Last Sunday at the Golden Globes, Tom Hiddleston won Best Actor in a TV Miniseries or Film for his performance in The Night Manager over favoured nominees Riz Ahmed, Bryan Cranston and Courtney B Vance. In an evening of memorable speeches from the likes of Meryl Streep and Donald Glover, where politics remained in the forefront of everyone’s mind, it was Hiddleston’s own speech that raised more eyebrows than intended.
What had been intended as an earnest, if convoluted tribute to the work of Médecins Sans Frontières in South Sudan, Hiddleston’s long speech ended with what many read as a humblebrag about his own work – an anecdote of meeting aid workers ended less with a commendation of their efforts and focused more on his own impact as an actor who lots of people watched on TV. At best, it was a badly delivered speech where nerves won out over practice; at worst, it was narcissism gone awry. In a room full of people drinking heartily and awarding themselves with gold statues, even Hiddleston seemed to have crossed a line, and the reaction shots of unimpressed looking attendees cemented the moment as a faux pas. Hiddleston quickly apologised for his “inelegantly expressed” slip-up, but when even NPR call you out on your mess, there’s something wider at play than one messy speech.
Hiddleston’s star hasn’t been on the wane, per se, but it’s certainly been a year of immense public relations strife I doubt he was entirely prepared for. Since appearing in Thor as fan favourite Loki, Hiddleston has been an actor with an incredibly dedicated fan-base, a strong level of name recognition and a roster of impressive projects under his belt. Like his contemporaries, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne, Hiddleston leveraged his particular brand of upper-class refinement and idealized Britishness into a variety of strong performances with an enviable selection of film-makers – Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Ben Wheatley, Jim Jarmusch, plus runs on the West End, an acclaimed performance as Henry V in The Hollow Crown and the lead in a showy biopic of Hank Williams.
Unlike his contemporaries, Hiddleston hasn’t managed to make as deep an impact in terms of industry acclaim. He’s never been Oscar nominated like Cumberbatch or Redmayne, his films don’t break bank at the box office, and he doesn’t have a wildly impressive selection of upcoming projects. This isn’t due to a lack of talent – his range isn’t as strong as Cumberbatch’s but he’s far more exciting and magnetic a presence than the inexplicably popular Redmayne – and there will always be opportunities for actors of his type in both Hollywood and the British film industry. The problem, it seems, is that Hiddleston is unsatisfied with the rut he’s in.
There are always ways for prominent celebrities to make themselves even more visible in the public eye, especially if they’re willing to pair up with another celebrity for some mutually beneficial demographic expansion. While no couple are ever going to outright admit their pairing originated in a PR plan, most eagle-eyed gossip hounds can spot the truly obvious ones. Nobody bought into Henry Cavill’s suddenly very public romance with Kaley Cuoco, so that operation was dropped after less than two weeks. If dealt with quickly, such matters won’t greatly impact the stars’ images.
And then there was Hiddleswift.
Everything about the suddenly serious love affair between Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift felt off. The moment the British tabloid The Sun had the photograph of the pair canoodling by the shore on the front page – the angle just right, the pose just so – reactions were more cynical than anything else. The speed with which everything moved added to the overwhelming belief from many, including Hiddleston and Swift’s fans, that the entire romance was nothing more than a show, particularly given how quickly it came together after Swift’s split from long-time partner Calvin Harris. Many speculated that the public nature of the romance was a ploy to distract from rumours that Swift cheated on Harris with Hiddleston, or from the ongoing feud with Kanye West over denigrating lyrics in one of his songs (which later turned out to have been approved by Swift, a claim she denied until Kim Kardashian provided receipts). There were also detailed paparazzi shots of Swift meeting Hiddleston’s family after a couple of weeks together.
And then there was the tank top.
Everything about the beach party incident felt wrong. Watching Hiddleston, a man who have previously talked about prizing his privacy above all else, was suddenly in a home-made “I Heart TS” tank-top, with matching fake tattoo, dancing in the ocean with Swift like a Nicholas Sparks book cover, and holding hands for every conveniently watching paparazzi to see. Two weeks into a relationship and it had reached borderline performance art territory (many fans even theorized that the entire act was promotion for Swift’s next album, or part of a music video being secretly filmed).
This act was nothing new for Swift. She’s old hat at this particular game, although in this instance the inner workings of the routine felt especially strained and obvious. Her carefully crafted image, one she has made a lot of money from, is built to withstand a slip-up or two when the public aren’t buying what she’s selling. Hiddleston, however, is newer to this game, and he came out of the brief Hiddleswift experiment looking a lot worse for wear than Swift. When both played defence after the break-up, the overwhelming narrative was that Swift didn’t want to be part of a power couple whereas he did. Many didn’t buy this due to Swift’s history (and more than a little misogyny), but now, post-Golden Globes, it’s an image of poor Tom more are willing to believe.
The thing about bad PR is that, when it doesn’t take, it opens the floodgates for people to start dissecting all the previously good stuff you’d done. Part of this is just human nature – we’re sad fickle little things that can turn on a dime when the occasion calls for it – but when it came to Hiddleston, it placed all his publicity antics under a harsher light. All his chat show moments – dancing, impressions, dress-up, the well-engineered ability to go viral – suddenly felt less charming and more desperate. Discussions of wanting to keep his private life out of the public eye felt painfully hollow. An ill-expressed display of earnestness upon winning award turned into a meme on celebrity vanity. His short-term profile was raised dramatically during those long three months, but to what end? Intent comes into question at every turn. Authenticity is no longer an assumed guaranteed.
All of this is very over-dramatic and totally ridiculous, of course. You probably think this is reading way too much into something utterly frivolous, which is somewhat true. Every celebrity to some degree plays the game, even those who openly call it out as bullshit (see Kristen Stewart), because it’s part of the job description. However, as someone who finds the Hollywood machine and its wide-reaching nature fascinating, Hiddleston’s slip-ups have been a major, and increasingly rare, opportunity to see the game of fame being played so obviously, and failing so much.
I still question whether this will all have any real long-term impact on his career. He’s got Kong: Skull Island coming out this year, which isn’t a guaranteed hit but early reaction to the trailers have been encouraging (although he is less prominent in the publicity for that film than other featured actors such as John C Reilly and Samuel L Jackson); Thor: Ragnarok will give him another chance to remind his fans of their love of Loki; and he’s got a voiceover role in the next Aardman film (playing second fiddle to, yes, Eddie Redmayne). But that’s not a lot to go on for the next year and beyond, especially when compared to the juicy roles Redmayne and Cumberbatch have lined up in their futures. He probably killed his chances of ever being James Bond, but there will always be period dramas in need of a sharp English accent like his. Hollywood is hardly short of a second chance or two for straight white dudes. So don’t cry for Tom Hiddleston: Just hope he gets a better publicist and says no to tank-tops.