Is Ricky turning into the Globes’ Billy Crystal?

While Gervais coated his barbs with a spoonful of sugar, Seth Rogen and even George Clooney trumped him on the outrage front
In this image released by NBC, host Ricky Gervais speaks during the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/NBC, Paul Drinkwater)

There’s a fine line between mean-spirited and warm ‘n’ fuzzy. Ricky Gervais swung from one extreme to the other in a twinkling last night, morphing from the hostile host who would never get invited back to the man who looks poised to become the Golden Globes’ Billy Crystal. And the Globes themselves—always the ‘fun’ party compared to the quasi religious ritual of the Academy Awards—even seems to have usurped some of Oscar’s dignity and gravitas. Where were the drunken gaffes? The sloppy acceptance speeches. Aside from Meryl Streep forgetting her reading glasses and stumbling through a speech before being played off by the band, everything went like clockwork. And was Gervais even drinking that beer on the podium?

Gervais, of course, had promised he wasn’t going to soften his act to appease critics, but there was a definite spoonful of sugar surrounding the satirical barbs this year.  He actually said some nice things about people. And it helped that he arrived at 69th annual Golden Globes riding a huge wave of hype. The audience was primed, the stars were ready to be roasted, and that made all the difference. Even Gervais seemed surprised by the tone of goodwill in the room, as he noted midway through the show, “It’s going well, isn’t it? You’re so much better than last year’s audience. They had a right stick up their ass.”

Although Gervais had the crowd in his corner, and exuded more warmth than usual, his wit was sharper than ever. Here’s a chunk of his opening monologue:

“For any of you who don’t know, the Golden Globes are just like the Oscars, but without all that esteem. The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton. A bit louder, a bit trashier, a bit drunker, and more easily bought. Allegedly. Nothing’s been proved. . . ” Later he used Boardwalk Empire to take another chunk out of the hand that feeds him: “It’s about a load of immigrants who came to America about 100 years ago and they got involved in bribing and corruption and they worked their way up into high society. . . But enough about the Hollywood Foreign Press [Association].”

But Gervais was softer on the stars this year, and seemed eager to please. By the end, I half expected  him to say, “You like me, you really like me,” à la Sally Field. He reserved his most “dangerous” material for testing the limits of prime time with sexual innuendo. On Justin Beiber being asked to take a paternity test: “The only way he could have impregnated the girl was if he borrowed one of Martha Stewart’s old turkey basters. Open wide.” And in reading an alleged list of rules provided by the HFPA, he said, “I must not mention Mel Gibson this year. Not his private life, his politics, his recent films, and especially not Jodie Foster’s Beaver. I haven’t seen it myself. I have spoken to a lot of guys here, they haven’t seen it either. That doesn’t mean it’s not any good.” (Requisite cutaways to a laughing Jodie Foster)

As it turned out, several stars showed up on an apparent mission to trump Gervais. Presenting an award with Kate Beckinsale, Canada’s Seth Rogen blurted out: “I’m trying to conceal a massive erection.” And while casually accepting Best Actor for The DescendantsGeorge Clooney thanked Michael Fassbender for “taking the full-frontal nudity responsibility off my hands,” and commended his manhood: “Michael, you can play golf with your hands behind your back. Go for it! Do it!”

What about the awards? Well, as more savvy stars politely inferred, they don’t matter much, considering that the HFPA is a cabbal of part-time journalists and junketeers who represent nobody. What the Globes do represent, however, is the most visible spawn of the various marketing campaigns that lead up to the only awards that count: the Oscars. (Forgive me for ignoring  the TV winners at the children’s tables—which, as Gervais pointed out—were ringed around the edges of the main event; that’s off my beat.)

So as a bellwether, what the Globes do indicate is that mogul Harvey Weinstein is emerging once again as the Midas of  Oscar gold. He is the force behind The Artist, which won three awards (best score, best actor in a comedy or musical, and best comedy or musical); and both best actress winners, Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn). From podium, Williams dubbed Harvey “The Punisher,” a phrase that promised to become a meme as a couple of presenters picked it up.

The Descendants, meanwhile, won three awards (for screenplay, best dramatic actor and best movie drama). And Clooney does seem well-positioned to win Best Actor at the Oscars. Last night he was so clearly the King of the Room. In Hollywood’s royal court, he has become the new Jack Nicholoson, compete with his own version of Jack’s s***-eating grin.

The Oscars, of course, don’t split Best Picture and the acting awards into dramatic and non-dramatic categories. So the Academy will have to make up its mind between The Artist and The Descendants—if it chooses not to honour larger film, such as Spielberg’s War Horse (which is unlikely, with Spielberg instead poised to win best animated feature for Tintin). But do expect Iran’s A Separation to repeat its well-deserved win for Best Foreign Language Film, despite the celebrity wattage behind Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, the Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey.

For the complete list Golden Globe winners, go to the HFPA website.

Follow Brian D. Johnson on Twitter: @briandjohnson