Ten reasons last night's Golden Globes was the best kind of awards show

As awards shows go, it was a night of surprising self-awareness, when almost everyone seemed in on the joke of their own ridiculousness.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

The 2014 Golden Globes made for thoroughly entertaining TV. Hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, unsurprisingly, struck the perfect tone, at once sharp-edged and good-natured. But on the whole – as awards shows go – it was a night of surprising self-awareness, when almost everyone seemed in on the joke of their own ridiculousness. So here are the ten highlights of a very meta, very enjoyable show:

1. Fey and Poehler's sneaky you-go-girl humor, i.e:

  • Fey: "Gravity is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age."
  • Poehler, after labeling Jennifer Lawrence's face with her own name: "It's hard to believe she's a 42 year-old mother of two." 
  • Fey: "August Osage County [proves] that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60."

2. Fey and Poehler parodying the idea of intra-Hollywood female cattiness: the recurring joke of their fake feud with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, their introduction of Emma Stone ("Our next presenter told us earlier that she isn't looking for new friends.")

3. Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie from The Wolf of Wall Street ad-libbing their way through a teleprompter mistake in which they were showed the wrong script. Said Hill: "Let's be real about it, that was not for us."

4. This wink from Robert Downey Jr.:

5. The charming jitteriness of Spike Jonze's acceptance speech for best screenplay ("...my agent, who gives me advice when I'm being anxious, like right now.") 

6. Jim Carrey: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard. I believe it was Shia LaBeouf who said that."

7. The dumbfounded spoof of an acceptance speech that resulted from Andy Sandberg's genuine shock at his win for Brooklyn Nine Nine: "The crew's really good. The writers kick A. Everyone on my 'team'."  

8. The bit in which Fey introduced her "adult son from a previous relationship" – Poehler in drag, who wandered through the crowd in search of a father, alighting on Idris Elba and Harvey Weinstein.

9. Cate Blanchett's grateful, unaffected speech after winning best actress in a drama: "Can people at home hear this music, or do they just think you are suddenly having a panic attack?"

10. The cowboy swagger of Matthew McConaughey after his Dallas Buyers Club win: "This film was never about dyin' it was always about livin' and with that I say just keep." 

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, hosts of the 2014 Golden Globes. Photo: Getty
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The Pier Falls is a skilful short story collection – and the glummest book I've read in years

There's no doubting Mark Haddon's talent, but if his stories are sympathetic, there's not much pity in them.

The unremitting bleakness of Mark Haddon’s first book of short stories seems to have stumped even his publishers, who have decided, in the blurb, to make the rather shell-shocked protestation that “his imagination is even darker than we had thought”. Certainly, anyone who came to Haddon’s work through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its Olivier Award-winning stage adaptation will get a shock from this merciless collection, which opens with a story about the death of 64 people in a seaside accident and moves on briskly to other tales featuring starvation, dismemberment, evisceration, euthanasia, suicide, amputation, shooting, poisoning and incineration.

Sunk in its amplifying gloom, I found myself thinking of a passage in Haddon’s last (also fairly grim) novel, The Red House, in which an eight-year-old passes the time on a disastrous family holiday by planning his own work of literature. “It would be called A Hundred Horrible Ways to Die,” he muses, “and it would include torture and killing but not cancer.”

There is a good deal of sympathy in these economical pieces, but not much pity. The title story, first published in this paper, sets the tone. It is told in the present tense, and describes the collapse of a pier at a fictitious British seaside resort in 1970, balancing the unfolding horror of its events with a coolly detached, observational prose that creates a mood of eerie calm. “If you look through the black haystack of planks and beams,” Haddon writes, “you can see three figures thrashing in the dark water, a fourth floating face down and a fifth folded over a weed-covered beam. The rest are trapped underwater somewhere. Up on the pier a man hurls five lifebelts one after the other into the sea.” Later stories describe lives at various extremities of pain or grief, and with similar austerity. “Bunny” is about a 30-stone man feeding himself to death, “Breathe” about a woman tending her demented mother, “The Weir” about a divorcé who saves a mentally ill young woman from drowning. All of them share a distantly compassionate, vaguely medical tone, as though the author is relating news you may not wish to hear: it’s perhaps no surprise that doctors pop up with such frequency in Haddon’s work.

Several stories pay indirect homage to mythic or literary forerunners. “The Island” offers a refracted paraphrase of the story of Ariadne on Naxos, picking up shortly after Theseus’s ship sails off into the distance. In Haddon’s version, where none of the characters is named, the Minotaur is a deformed teenager, the king a brutal murderer and Ariadne a helpless teenager incapable of surviving in the wild. In the myth, she is discovered on Naxos by Dionysus, who marries her: here, the god of wine and ecstasy is a towering monster, covered in excrement, who rapes the helpless girl and then lets his Bacchantes rip her to pieces. It is told unflinchingly, though I could never quite work out whether Haddon’s flustered prose (“He is the only man she’s ever loved, and he has dumped her like ballast . . . She is off the heart’s map and her compass is spinning”) was in imitation of a lovestruck girl’s thoughts, or a rare crack in his usually undemonstrative and practical style.

“Wodwo”, one of the longer stories, provides another twist on an existing tale, in this case the 14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Here, too, Haddon remains silent about the inspiration, though an epigraph from Gawain lurks in forbidding Middle English at the beginning of the book. It opens on Christmas Eve at the Northamptonshire home of a retired neurosurgeon, where a session of posh family bickering is interrupted by the apparition of a gigantic stranger who demands to be blasted in the chest with a sawn-off shotgun. The subsequent humbling of its central character, who is no longer “gode Gawan” but Gavin, a blusteringly awful TV presenter, is a tale of slow decline, homelessness and eventual redemption that loses none of its weird and ghostly sheen from being dragged into a later age.

Other stories play quietly with the reader’s assumptions about their elected genres. “The Boys Who Left Home to Learn Fear” uses a setting out of H P Lovecraft or Edgar Rice Burroughs to tell its own, strangely truncated tale of loss and abandonment, as explorers in the jungle find cryptic warnings scrawled by a bottomless cave near the corpses of their predecessors. In “The Woodpecker and the Wolf”, a colonist on a remote planet contends with a string of grisly hazards – botched appendectomies, suicide by her colleagues, the abandonment of relief efforts, an unexpected pregnancy – before being rescued. As she returns with her child to a spookily idyllic Earth, however, the suspicion grows that things are not quite as comforting as we would like to believe: “There is,” Haddon writes, “something wrong with all this but she cannot put her finger on what it might be.”

That sentence might apply equally well to every story in this impressive but forbiddingly lightless collection. There’s no doubt about Haddon’s skill, but I haven’t read a glummer book in years. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster