Ricky Gervais, the British comic actor with the monkey's laugh, hosted the Golden Globe Awards this past Sunday, and his performance was, to put it mildly, controversial.
In the course of the three-hour telecast, Gervais managed to insult most of Hollywood's A-list. He accused a couple of (thankfully absent) superstars of sexual deviancy. He nailed actors Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for their lackluster snooze-fest, The Tourist. He introduced the action star Bruce Willis as "Ashton Kutcher's dad". Ashton Kutcher, for those of you who have spent the past few years in a secluded location, is the twenty-something husband of Willis' late-forty-something ex-wife, Demi Moore. Willis accepted this jab with the controlled, tight smile of a person preoccupied with planning a delicious revenge. And that was before Gervais tore into the actors Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr for their colourful histories with drug abuse and rehabilitation.
From a British perspective, it was pretty tame stuff. From an American perspective - especially from an American movie star perspective - it was over the line.
"Here's what bugged me about Ricky's so-called jokes," a big-time movie producer told me the next day. "Johnny's movie", he said - people in Hollywood always use an actor's first name whenever possible, to connote just how close and personal they are to the actor. "Johnny's movie made about $170 million in box offices overseas. It's a genuine hit, despite the fact that it did bupkis here in the States." People in Hollywood always use Yiddish expressions like "bupkis" and "meshuggeneh" to connote their close connection to the entertainment industry's early pioneers - "so to imply it wasn't a success is a little, I don't know, just … just …"
"Not done?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "It's just not done. It's amateur hour. And look, I love Ricky's work. But his movie, The Invention of Lying did, what? Barely $40 million worldwide. So, you know, excuse me, but before you start taking shots at Johnny and Angelina, you'd better get your worldwide grosses up in their range, right?"
Producers, of course, are sticklers for that sort of thing. Money is their lifeblood - some might say their actual blood - so to get something as backwards as Gervais got the overseas grosses of a Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie picture is an unforgiveable (and inexplicable) sin. Some things, to a movie producer, are sacred.
To the rest of us, though, despite some genuine laughs, the whole performance came off as mean-spirited and nasty. Sure, it's funny to suggest that tough-guy Bruce Willis is the sire of his ex-wife's new boy toy. But to dredge up old stories about Robert Downey Jr - stories surely put to bed by now, after his astonishing successes in the past six years - and to beat again, in tired and lazy strokes, the peculiarities of some famous adherents to Scientology, well, just seemed a bit lazy.
It's only natural to take a certain amount of creepy joy in watching a collection of coddled and cosseted zillionaires squirm in their fancy clothes as a shrieking and cackling English comedian takes them all down a peg or two. It's fun - and I'm not proud to admit this, but I'm compelled to be honest - to see people for whom lights just automatically turn green, who never hear the word "no", suddenly face the stinging arrows of public mockery.
The problem, though, is that the broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards is a huge moneymaker, but exactly how huge is entirely dependent on the number of famous faces who turn up for the live event. If famous people don't bother to attend, there's no reason to broadcast the ceremony nationwide. As recently as the early 1990s, in fact - and I remember this well; my first Golden Globe arrived in 1992 - the ceremony wasn't widely broadcast at all. It was strictly for locals, and went out on a small Los Angeles television channel. As soon as the awards attracted the cachet of the "pre-Oscars", though, a lot more famous names started turning up. Winning a Golden Globe became, about a decade ago, an indication of a person's Oscar chances.
But famous people don't show up to be insulted. And if the famous people decide to stay home, the cameras and lights and red carpet interviews and the huge advertising and broadcasting fees stay home as well.
The gathered throng in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton managed to gin up some wan grins and some uncomfortable chuckles, but it was clear by mid-show that Gervais' act wasn't going over very well. Speculation on Twitter, mid-way through the ceremony, was that Gervais had been fired during a commercial break, which was just plausible enough to keep me watching, to see if he made it back on-stage.
He did, of course, and scampered through the rest of the show. But by then the damage was done. He had alienated the key constituencies: money-obsessed producers, self-obsessed stars, and ratings obsessed television networks. There really isn't anybody left, in all of Hollywood, to offend.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood