By Froma Harrop
“When it comes to torture,” Amy Poehler said Sunday night as she opened the Golden Globes award ceremony, “I trust a lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.” Yuk, yuk, YUCK.
That same evening on PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) admonished granddaughter Lady Sybil, “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.” Now that was clever.
I love Amy Poehler — who could not? — but her remark was yucky on several counts. It was a cheap shot at director Cameron in an inappropriate forum. But far lower on the taste scale, it made light of the waterboarding scene in a movie directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow. “Zero Dark Thirty” portrays the “enhanced interrogation techniques” practiced on al-Qaida prisoners as effective in helping find Osama bin Laden — a controversial view countered by foes of torture, among others.
Less serious but unpleasant nonetheless, Poehler’s line oozed with the phony suggestion of intimacy between the stars and fans. Common to this and other self-celebrations of show business, the familiarity con also specializes in close-ups of stars’ faces after some joke. When we see Dustin Hoffman laughing, we’re supposed to be happy because he is.
The old Hollywood award show was a place to “see” the stars. The dirt stayed in gossip columns. Their actors’ agents may have slipped an occasional snippet to the columnists, but the dish was not supposed to be traced to the tinseltown aristocrats themselves. Most tried to exude an air of dignified glamor and elegance. Glamour minus elegance is mere glitz.
“Downton Abbey’s” enormous global success — aside from the eyefuls of Edwardian English luxury in costume and decor — is the characters’ obsession with manners and maintaining a public facade of rectitude. That required not sharing embarrassing or otherwise problematic details with outsiders.
It doesn’t matter whether the situation involves Lady Mary’s reckless tryst with a Turkish diplomat or head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’ possible diagnosis of breast cancer — the characters try keeping it to themselves and select confidants. Much of the suspense revolves around whether they succeed.
(As an aside, this third season does try the patience on believability. The first was controlled in the number and nature of personal conflicts. The second got fast and loose with credulity, especially after the paralyzed Matthew suddenly rose from bed as a fully functional marital partner for Lady Mary.)
This third season buries us with complications, a good third of them improbable. Is it plausible that the Earl of Grantham lost the family fortune by putting all the money into one stock? Must we buy into Matthew’s high-minded but ridiculous reason for not wanting to apply his prospective newfound fortune to helping the family keep Downton? How likely was it for Lady Sybil to show up at Downton with the chauffer she had eloped with last season — an Irishman bearing Republican sympathies? One or two of those unlikelihoods would have sufficed.)
Anyhow, we may cringe as Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), the Countess of Grantham’s American mother, rubs her English in-laws’ noses in the reality of their sad finances and scoffs at their proprieties. But we applaud her targets’ ability to speak back without crossing the boundary into downright rudeness.
The Dowager Countess’ reproof of Lady Sybill’s vulgar comment — a slightly off-color reference to sex between a sister and her elderly husband-to-be — cuts deeper than a charge of indiscretion. She’s saying it’s not funny.
Keeper of the old-school formalities, the Countess speaks with pointed indirection to hilarious effect. She is a favorite with Downton audiences. We don’t expect clever repartee to invade Hollywood award shows any time soon. But jokes about torture are not amusing. Can’t they bring it up a notch?
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is email@example.com