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America as an awards ceremony
Slow Views

America as an awards ceremony

Wednesday 29 September 2021

Queues, queue-pushers, gowns, vaccines, protocols, drinks, questions… amid it all, the author’s wife won an Emmy last week


“No cutting!” shouts Sterling K. Brown. “There will be NO cutting! There is a line and we will respect that line!”

Sterling, who would make an excellent teacher for children in the kindergarten range, is using his magnificent vocal instrument to shout at actors. Grown actors. Let’s not beat about the bush, famous actors.

Welcome to the line for the red carpet at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards. 

Michaela Coel, I can report, is not cutting. Allison Janney is not a cutter. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have never jumped a queue in their lives. Bradley Whitford and Paapa Essiedu are observing the rapid disintegration of queue etiquette like it was the Stanford Prison Experiment. But it’s my grave duty to report that there are many, some nominated for major television awards this evening, who are sizing up the situation, avoiding Sterling’s eye, picking up their lavish couture and barging in like Donald Trump backstage at a beauty pageant.

In these tuxes and ballgowns their sudden abandonment of dignity, morality and self-respect (okay, maybe not that last one) calls to mind the scramble for the last lifeboat off the Titanic. And as word ripples round the rest of us, struggling with ourselves to resist going full Black Friday at John Lewis, it turns out the stampede is due to that most 2021 of phenomena – the luxury shortage. To expensive road bikes, roomy hire cars and triple-ply toilet paper we must now add a dearth of red carpet photographers. Maybe, like so many of us in this unprecedented time, those snappers had finally had it with servicing somebody else’s needs and have gone off to find some Anya Taylor-Joy in their own lives. I wish them well. But right now, with five minutes until we have to be in our seats to start beaming the live telecast around the world, the fact that there are only four paparazzi out there while the others are all off working on their spoken word albums is causing havoc in Tinseltown. 

“Julianne!” whispers the saintly Keri Russell, “you go in front of us!” It’s my wife’s first nomination, for best supporting actress in Mare of Easttown on HBO, and Keri knows that if the newbie nominees don’t get their picture taken in the expensive dresses they’ve been lent for the night, stylists and designers might never lend you another. Suddenly, we’re out in front of the source of the bottleneck, the bare handful of men and women with huge cameras, visibly regretting their life choices. Then into a large, noisy but extremely antiseptic-looking marquee. The stage looks like it’s about to host the unveiling of a new generation of Hyundai station wagons. 

Instead, it’s hosting the new post-pandemic generation of in-person award ceremonies. Except, of course, we are still in a pandemic. All attendees had to show proof of vaccination and get a PCR test, but it’s a confusion that first guest Seth Rogen can’t help but expose: “Let me start by saying there is WAY too many of us in this little room. What are we doing? They said this was outdoors! It’s not! They lied to us!” We’re all laughing, but there’s a decidedly uncomfortable frisson. “Why is there a roof?” Rogan continues. “It’s more important that we have three chandeliers than that we make sure we don’t kill Eugene Levy tonight…”

And it is strange. But then how could it not be? Most of us have gone from a year and a half in our homes, dressed like babies, to perhaps the most glammed-up and self-conscious-making party we will ever be invited to. This effect is only heightened when the man on our table to my immediate left, Evan Peters, wins the Emmy for best supporting actor in a limited series. At this point, I’ve known Evan for approximately 24 hours, but we have giggled and whispered our way through last night’s party and tonight’s ceremony like conspiratorial schoolboys. The envelope is opened, his name is called and he stands. We all reflexively stand up too, clapping, grinning inanely. He turns to me and I can see instantly he has Award Show Brain, the syndrome where at the moment of triumph a person’s mind is electrocuted with fear, excitement and shock and immediately turns to wet papier-mâché. He stares deep into my eyes and makes a slight physical gesture towards me. An effusive type, I reach out to hug him. At that precise second, he remembers his mother is sitting on the other side of him and hugs her instead. 

Chaplin and Ben Turpin, rehearsing for six months, could not have improved the precision of this moment of unwitting physical comedy. Hug rejected, I sit down with the burning sensation in the oesophagus that I am already a meme. 

My wife’s category is next up. I have a brief moment of picturing our children’s faces, at home in front of the TV. The excitement and the worry. I remember that Julianne is nowhere near the favorite to win and how overwhelmingly thrilled and happy we were in a rental car in West Sussex in July when we got the news that she’d been nominated. I realise I’m married to perhaps the one nominee in this inadequately sized tent to whom winning or losing this award is genuinely, almost infuriatingly, irrelevant. And I also realise I would immediately fight the entire Ted Lasso table, a bevy of strong and healthy young men, for her name to be called. The envelope is opened and I somehow know before they say it that she’s won. 

What follows is much as one might expect when one is the recipient of absurd and wonderful news. There are oddities: a kind of inverted perp walk as Julianne, Evan and I are led away to meet the press, the lavish public face of the marquee giving way to acres of gloomy concrete and cable backstage that we wander around, dazed. We are driven at a certain point in a grubby golf cart and as we pass the Emmy staff, milling around to chat and chow down now that their pre-show duties are done, they all cheer.

Julianne Nicholson with her Emmy and her husband, the author

Back in the show, two things are becoming apparent: one is that Conan O’ Brien is going through something. For anyone in the UK unaware of his enormous importance to that most American of institutions, the late night talk show, he has been a huge figure in comedy as a TV host for 28 years. This year, he announced he was done. His show was nominated, as it has been 28 times. He didn’t win. It may have been this that set off the white knuckle situationist comedy he then decided to unleash. 

As the TV Academy president – still reeling, remember, from Seth Rogan’s attack on the ceremony’s health and safety protocols – wandered on to make his speech, we were all aware that a very large redhead was shouting at him. It was Conan, smashing through the brittle veneer of slightly frightened best behaviour that had defined the evening since the unseemly stampede. As the president soldiered bravely on, Conan mercilessly heckled, then stood rigidly saluting him, drawing all focus off a rather moving speech in praise of special award recipient Debbie Allan. I must admit, I felt a deeply English delight at the messy subversion. When Conan subsequently rushed the stage to accept an award which he hadn’t actually won, our glee was complete. Norm Macdonald, another US comedy institution (who, incidentally, had many of his most brilliantly anarchic moments on Conan’s show), had died that week and it felt as if this was the silliest, riskiest, most poignant tribute to comedic misbehavior that his old friend could muster. 

The second thing that was becoming increasingly apparent was that all the acting nominees of color were losing. In the week that the industry also lost the great Michael K. Williams, this began to feel troubling. 

So after a long, well-lubricated evening of giggly disbelief, and after spending a good 30 minutes being lectured to by a prodigiously refreshed Conan on why English people need to be nicer to Churchill, we sat in the limo on the way home to our kids, like Benjamin and Elaine on the back of the bus at the end of The Graduate.

The line of Larkin’s from ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ seemed appropriate:

“…fathers had never known / Success so huge and wholly farcical”

And as America tries to poke its head back out of its pandemic shell, it felt like one awards ceremony had distilled some of the unignorable realities of this extraordinary country. A small proportion of people behaving badly because they can. A large proportion of them behaving with grace and generosity. A seemingly insoluble inability to agree about public safety. A long, long way to go to racial equity. And also, at least for this lucky carload, a place where Cinderella moments of outrageous good fortune can still occur. 

I looked at my wife’s beautiful dress. “Don’t get too attached to it,” she said. “I gotta give it back in the morning.”