The biggest presence at Sunday’s Golden Globes was a TV star who didn’t show up, didn’t win an award, was not thanked and was only rarely mentioned by name. Hollywood’s first awards show of the year was — like so much in today’s headlines — brought to you by Donald Trump.
Even before Meryl Streep took the president-elect to the Hollywood-shed, he loomed over Jimmy Fallon’s monologue. The last time Trump appeared with Fallon on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” the host tousled his hair during a softball interview. Trump’s subsequent election was both an affirmation of celebrity’s power and a repudiation of most celebrities’ politics.
So beyond “Moonlight” versus “Manchester by the Sea,” a big question hanging over the awards was how, or whether, Fallon would address the Republican elephant in the room.
The night began with exactly the kind of bit you’d figure Fallon would start with: a star-studded parody of scenes from the musical mash note to Los Angeles, “La La Land.”
It was a fitting choice, if not an especially hilarious one, at the most escapist of awards shows. Music and music-related comedy are the strength of Fallon’s “The Tonight Show.” (He brought his bandleader, Questlove, along as DJ.) And just as “La La Land” is a bubbly tribute to performers and their dreams, Fallon’s talk show is a stage for celebrities — and politicians — to perform their likability.
In his monologue, Fallon seemed determined to show that his head-patting hand had claws. He said the awards results were “tabulated by the firm of Ernst & Young and Putin.” Referencing “Game of Thrones” fans who wondered what would have happened if King Joffrey — the show’s sadistic, petty boy-tyrant — had lived, he said, “in 12 days we’re going to find out.”
His hard-edge jokes felt out of character; the rest were ordinary. (He did show off his talent for impressions, doing a Chris Rock that reminded us how sharp Rock had been at the Oscars.)
The most memorable part may have been at the beginning, when Fallon’s Teleprompter went out. He vamped for a bit, and after the commercial break he returned with a joke — likening his mishap to Mariah Carey’s singing disaster on New Year’s Eve — that it seemed half of Twitter had already made at that point.
Fallon handled his technical foul-up much better than the diva. But he didn’t make much of it either, and that summed up the night. He wasn’t bad; this year just didn’t seem like his cultural moment. You had to wonder what last year’s host, the vitriolic Ricky Gervais, might have done, or Fallon’s other predecessors, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who made acerbic jokes in good fun.
Entertainers can make an audience forget the turbulent times with a tour de force performance. (See Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who did a brilliant bit about their first visits to the movies going horribly wrong — someone might want to call their agents and lock them down to host next year.) They can make art out of troubles. (See many of the night’s winners, such as the race-and-gender-conscious “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”)
Or they can lay it between the lines. Hugh Laurie seemed to compare his character in “The Night Manager” to the president-elect: “I accept this award on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere.”
It was Meryl Streep, receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award, who repudiated Trump, for a “performance” during the campaign in which he mocked a disabled reporter. “It sank its hooks in my heart,” she said. Call me biased (that reporter is a colleague at The Times), but it was as passionate and devastating as any scripted clip played that night.
Streep also said that without Hollywood’s performers from around the world, “you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
Did that persuade anyone for whom those non-arts are entertainment? There is a school of thought that it does nobody good for celebrities to deliver political diatribes, coded or not, on a night that celebrates the fortune of the fortunate.
But their work says something, like it or not. The 2016 election was, among other things, a cultural argument: overtly and subtextually, it was in part about how comfortable America was with change, diversity and inclusion — about whether there was some long-ago, homogeneous “greatness” that America had lost.
The awards, and the acceptances, often served as an answer, a message that the social gears have not totally been thrown in reverse. “Moonlight,” a film about a young black man growing up gay, won best drama. FX’s “Atlanta,” set in the hip-hop scene of the Georgia city, won best TV comedy or musical, and its creator, Donald Glover (who also won best actor in a comedy or musical), thanked “all the black folks in Atlanta.”
And Tracee Ellis Ross, star of “black-ish” (whose title Trump once railed against on Twitter), dedicated her award to women of color: “I want you to know that I see you. We see you.”
Sometimes, this Globescast said, art is an escape. Sometimes it’s a call to arms. And sometimes seeing, and being seen, is a statement in itself.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.