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ about the art of acting and the magic of cinema.

In that regard, Gervais’ comedy is diametrically opposed to that kind of high-minded praise we see for the industry, those praises that verge on being pretension, and become, I believe, dangerous when we face real crises. There is no more room to pontificate, no more room to pay lip service to the cause of the hour, to present and perform those politics that are fashionable.

I am reminded of the 2015 Golden Globes, where then-hosts Fey and Poehler mention the recent marriage of George and Amal Clooney, and then proceed to list Amal’s achievements in the realm of human rights. They concluded, “So tonight, her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award… Hollywood!”

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