Gervais and De Niro make a bit of showbiz history at Golden Globes

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For years, Hollywood has had a sham marriage with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., a motley group of little-known international journalists and critics. The group inspires open contempt among showbiz publicists obligated to tolerate what they describe as petulant and often vindictive behavior in return for the cachet and commercial benefits that come with a Golden Globes nomination.

The organization has left itself open to ridicule time and time again, most recently this past year when, not long after Sony helped pay to take HFPA members to Las Vegas to see a Cher concert, they gave a number of Globes nominations to “Burlesque,” a Sony film costarring Cher that was panned by critics everywhere.


On Sunday night, Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro set politeness and decorum aside, and viewers across America were treated to a Golden Globes show worth watching. Not because the awards actually mean something, but because this was a bit of showbiz history in the making: a public breakdown in the carefully cultivated but thoroughly cynical “see no evil, speak no evil” relationship that Hollywood has with the HFPA.

Despite the extensive hand-wringing in the past week about the need for more civil discourse in America, Gervais came out swinging in his opening monologue, when he managed to bash Charlie Sheen and “The Tourist,” plus Cher and Tom Cruise, though, slyly, not by name, although pretty much everyone in the Western world knew whom he was talking about. Then Gervais whupped the HFPA upside the head too, joking about the Golden Globes group taking bribes and, later, when he introduced the organization’s president, quipping that “I just had to help him off the toilet and pop his teeth in. It was messy.”

To say that heads were spinning in Hollywood would be an understatement. When I talked to someone Monday morning who was at the awards, they said that people literally gasped when Gervais made his barbed reference to Cruise. “There’s a difference between being funny and being mean-spirited,” the executive said. “His whole act verged on the tabloid. It’s one thing to make people laugh. It’s another thing to make them feel so uncomfortable.”

But for me, what was really mind-blowing about the night wasn’t just Gervais’ open hostility toward the Hollywood Foreign Press. After all, if you’re going to joke about Robert Downey Jr. going to prison and the Betty Ford Clinic, why not have some derisive fun with the people who actually paid you to be their MC?

No, when it came to biting the hand that feeds you, Gervais was topped by Robert De Niro, who in the course of accepting a lifetime achievement award from the HFPA made it abundantly clear that he had little regard for the organization either, actually comparing them to a scrum of illegal immigrant waiters.

It all came off a little too rude for most people, who assumed that if you were going to put on a tuxedo and show up at an awards ceremony, you might as well treat the ceremony with a little respect.
But in fact, for 364 days out of the year, showbiz insiders, from studio heads to personal publicists, laugh out loud at the shenanigans of HFPA members. Then when it comes to the group’s actual awards show, they are shocked, shocked and double-shocked that Gervais would make nasty cracks about them when everyone who privately disses the group has gone to the trouble to publicly treat the Globes as a necessary stepping stone toward Oscar glory.


Talk about cognitive dissonance. In fairness, there is plenty of blame to pass around, since the media, my own paper included, is also guilty of largely treating the awards as a serious headline event even while running periodic exposés about the group. (Gervais’ cracks about the HFPA taking bribes were an allusion to a recent series of allegations about bad behavior, including bribes in a recent lawsuit filed by the group’s former publicist. The HFPA says the suit is “without merit.”)

De Niro certainly doesn’t get off the hook so easily either. If he really thinks the HFPA is worthy of ridicule, then why accept a lifetime achievement award that would surely have little heft coming from such a bunch of knuckleheads?

Ditto for Gervais, who you can bet is quickly cashing the HFPA’s check for his night’s work. And who knows what the HFPA is thinking, since it knew full well ahead of time that Gervais had promised to push the envelope as far as would be allowed on network TV, even getting away with perhaps the dirtiest joke ever seen outside of a Comedy Central Roast about Hugh Hefner and his new twentysomething fiancée.

I think Gervais went too far only when he trashed people who weren’t on hand to defend themselves. When Robert Downey Jr. took umbrage at yet another joke about his drug-addled past, he ably returned serve, getting in a zinger about Gervais’ “mean-spirited” remarks. And then, true to the evening’s uncomfortable comic spirit, he went on to introduce the women up for a best actress award by describing his imaginary sexual encounters with them. He was funny, but when it comes to objectifying women, was Downey really any less rude than Gervais?

That’s what made the show so fascinating. Unlike the Oscars, which are invariably respectful to all concerned, the Globes were like a horror movie where the villain was able to create mayhem by taking advantage of the guilty secret lurking in the victims’ subconscious. The Globes are Hollywood’s guilty little secret and Gervais, a born comic provocateur, had a field day making nasty fun of the gap between appearances and reality.

After everything was said and done, all the stars acted like getting a trophy from the HFPA was like winning a Nobel Prize, while Gervais acted like being paid to host the awards was like taking money to strip at a third-rate gentlemen’s club in West Covina. I mean, who’s fooling whom?


-- Patrick Goldstein