Last night during the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille award for Lifetime Achievement. There’s hardly an actor more deserving it would seem, as she has been celebrated almost from the day she first emerged on screen. The woman collects award nominations the way most of us collect ugly Christmas sweaters. We don’t ask for them and yet every year, there they are.
Her thank you speech last night was…surprising, I think. While many actors take those opportunities to speak broadly for what they feel their career has meant to them or other people, Meryl took an interestingly more political, and potentially divisive tack. She (quite brilliantly) dissected the phrase ‘Hollywood Foreign Press’ into the people that have been and will doubtless continue to be some of the most vilified people in our current President-Elect’s playbook.
She began her plea for respect and the arts by lamenting Trump’s apparent mocking of a disabled journalist during the 2015 presidential primary.
“It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump responded on Twitter with the rather untenable jab that Meryl is “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood,” and went on to defend his position that he did not in fact mock the disability of a reporter (rather he mocked a reporter who just happened to be disabled.)
I have been thinking a lot lately about what exactly the role of artists is given the current state of politics in this country. The press, by and large, are failing at their jobs of reporting the truth with as little bias as possible. Politicians, for their part, are failing at their jobs of promoting policy that will enhance the standard of living for as many of their constituents as possible. Everyone seems to be out for themselves and their sense of righteousness.
Artists – I’ll say ‘artists’ to encompass all types, including actors and entertainers – are certainly not immune to self-righteousness nor self-obsession. But the greatest artists, the artists that allow us, as Viola Davis said of Streep in her introduction, “to feel less alone” must by that very definition stretch an open hand across a seemingly un-crossable divide. Therefore it is empathy that most defines a true artist. Empathy for that condition we all struggle with – that of being human.
So in speaking out the way she did, was Meryl doing her job of being an artist? I would say, “yes.”
One more thing that has been on my mind lately, in response to people who often say artists should simply “shut up and dance, monkey,” as they said in response to the actors at “Hamilton” who spoke to Pence, and again last night in response to Meryl’s speech.
When politicians wage a war on the culture of our community, they are no longer on the turf of government. When they are trying to forge change in the hearts and minds of people, they cannot use laws. Instead their tools are rhetoric, storytelling, images, histrionics. These are not a politician’s tools. These are an artist’s tools. And the battle is not fought in the halls of congress, but in schools, in houses of worship, on playgrounds, at dinner tables. These are not a politician’s battlefields. These are an artist’s battlefields.
So when artists fight back in a war for the culture of this country – the very heart and soul of this country – there’s no reason for naysayers to feign outrage. This is a battle on our turf. And we must fight back.