The year of the pandemic is ending similarly to how it began, with people begging Hollywood to, please, stop.
There have been no sequels, thankfully, to the ghastly video organized by Gal Gadot of her celebrity friends crooning verses of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in an adventurous array of keys. That was an exhausting, narcissistic stunt orchestrated in the early days of quarantine, the point of which was to promote... well, it’s still not exactly clear. (Though Gadot is, sadly, at the forefront of a particularly horrendous sequel of another kind that’s closing out the year.)
But around the Christmas holiday the L.A. County Department of Public Health sent emails to several entities in the TV and film industry asking them to consider pausing production as coronavirus cases in Los Angeles surge. While filming is still technically allowed under the current stay-at-home orders, acting union SAG-AFTRA confirmed this week that “most entertainment productions will remain on hiatus until the second or third week of January, if not later.”
As bookends to the surreal last nine months in an industry whose point is to be public-facing, attention-grabbing, and culturally influencing, the two stories illustrated how Hollywood has tried but ultimately struggled to figure out what exactly its role is, or should be.
All of us were losing it in those early days of lockdown, grappling with our new normal. We’ve all been desperate to feel useful at a time that would ordinarily call for a spring to action. But we've struggled to understand how to do that when being of the most use has meant literally not moving—seemingly forever.
For the privileged stars with their megaphone platforms, be it on social media or with a direct outlet to the press should they desire it, this sparked something of an existential crisis. Clearly, celebrities had a burning desire to speak up and do something but a climate of anxious uncertainty made that impulse woefully ill-advised. Their audience was so worn down by the pandemic they had less tolerance than usual for celebrities starved for attention.
Still, no matter how much people scoff at our society’s inclination to pay the rich, beautiful, and famous any mind when it comes to “serious” issues—this was 2020, the horse was beaten dead long ago—the truth is there was value to some of this.
Celebrities can and did use their influence for good. Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift shamed followers for not following social distancing and lockdown protocols. Musicians—actual ones, not the “Imagine” terrorists—started to post little videos of themselves singing, just to make people feel good. The amount of time they gave to Zoom charity events and fundraisers was remarkable.
But every good deed was counteracted by an obliviousness that seems to embed itself in a celebrity’s DNA the minute they become famous. Yes, thank you for preaching the necessity of social distancing from your mansion with a pool, tennis court, and enough space for your nannies and extended family to quarantine with you. “We’re all in this together” is a hollow message when you have access to testing and health care that the rest of us don’t.
After a while, the celebrities quieted down as the severity of circumstances continued to escalate. Or maybe they just got bored of caring.
By the summer, sharp-eyed fans started to gather evidence of celebrities on lavish vacations and blasted the influencer set who kept hosting raging parties during lockdown. When fall rolled around, the likes of the Kardashians and their crew of entitled friends shamelessly flaunted their travel and parties, justifying that they were in the position to do so safely. Scrolling through celebs’ Instagram pages over the holidays has been like flipping through a special beach vacations issue of Condé Nast Traveler.
At the start of summer, attention also turned to the Black Lives Matter movement and the election, each with its own set of celebrities' well-intentioned, if tone-deaf attempts to insert themselves into the story. For every star out marching or attempting to pass the mic to conversations about institutional racism, there was an Instagram black square or an “I Take Responsibility” video.
What seemed to underscore so much of the year in Hollywood, however, was the desire to return to normalcy at a time when things were still anything but normal.
The entertainment industry is a massive part of the economy and employs millions of people. People who need it—not the celebrities, but the crews—at one point could finally return to regular hours and a paycheck. The industry had the means and the organization to figure out safety protocols for a group environment. And, hell, we were still stuck at home and needed content!
But it’s a tricky line. As cast and crew members of reopened productions started to test positive for COVID-19 and shoots had to shut down again, there was the obvious question of whether this was all happening too soon or too recklessly. Tom Cruise certainly understood the weight of that, going apeshit on Mission: Impossible crew members who ignored social distancing protocols. The stakes, though delivered in an unhinged manner, were that these first productions are important test cases that could determine the future of the industry—in fact, many industries.
Our favorite shows have started to return (no matter how inelegantly they confronted the realities of the pandemic in their storylines), but it’s hard to divorce the pleasures of the viewing experience from the guilt: Is this really worth it? Do we really need to be shooting new episodes of The Real Housewives in the middle of a pandemic?
That said, admirable ingenuity has followed the “show must go on” mentality. That’s not just when it comes to protocols and the immense expense being taken to ensure safe filming in recent months. It’s in how the industry pivoted before any of that was possible.
Cable news continued its 24/7 coverage of the Trump administration—reserve judgment on the usefulness of that for a different essay—with anchors beaming in from their homes. As the nation combusted in a series of demonstrations against police brutality, anti-Black violence, and institutional racism, the news brought into the marches those who, for their safety, stayed at home.
Late-night and talk show hosts proved that you can deliver a fine monologue from your living room or home office. (Or, in the case of Samantha Bee, the woods.) And when protocols were put in place, studios began to throw new ideas at the wall, from audience members on iPads to beaming in guests through CGI.
When award shows started to take place over the summer, at first it was thrilling to see how producers figured out how to pull off live events under such extreme circumstances. Then the ickiness creeped in: All of this going on in the world, and Hollywood is concerned with celebrating itself? But at the same time, when has celebration for the cultural output that kept us entertained and engaged in a hellacious year been more warranted?
Everything has more nuance than is easy to admit, particularly at a time when we’ve been conditioned to erase the entire concept completely.
It’s interesting that Gal Gadot is a figure that started this whole conversation, as it was just reported that Wonder Woman 1984 made $16.7 million over the Friday-Sunday Christmas holiday weekend. That’s the biggest opening weekend total for any movie since the lockdown began. It also means that roughly two million people purchased tickets to see the film in theaters, a staggering number as rising COVID-19 infection numbers dominated headlines over the same frame.
It speaks to the fact that, with the right movie, people really are willing to return to theaters, at least more than some may have predicted. It also speaks to why so many people were so angry at cineplex companies and studios like Warner Brothers for what was a perceived crusade to reopen theaters too soon this summer, with the whole, exhausting Tenet debacle.
The most telling part of the Wonder Woman haul is that the film is part of Warner Brothers’ controversial strategy to make all of its titles available to stream on HBO Max on the same day as their theatrical release through 2021. You could watch it at home, and yet two million people still went to theaters to watch in the middle of a pandemic.
Industry folk will likely have a lot to say about what that means for the future of movie theaters and the film industry as the trend towards streaming release continues. But to me it speaks to how intertwined we are with Hollywood, especially at times like this.
We’re seeing how the industry is both the gatekeeper and trendsetter of public safety, how it amplifies messages about the world around us and how we’re meant to interact with it, and how it influences our everyday lives—particularly when we are its captive audience. That’s true when it comes to serious issues about social responsibility and economic growth, and that’s true when it comes to the diversions we become needlessly passionate about.
I never thought I’d know who, exactly, Hilaria Baldwin is. But 10 months into a pandemic, her little escándalo is all I care about. As well as what the urge to halt Hollywood productions will mean moving forward. As well as how celebrities will handle messaging about the vaccine from their platforms. As well as how this time is being reflected back at us on TV shows and in film, specifically what the hell a season of The Real Housewives of New York City shot during a pandemic is going to look like.
I’ve heard it said that this pandemic has been somewhat of an equalizer; we’re all affected. That’s true to a degree, but certainly not equally. That’s what our interactions with Hollywood these last months have taught us. Stars, they’re just like us, just richer and more annoying.