It was classy, it was heartfelt, it was fair comment – but was it effective?
Meryl Streep raised the bar for political statements at Hollywood award shows Sunday as she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes with a speech that chastised Donald Trump for mocking a disabled reporter during the recent American election campaign, and made a plea for both empathy and journalism.
Apologizing for a hoarse voice and glancing occasionally at notes, Streep was visibly moved by a sense of social urgency: If this was a performance, she certainly reconfirmed her status as a great actress. What the moment seemed most of all, though, was authentic. After some initial laughter and applause, she rapidly reduced the room to silence as the audience appeared to seriously consider her remarks and her warning that "Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose."
Early in the evening, Tom Hiddleston of the television series The Night Manager had made a standard-issue statement-from-the-podium when he revealed how honoured he was that relief workers from Doctors Without Borders serving in South Sudan binge-watched his show to unwind. Self-serving and comfortably insulated from the sorrows they decry – that's the reputation Hollywood celebrities often earn for their awards-show interventions, and Hiddleston fit the bill.
In contrast, Streep's speech, which she began by listing the many foreign-born stars in the room in an apparent retort to the rhetoric of wall-building and passport-checking, simply confirmed her right as a citizen to speak out against behaviour she deplored and her insight as an actor into the process of empathy. If her celebrity earned her the platform, her remarks spoke for themselves. And her plea for her preferred charity – she'd like you to support the Committee to Protect Journalists – seemed timely rather than tear-jerking.
And yet, as the thin-skinned Trump predictably shot back on Twitter, calling Streep overrated, the exchange illuminated the tricky terrain ahead. Trump, who continues to operate in dirty election mode, is still only the U.S. president-elect and he has not enacted any policies yet. His behaviour during the election campaign – or campaign revelations about his past behaviour – reveal him to be a bully, misogynist and xenophobe, but millions of American voters chose either to ignore his divisive personality or actually embrace it. Social-media commentary on Streep's speech rapidly devolved into praise-singing versus mud-slinging; by midday Monday a YouTube video of her speech had garnered 22,000 likes – and 8,000 dislikes.
Organized by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Golden Globes traditionally gives award winners a great deal of latitude in the length and nature of their remarks. In particular, the lifetime achievement award is considered a friendly invitation to say whatever the hell you please. February's Oscars, on the other hand, are more strictly scripted and more carefully watched by a larger audience. Will the A-listers wait until Trump confirms their worst fears and takes political actions that need to be protested – or will all the Oscar-winners try to top Streep? After Sunday's stirring speech, Hollywood should consider keeping its powder dry.