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Golden Globes 2021: a night of fine choices capped by Chloé Zhao making history

Peter Bradshaw
·4-min read

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which decides on the Golden Globes, had this year been in trouble – as so often before – for its rackety and questionable procedures: this time for the #GlobesSoWhite makeup of its voting constituency. (Presenter Ricky Gervais had last year joked that it was just “very, very racist”.)

Related: Golden Globes 2021: the winners and their living rooms – in pictures

And yet, with the arguable exception of the snub to Michaela Coel in the TV category, the Globes’ awards this year have not been obviously different from high-minded critics’ choices and there has been diversity: from the spectacular triumph for Chloé Zhao’s docu-fiction Nomadland getting both best director and best film (drama), to Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous award for best actor (drama) for his brilliant, livewire performance as the troubled jazz trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

There was also resounding success for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, getting best film (musical or comedy) and best actor (musical or comedy), for Cohen himself as the egregious Borat. Daniel Kaluuya was best supporting actor for his portrayal of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, and Andra Day was best actress (drama) for her performance as Billie Holiday in The United States vs Billie Holiday. Two of the year’s very best films are on the list, too: Pixar’s wonderful movie Soul from directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers won best animation (though it should have got a best film nomination, too) and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari was best foreign film, about a Korean family trying to start a farm in the 1980s Reagan heartland. That, too, should have been brought more centrally into the fold, although it is great to see it rewarded.

Nomadland is now set fair to be the blue-chip awards choice, and no one could accuse the Globes of making a bland or middlebrow decision. It is an inspired and very original movie, boldly reaching towards and attaining the status of artwork while unashamedly questioning the nature of the American soul. Zhao brilliantly folds non-professionals into an imagined story built around the cheerful, resourceful, unassuming woman superbly played by Frances McDormand (who is perhaps entitled to feel disappointed that she didn’t win anything). She is one of the new “nomads” identified by the film: formerly prosperous retirees pauperised by the 2008 crash, who are forced to sell their possessions and go on the road in their minivans and RVs, getting seasonal work in places like Amazon fulfilment centres, and finding, for all the pain and hardship, that there is a kind of freedom. It is a fascinating essay in state-of-the-nation cinema.

Elsewhere, it was fun to see the triumph for Borat: I had wrongly tipped Hamilton but Borat probably deserves it, purely and simply for its devastating prank on Donald Trump’s bizarre attorney Rudolph Giuliani – the tipping-point for the unravelling of Trump’s campaign. There was history there, too: what a staggering comedown for the former hero of 9/11.

Andra Day gave a heartfelt and stirring performance as Billie Holiday in what I feel is a seriously flawed film but – importantly – her rendition of the songs, especially Strange Fruit, was tremendous, although I myself had been plumping for the glorious performance from Viola Davis as the blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, playing opposite Boseman. Daniel Kaluuya’s Golden Globe for his performance as Fred Hampton is thoroughly deserved, although it is surely misleading to describe a performance with such above-the-title charisma as “supporting”.

Related: Golden Globes 2021: Nomadland and The Crown win big – as it happened

Rosamund Pike thoroughly deserves her Globe for her performance as the sinister Marla in I Care a Lot, who conspires with crooked doctors and gullible judges to get rich old people imprisoned in care homes on fake dementia diagnoses so she can drain their bank accounts for her “guardianship” fees. This is a thrillingly nasty, gloriously unsympathetic and unrelatable performance. Meanwhile it is satisfying in some sense to see any award go to a performer as strong as Jodie Foster, although there wasn’t much to write home about, in my view, in her appearance as the good-guy liberal lawyer in the fence-sitting, Sorkinesque Guantánamo drama The Mauritanian. Having said which, I found the actual Aaron Sorkin’s Globe-winning screenplay for The Trial of the Chicago 7 displayed his weaknesses, not his strengths: finger-wagging liberal self-congratulation for being on the right side of history.

But this has been Chloé Zhao’s night – and I think she will go on to rule the rest of the awards season.