Was Ricky Gervais Set Up?
Over the last week or so, film-culture observers witnessed an odd phenomenon sweep the country: A palpable, recognizable feel of anticipation -- for an awards show. Even rarer was the reason behind it. When the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced that Ricky Gervais would return for a third stint emceeing the Golden Globe Awards, we expected a return to last year’s delirious exercise in blunt-force celebrity accountability.
After all, it was only a year ago that a parade of offended A-listers and scandalized organizers protest the infamous ruthlessness delivered from the podium. The Elite let it be known they did not appreciate digs at Robert Downey Jr.’s drug history, or as Ricky commented about the Sex and the City cast, “Great job girls, we know how old you are – I saw one of you in an episode of Bonanza." Thus it was with no small amount of surprise -- and not just a little apprehension within Hollywood -- that we received word of Gervais agreeing to host again this year. However, after the British comic appeared to have wilted over much of Sunday night, we have to ask: Was this an orchestrated hit-job by the studios, the HFPA and Hollywood as a whole?
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Despite all the vitriol directed back at Gervais following last year’s caustic turn, NBC's ads for the 2012 iteration featured the host snipping a silken mouth gag away with scissors, as if to promise an ensuing controversy and a reason to watch. Prior to the telecast, Entertainment Weekly published a lengthy column from Gervais proclaiming his duties as a comedian to eviscerate the pompous, and then detailing specific jokes he had uttered at the last telecast. (Because nothing helps a failed joke better than explaining why it is funny.) Indicating how he would not let up this year Gervais quoted Horatio Nelson, regarding men doing their duty. “I did,” wrote the comedian about his previous stint, “And I will again.”
However, last night we saw not only Gervais's (arguably) inevitable failure to reach last year’s superstar-tweaking heights, but what felt like a coordinated effort to both muzzle and get even with the acerbic host. As it turned out, all of the most amusing lines came not from the host but the presenters, and those that cut deepest were aimed at Gervais himself. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing -- Gervais can take it. However, where was the give-and-take? As the night evolved we saw stars wielding knives and a host reduced to using safety scissors.
At least things began well for both Gervais and viewers. “Tonight you get Britain's biggest comedian, hosting the world's second biggest awards show on America's third biggest network," he said before catching himself. "Sorry, is it? Fourth. It's fourth.” Gervais also looked like he wouldn’t pull any punches when he remarked, “The Golden Globes are just like the Oscars, except without all that ‘esteem’.” From that point, however, his trademark edge dulled its way through a bloodless monologue. (Digs on Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber!) The very first presenter was Johnny Depp, one of the megafamous who notoriously had their noses out of joint following the 2011 show. Gervais asked Depp if he had actually seen The Tourist (a wry jab at Depp and Angelina Jolie's critically reviled yet Golden Globe-nominated film from a year ago); the actor admitted risibly that he had not, then made a curious turn and stalked Gervais as he walked offstage.
For those watching at home and at the Beverly Hilton alike, the exchange tipped the mood for the night. At best, Gervais and Depp shared a laugh, as if to say, "We're in this together." At worst, Depp reclaimed the Globes for the stars, offering a dour aside about the host -- “Oh, he’s fun" – and thus opening the gates for his fragile peers to have their way.
Amid the other celebrities having fun at the podium, Gervais waded and ultimately faded into the low-hanging fruit. We endured stars repeating cock jokes and references to how brilliant “Bridesmaids” had been (though, to hear numerous presenters tell it, the only funny part was a crapping-in-the-sink scene), all glued together with Gervais's tepid commentary. He bum-kissed George Clooney by way of intro. (Did he actually call him the “Cloon-meister”?) Then he introduced Madonna with a joke well beyond its expiration date -- about her being "like a virgin" -- that paved the way for Madge to get triply acidic in return. “If I’m still just ‘like a virgin,' Ricky, then why don’t you come over here and do something about it," she sniped. "I haven’t kissed a girl in a few years.”
The exchange came as a welcome jolt, a return to the Globes' contentious recent form. But then... nothing. Gervais did not return volley. The fix was in.
Gervais welcomed Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayak, getting bleeped as he commented about not being able to understand what they say; Banderas replied with a lengthy Spanish-language diatribe towards the host (translation forthcoming eventually? Maybe?). Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr., one of the most outspoken Gervais critics from the 2011 awardscast, simply ignored the comic he'd once excoriated as "mean-spirited and sinister." Huh? Now we knew the Globes had been neutered. Gervais returned, pint in hand, and makes a comment about being paid to drink and say whatever he wants, but it had long become obvious he was completely muzzled.
Next up was Colin Firth, whom Gervais described as an “evil” racist who punches blind kittens. The host was clearly having fun, and one got the sense that they're actually friends. But then Firth took over, describing a group of protestors in front of the ballroom. “Some very angry religious people are outside with big placards threatening us all with brimstone and pestilence and perdition for our sins," he said. "What they don't realize is, we have Ricky."
Firth and Gervais may in fact have worked this out, but the Oscar-winner sounded as full of contempt as Downey and others had been last year. It underscored the feeling that Gervais had been targeted -- or at least, in the instance that we'd witnessed a pair of compatriots breaking each other's balls, it suggested that he was in on the joke, toothlessly playing along with Hollywood's public revenge without once returning fire.
It reminded me of a scene from Animal House, of all things: Throughout that film, Tim Matheson’s character Otter mocked the establishment and thumbed his nose at the fraternity brethren, while taking liberties with their women. In the third act he is called to a rendezvous with one debutante, but instead enters a room of angry frat guys who have their way with him. Gervais persevered as the HFPA's Otter: invited back to the party, yet placed on a short leash, while the stars were encouraged to let fly. And however justified the industry elite felt in their retribution, much like that decades-old revenge scene, Sunday night’s ambush came off as neither funny nor particularly entertaining.
In any case, it certainly was not what we had been sold. Take those scissors away from Gervais, and the gagged likeness on the 69th Golden Globes poster was a truer representation. The biggest problem? It wasn't why people tuned in.
[Photo: Getty Images]