All hail the fearless and funny Jennifer Coolidge – and the glorious art of not giving a damn

The Golden Globes is a demoralised brand, voted for and organised by people who, as Tina Fey once joked, operate out of “the back booth of a French McDonald’s”. Still, we have last week’s 80th awards show to thank for Jennifer Coolidge, winner of best supporting actress for her role in The White Lotus, rambling through a speech as hilarious as anything Mike White has ever written for her. Prior to the success of her role as Tanya McQuoid (“Mc-Kwaaaad”), Coolidge – breathless on stage – characterised her acting career as one that had been “fizzled out by life”. Her triumph at the age of 61 isn’t the kind Hollywood often supports. It was an uplifting, joyful spectacle.

It was also a moment of drama the unlikeliness of which underscored the various obstacles Coolidge had to clear to get there. After the awards, the most shared photo of Coolidge was one in which she struck a friendly pose with Jean Smart, who won best actress in a musical/comedy series at the Globes last year for her role in Hacks, and who, at 71, is enjoying an even more unlikely renaissance. It has been stated so often as to be tedious, but that any female actor north of 50 – let alone 60, or my god, 70 – can float back into public consciousness in a form other than the daffy Betty White model, is a rare enough phenomenon to supercharge the celebration.

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For those who watch a lot of British TV, Coolidge’s win felt particularly satisfying, perhaps, coinciding as it did with the return of Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley, a performance that encourages one to conclude that TV shows should be peopled exclusively by middle-aged women (in high-vis jackets). The vibe that animates Lancashire’s performance is one we saw displayed by Coolidge; that is, one redolent of someone who cares deeply and sincerely about her work and her peers, while – I don’t know how either of them pulls this off – assuming a position of being fully beyond giving a shite about any of it.

To this end, the actor broke a bunch of rules about what you do and don’t say in public at awards dos. Over the last few decades, Coolidge’s career has been made up of a patchwork of small roles that were rarely equal to her talent. She had a small part in two episodes of Glee; she had cameos in the comedy sketch show, Inside Amy Schumer; she made an appearance in three episodes of Nip/Tuck. Or, as she put it last Tuesday night, “there were like five people that kept me going for, like, 20 years with these little jobs” – an honest admission of something to which her peers in Hollywood avoid reference to with the fervour of medieval superstition: failure. As Brad Pitt gurned his slightly baffled appreciation from the front row, Coolidge talked, with brilliant, breathy incredulity, about never being invited to parties in her neighbourhood. One upshot of her recent success, she said, was that “my neighbours are speaking to me, things like that”.

The charm of this performance was rooted in what felt like Coolidge’s off-the-cuff stream of consciousness, which may, of course, be just another level of her acting skill. But it’s very weird to watch something as cynical and debased as the Golden Globes and find oneself genuinely moved. It wasn’t only Coolidge’s unanticipated rise, but her tribute to White, creator of The White Lotus and a man who, if Ryan Murphy espouses a certain kind of Hollywood nightmare personality, seems, even after his success, still to embody the homespun decency of Mr Schneebly (White’s role in School of Rock). “He is worried about the world,” said Coolidge, as White got all teary. “He’s worried about people; he’s worried about friends of his that aren’t doing well. He’s worried about animals, all of that.” These moments at awards shows are usually unbearably fake, but I believed her.

There was so much else to love. Coolidge’s reference to the giant hook pulling her off stage at the Emmys (“I thought it left when vaudeville ended”); her early dreams to “be queen of Monaco, even though someone else did it”. Above all, what one assumes was her unintentional rebuke to all the actors a third of her age and half her size squinting up at her with appreciation and puzzlement.

  • Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

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