Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes and Donald Trump. (photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images)
By Steve Rose, Guardian UK
09 January 17
Calling the president-elect racist, sexist or a bully doesn’t hit home. But Streep, in her withering Golden Globes speech, found a way to get under his skin
here innumerable others have failed over the past months, years, decades, Meryl Streep looks to have really struck a nerve with Donald Trump at the Golden Globe awards last night. Not by simply criticising the president-elect for the bullying, potentially violent culture he threatens to bring to American public life. Many have done that before, with equally accomplished thespian delivery, including Hugh Laurie earlier that evening (“I accept this award on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere”). Streep built on that sentiment in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B DeMille award, condemning Trump’s mockery of a disabled reporter in a speech in 2015. But Streep’s masterstroke was to characterise Trump’s antics as performance.
“There was one performance this year that stunned me,” she said. “It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job.” She sounds like the most withering theatre critic ever. If that was a review and you had to work a quote out of it for a poster, the best you could do would be: “‘Effective’ – Meryl Streep.”
Streep, though, has identified one of Trump’s key weaknesses. You can criticise him all you like for being a racist, a sexist, a sexual predator, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a conspiracy theorist, a bully, or a bad advert for male grooming, but it’s all water off a duck’s back – you could even say that duck is sitting on Trump’s head pretending to be a toupee – it doesn’t matter. But to disrespect Trump’s performance – that’s gotta hurt.
Inevitably, Trump has been quick to respond, denying accusations he was mocking the disabled reporter – New York Times journalist Serge Kovaleski – and reminding the public that Streep, “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood”, introduced Hillary Clinton at her convention and that “a lot of these people supported Hillary”. He wasn’t surprised, he said, he was being attacked by “liberal movie people”. And sure enough, his defenders scrambled to the social media fronts to boo and hiss liberal Hollywood.
But the reality is, Trump desperately wants to be one of those movie people. Or at least be accepted by them. And when he’s not, he doesn’t like it. It was only a few short years ago that Trump was complaining about not getting his own awards: “I should have many Emmys for The Apprentice if the process were fair,” he tweeted in 2013, after his show was passed up for an award for the ninth time. It was only a few years earlier, in 2005, when Trump was gamely dressing up as a hillbilly and singing Green Acres at the Emmy awards show. Not even Streep would describe that performance as “effective”. It certainly didn’t win Trump any awards, and he has been consistently, disproportionately pissed off about it. (Sample tweets: “The Emmys are sooooo boring! Terrible show.” “Lots of people agree that the Emmys were a joke – got bad ratings – no credibility!”) When Hillary Clinton mocked him for caring about Emmy-rigging more then election-rigging during the presidential debates, Trump couldn’t resist interjecting “shoulda gotten it”.
For all his wall-building zeal, Trump has all but demolished what barriers remained between showbiz and politics. But unlike, say Ronald Reagan, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, you get the sense the former was his ultimate ambition more than the latter. He has regularly and willingly put himself in front of the camera for brand promotional purposes, and has never been shy of a movie cameo or a special guest appearance, from Home Alone 2 to Zoolander, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Sex and the City. By all accounts, getting Trump for a cameo is not hard; keeping him from hamming it up in front of the camera can be, though. The makers of Home Alone 2 didn’t even ask him to be in it, but since he owned the hotel they were filming in, they could hardly say no when he turned up on the set. The only acting award he has received to date was a Razzie for worst supporting actor for the 1991 movie Ghosts Can’t Do It. Not many people can claim to have been acted off the screen by Bo Derek.
Despite this resounding lack of acclaim, Trump clearly enjoys his celebrity status – and the power it brings. That was made clear by the notorious “grab them by the pussy” recording that threatened to derail his presidential campaign (what an apt ending that would have been: hoisted by his own television mic). Trump’s boasts of groping women without permission, on the way to yet another television appearance, were prefaced by the words, “and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” The same could apply when you’re president, except you might get impeached for it.
In politics, too, Trump likes to project the image of being a natural performer. His abilities in MCing a crowd-baiting rally are acknowledged even by his critics, and Trump has regularly mocked Hillary Clinton and others politicians for needing an autocue. Trump boasted he didn’t need one; he was more of an improv kind of guy. Admittedly, his off-the-cuff soliloquies have often been exposed as incoherent verbal diarrhoea when transcribed and scrutinised away from the heat of the rally. As one online critic put it: “I’m not alarmed at the guy launching prodigious verbal farts into a microphone. I’m alarmed at the people laughing and applauding like he’s forming actual thoughts.” Perhaps that is testament to Trump’s powers of performance, but compared with Barack Obama’s carefully structured verbal eloquence, Trump is more like the caller you wish they would cut off on the talk radio show.
Clearly Trump loves the idea of “being a star”, and not just for the sexual predation opportunities, but the stars don’t want him. They flocked around Clinton on the campaign trail – not that it made any difference (it seems the media underestimated the celebrity wattage of Scott Baio). It looks to be the same post-election: all the stories so far have been about celebrities who have turned down the invitation to appear at his inauguration. They don’t want him in their gang, and he doesn’t like it.
In 2007, Trump received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – confirmation, despite so much criticism, that he really is a star. “It was something that was given to me by some very powerful people in Hollywood and I’m very honoured by it,” he said at the time. But in recent months, Trump’s star has been repeatedly vandalised. It has had graffiti sprayed on it, including a Nazi swastika, people have taken selfies raising their middle fingers to it, spitting on it, urinating on it, or letting their dogs shit on it. In July last year, an artist built a miniature wall around Trump’s star, topped with razor wire and tiny border signs saying “Keep Out”. And last October, a man disguised as a construction worker took a sledgehammer to it. He had intended to remove it and auction it off to raise funds for the women who accused Trump of groping them. Ronald Reagan’s star never had to put up with this.
This is by no means the first time “liberal Hollywood” has spoken out on presidential candidates and their fitness for office. Streep’s speech stirs memories of 2003, when Michael Moore was the sole voice of dissent against the recently re-elected president George W Bush, who was about to launch the Iraq war. Accepting his best documentary Oscar for Bowling For Columbine, Moore stated: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.” His speech was cut short by the music and he was ushered off stage shortly after. Again “liberal Hollywood” was condemned, and Moore received death threats. President Bush maintained a silence that could possibly be characterised as dignified. But unlike Trump, Bush had little public image to maintain. He ran away from the limelight rather than towards it.
So no wonder Trump hates Meryl Streep and all she stands for. And the “lying media” that faithfully reports facts unfavourable towards the president elect. But perhaps she has found the way to really get under his skin. Perhaps the Foreign Press Association has more of a role to play in the Trump resistance than it dared imagine.
He can take all the criticism political commentators can throw at him, but if there’s one thing Trump hates, it’s a bad review.