LOS ANGELES — It was already feeling like a Cecil B. DeMille kind of night, long before Martin Scorsese stepped on the stage with an eloquent tribute to the legendary director’s golden touch as he picked up the DeMille award for his own lifetime of achievement during Sunday’s Golden Globes.
If anything, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, all 83 of them, seemed to be channeling the moviemaker who preached and practiced a fundamentalist version of the entertainment bible through four decades and 85 movies, parting the Red Sea in his final spectacle, 1956’s “The Ten Commandments.”
All I can say is, hallelujah!
You could feel the spirit of DeMille, the quintessential showman, hovering over the proceedings. The winners, certainly on the film side of things, suggested that, for a change, voters cast their ballots for whom and what they liked — “The Hangover,” most notably — rather than for whom or what they thought they should, which left director Kathryn Bigelow, the award season favorite for her bomb-defusing dramatic tour de force, “The Hurt Locker,” to play the role of gracious loser to James Cameron’s blockbusting avatars.
It made for a show that felt real, unapologetically so, whether it was Sandra Bullock honored for “The Blind Side,” a performance that was heartfelt and heartland, or “The Hangover” taking home the top comedy prize because it was funny. Perverse, yes, but also smart and sweetly sentimental in an R-rated for pervasive coarse language, nudity and drug use kind of way.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget in all the conversations about film as art that the raison d’etre for pictures when they began moving in the first place was not nearly so high-flying, nor so complex, as it has become over the years. In the beginning, it was a very simple formula, really: Entertain the masses and make a little moolah for your efforts, something DeMille understood in his bones.
DeMille was forever the populist, never the auteur. While De Sica, Welles, Hitchcock and the like would push the artistic and intellectual boundaries of film, DeMille never lost sight of his audience, mostly hardworking folks, and he became a master at keeping the language of cinema in their terms. Scorsese gave a nod to that Sunday, speaking of films that were “easily understood” as a director’s virtue rather than a failing.
Certainly the modern-day masses have been opting to spend their moolah on entertainment this year, and if it happens to also have an artistic bent, so much the better, and the Golden Globes reflected that sentiment.
Let’s consider the Globe winners using the DeMille model. The man understood the power of spectacle — bigger was always better, think the Claudette Colbert “Cleopatra” or the legions to be found in “King of Kings.” Is there anyone today who wears that mantle better than Cameron, who took home two Globes for directing and best drama? I doubt it. With “Avatar,” he gathered up all of our modern problems and time-traveled them into the future and to another world that was incredibly satisfying to get lost in for a little while.
“Up,” the animation winner, is definitely in the DeMille eye-popping, Technicolor tradition of, say, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The balloons that set the story soaring would probably have been enough to qualify, but the South American wonderland and its exotic creatures sealed the deal.
Sometimes for DeMille, it was the character, as much as the movie, whose larger-than-life-ness captured the imagination (as the director did in “The Buccaneer,” “The Plainsman” or “Carmen”): Meryl Streep’s towering, teetering Julia Childs in “Julie & Julia,” Christoph Waltz’s gleeful Nazi horror in “Inglourious Basterds” and Robert Downey Jr.‘s devilishly wry “Sherlock Holmes” were all spun out of sparkly spectacle threads.
DeMille also understood the power of pathos, of redemption; “Samson and Delilah” and “King of Kings” come to mind. We saw it Sunday night in Mo’Nique’s win for her nightmarish mother in “Precious,” in Jeff Bridges’ broken-down country singer in “Crazy Heart,” in Bullock’s humbled affluent Memphis mom in “The Blind Side” and running like a river of blue through “Avatar” and “Up.” It was even there in the search for the missing groom in “The Hangover.” Human issues, humanely, and at times humorously, told.
As to the oft posed question of what the Golden Globe choices mean for the Oscars, with the academy nominations right around the corner? Probably nothing. As a body, the academy has long been concerned with making the proper, rather than the popular, choice, recognizing the most artful, which may not be the most embraceable.
So what a relief, what a lovely reminder Sunday night turned out to be, that movies are there to entertain us, to move us, to wow us as well as create an artistic legacy. As Scorsese put it so beautifully, they are “the shared landscape of our childhood as we dreamed it ... bigger than life, blazing with color, fast-moving, easily understood.”
Sunday night was a celebration of the emotional side of the great beating heart of the movies — in the artists who won and their speeches thankfully thanking moms more often than managers, and in the films themselves. I think DeMille would be pleased.