My pandemic-addled brain was so excited to remember that the Emmy awards were on Sunday night. I love a dumb awards show, but kinda forgot they existed. What would all that pomp and glamour look like in a virtual format during a pandemic?
Overall, I thought the safely distanced Emmys were an improvement on the traditional format. Host Jimmy Kimmel acknowledged at the start that doing this kind of event in such dire circumstances feels silly and superfluous. But as he noted, when were the Emmys anything but? So the Television Academy turned it into a fundraiser to feed impoverished kids, which helps both the stars and the viewers feel less terrible about this indulgence. I appreciated that. I also appreciated the DJ who spun dance hits in place of the stuffy orchestra that plays people offstage when their speeches go too long. But my favorite part was getting to see the celebs’ living rooms via this surreal Zoom meeting of the stars; now we now know that Christina Applegate has a very nice fireplace and Laura Linney is a Chapo Traphouse fan. Those voyeuristic morsels helped make up for the absence of an awards show staple that cannot be replicated in a socially distanced format — the red carpet.
The red carpet arrival is usually the best part of any awards show (especially the Oscars, which I’ve found increasingly boring over the years). We love to see the stars be their most unimaginably beautiful and glamorous selves. When I imagine that grandeur, I always think of the opening scene from Singin’ in the Rain.
Set in 1927 at the end of the silent film era, the movie opens with throngs of young fans gathered at Grauman’s Chinese Theater for the premier of The Royal Rascal. A procession of Rolls Royces deliver a bevy of starlets, including the mysterious and elegant Olga Mara in a spider-inspired, black sequined gown and Zelda Zanders (portrayed by a bouncy, young Rita Moreno) in a shimmery flapper dress. But they’re just appetizers for the main course. When Royal Rascal stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont arrive at last, the fans go absolutely bananas for these gorgeous figures clad in gleaming white. When we see people so perfectly styled, we naturally wish we could be them. How could life be anything short of fabulous when you’re surrounded by flashing cameras and adoring fans?
But of course this is all artifice. That’s what Singin in the Rain is about, how the dawn of talking pictures revealed that some performers — such as shrill, dopey Lina — could not act. But it also breaks down the illusion that glamorous stars must lead rewarding personal lives. Even there on the Royal Rascal red carpet, we get hints of the ugly truth. Gossip columnist Dora Bailey announces the arrival of each star with her very Hollywood commentary. Like when Zelda arrive with her aged sugar daddy, Dora notes he’s the latest in a long line of boyfriends, then adds, “Maybe this is true love at last.” My favorite is her comment on Olga and her aristocrat husband — “They’ve been married for two months already, but still as happy as newlyweds!” After Lockwood and Lamont arrive, Dora presses Don for juicy details on their rumored romance. He insists that he and Lena are just good friends. They look so great together, you want to believe otherwise. We soon soon learn Don hates Lina, though it helps both of their careers for him to pretend otherwise. Yet for those few, fleeting moments when we seem them looking absolutely stunning, we love to believe their personal lives match that beauty.
If anything, this year’s Emmys made it clear that the stars are not doing great right now. Sure they’re wealthy, but most of them are stuck at home and out of work; it’s a good time to remember that in a Marxist sense they are also workers beholden to the whims of far wealthier bosses. Their garments seemed to reflect the whole gamut of quarantine moods, ranging from formal wear to business casual. It is a Zoom meeting after all, not everyone is going to try that hard. Apparently the Television Academy sent awards-bearing employees in hazmat suits to every nominees’ location, so no one would know until the last moment whether or not they won. When one of them handed a trophy to Regina King (wearing a truly rad Breonna Taylor “Say Her Name” t-shirt under a hot pink blazer), the disoriented actress said, “This is all so weird.” Actor Ramy Youssef tweeted the words “when you lose the emmy” with video of his hazmat suited friend waving bye-bye through a closed door. Every effort to keep the awards show spirit alive while also being safe just reminded us that we are living in surreal and unsettling times.
Will we ever return to the artifice that made the red carpet so dreamy? I just don’t know. Maybe this is quarantine brain speaking, but I can’t help feeling like the red carpet is dead. I just don’t see the entertainment industry coming back from all this tragedy and economic depression with that same unabashed display of excess. Or perhaps this is just a hiatus. In the meantime, we’ll have to find other distractions from an ever-harsher truth that we are living through a pandemic under rising fascism and looming climate collapse. Good thing we have this huge backlog of TV shows and movies to keep us entertained as we do our daily best to survive. And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain, I suggest starting there.