Everyone likes a photo of Jamie Lee Curtis because everyone likes Jamie Lee Curtis, but the moment caught at the Golden Globes on Tuesday was something else.
Combining the razzle-dazzle of the red carpet with the raw emotionality of war photography, the shot captures the moment when Michelle Yeoh wins best actress (comedy/ musical) for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Yeoh is covering her face with her hands, which is the smart move in these situations: triumph has no acceptable expression. It’s not a lovable emotion to begin with, and it can tip so easily into something even less endearing: smugness, fakery, know-me-by-the-lamentations-of-my-inferiors. Way better to keep all the key features submerged under fingers.
Curtis, standing to the side, has never been more expressive in her 44-year film career. Both arms are punching the air like “early man wins world cup final”. Her mouth is open in what can only be called a roar, and the constellation of feelings, while only she can truly know them, looks something like: “I am overjoyed for my best friend”; “If this hadn’t happened, I could have cheerfully killed someone over it”; “Come on, try me”. It was a portrait of the purest kind of sisterhood – selfless, riotous, unconditional, terrifying to behold. Social media reacted swiftly and as one: this is the new bar for best-friendship. Only apply if you’re going to be that happy for me, across the full suite of scenarios.
Awards ceremonies are interesting, but not for the reasons they claim, all that “who won?” and “who wore what?” stuff. They distil into short form and photograph a large number of social expectations and preoccupations. These range from the acute – people arriving in mourning attire to the Baftas, to mark the #MeToo movement in 2018 – to the chronic – the discussions following Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock were basically a protracted shallow dive into whose stance was racist and whose anti-racist (just because these events act as ciphers for larger conversations doesn’t mean they do a good job of it).
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reaction shots: for men and women, it is considered important to lose gracefully, generously, but for women, it’s simultaneously considered impossible. What cameras really want is a catfight – failing that, one that will brew and explode later – or a long-range grudge that is visible in one split second.
If we could park the bizarrely tenacious cliches of the 1950s for 10 seconds, it would be obvious that the best reaction shots are those of heart-bursting joy. Carole King’s reaction when Aretha Franklin sang Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center Honors show; Meryl Streep yelling “yes!” for Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech, in which Arquette stepped off brief to make a case for wage equality (I chose to hear that as a Gini index point, end wage disparity for all, which would have been pretty radical; most people took it as “end the gender pay gap in Hollywood”, but that was fine too).
Curtis, of course, is part of hereditary Hollywood aristocracy, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, the ultimate “nepo baby”. When the conversation about nepotism blew up late last year, she said that it was designed to “diminish and denigrate”, asserting that she, and tons of other nepo babies, were “dedicated to our craft. Proud of our lineage. Strong in our belief in our right to exist.”
It was a little de trop, to be honest; nobody was suggesting the extermination of the nepo babies, or maybe they were and I just didn’t get far enough down the Reddit thread. But then you see her warrior-goddess face for real, and think: fair play, fighters who won’t roll over, who make the faces they’re not supposed to make, who love their co-stars to a completely unreasonable degree, and probably other bits of humanity who aren’t even actors, too: the world can never have too many of those.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
• This article was amended on 12 January 2023 to correct a misspelling of Meryl Streep’s surname.