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Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: I know you want to talk about the legacies of those exposed in these sexual assault and harassment scandals, but I just want to start with a juicy rumor that is fast gaining steam in town today, that Disney is progressing speedily toward that rumored acquisition of Fox. The version I heard has the Murdoch clan keeping possession of sports and news properties, and the rest of TV and the film studio going to Disney. Radio silence right now from both studios, and given how Disney made the Marvel and Lucasfilm deals under the cone of silence, if this happens we’ll probably only know it when it’s announced. It is certainly being talked about today. Not surprisingly, the reaction around town is not enthusiasm, because of the uncertainty that comes with potentially reducing a major studio to content generators under the Disney silo system. But that’s too depressing to contemplate so you go ahead and cheer us up by swinging the discussion back to the sex scandals.
BART: It just adds to the gyrations this business is going through right now. To start my other point: In Les Miserables, the famously merciless Inspector Javert complained, “It is a pity the law doesn’t allow me to be merciful.” He added, “The law is inside out, the world is upside down.”
His remarks seem relevant today as the sexual harassment scandals move from the accusation phase into the penalty phase. Pixar’s John Lasseter acknowledges he’s hugged too many people and has gone away for six months, Louis C.K. concedes he’s been irresponsible and Charlie Rose has gained a “profound respect for women and their lives.” Ben Affleck reminds us “I’m no superhero,” Brett Ratner wants to sue, Uma Thurman promises she forgets nothing, and Harvey Weinstein says the whole world is full of Javerts.
FLEMING: I am sure you don’t mean to, but you cannot lump all these guys together. How does Affleck warrant mention alongside Louis C.K., who masturbated in front of his female writers, or Ratner, Rose or Weinstein, who’ve been accused of perverse acts perpetrated in front of women who had to endure it or risk seeing their careers end? Lasseter and Disney seemed to have a well choreographed leave of absence speech ready, knowing journalists were chasing rumors for weeks. Things could get dicier for Disney if the image of Lasseter as some tipsy touchy uncle grows into something darker if more allegations are made. The stakes are enormous; Lasseter might well be the most formidable name in animation since Walt Disney himself.
BART: Amid all the fire and rhetoric, many organizations (like the Academy), not to mention many companies (like Disney), are trying to figure out where to go from here. Should Hollywood exercise Javert-like rigidity? Or should it pause to reflect on the question posed by Sarah Silverman: “Can you love someone who did bad things?”
Which brings us to the issue of the work. Should Rosemary’s Baby be banished because of Roman Polanski’s actions 40 years ago? Is it still OK to watch House of Cards or to old Charlie Rose interviews? For that matter, is it OK to hire Charlie Rose?
FLEMING: It seems like penalties must be doled out on a case by case basis because what started as a clear line – sexual assault or casting couch hands-on harassment – has blurred. Weinstein’s transgressions were an appalling start. But one of the most recent headline was Melissa Gilbert revealing she was harassed by Oliver Stone in her audition on The Doors. Is that sexual harassment? Stone didn’t think so and his explanation seemed plausible, especially when he noted that his female casting director was present for all auditions. Best known for her role as the wholesome Half Pint on Little House on the Prairie, Gilbert’s challenge in that audition was to prove she could be accepted in a sexually provocative role. She would hardly be the only actor who left an audition feeling turned inside out by Stone. A star QB in high school, Jamie Foxx seemingly had all the tools for Any Given Sunday, but he has described how Stone rejected him, taunted him for delivering lines like a television actor, and played other mind games before finally giving Foxx one of the most important roles of his career. Now, there have been other allegations against Stone in this #me too moment. Doesn’t Gilbert’s unpleasant reminiscence belong less in the harassment category than as one of many actor war stories about what Stone did to manipulate, bully and provoke the performances the director wanted?
Now, Peter, when you bring up Polanski and Rosemary’s Baby, it sets my teeth on edge. Where was Polanski’s concern for his artistic legacy when he drugged and anally raped a 13-year old in a hot tub? Even though his victim forgave Polanski, there’s no statute of limitations on how long people can carry bad feelings and use it to filter movies and performances. I see it in the Hanoi Jane references that choke the comments section here each time we write about Jane Fonda. I do bring that baggage to Polanski’s work, which is my choice.
BART: In speaking with media artisans, I find these views emerging: If you rule out confessed rapists and chronic abusers (the Harvey syndrome), the imposition of lifetime bans on artists and executives whose offenses date back many years seems like a throwback to Les Miserables. Clearly some of the behaviors of a generation ago are unacceptable today. And it is up to all of us in the marketplace to call out such offenses – that applies to top management as well as top stars and their representatives.
But must “a new civility” be accompanied by a Stalinist-like blotting out of art – or careers? Must art be condemned because some of the artists once behaved reprehensibly? I understand the rush to erase Harvey Weinstein’s credits from current projects, but that doesn’t mean that projects that he fostered must forever live in a shadow.
FLEMING: Everyone in Hollywood is grappling with this. Over the holiday weekend my family watched for the umpteenth time the extended version of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After this escape into Middle Earth, it was jarring to get to the credits and see Harvey Weinstein’s name among the roster of executive producers alongside his brother, Bob Shaye, Michael Lynne and Mark Ordesky. The Weinsteins got credits and 5% of first dollar gross in the turnaround deal, but had nothing to do with the production of a trilogy that grossed nearly $3 billion globally. The other exec producers? Shaye and Lynne made the gutsiest bet in Hollywood history, agreeing to fund three LOTR films back to back; Ordesky spent six straight years in New Zealand, helping those groundbreaking films get made. There’s nothing to be done but wince and move on. My, do those movies hold up.
All signs of Weinstein were stricken from Wind River,Paddington 2, the Quentin Tarantino film that just sold to Sony Pictures, and the rest of the TWC movie and TV projects that will be sold shortly. But his past credits, his Oscars, his contribution in turning indie film into a business can’t be erased. History won’t be kind to him, though. Before these horrendous rape allegations and the cover-ups and payoffs became public, Weinstein didn’t suffer from his identity as a bruising deal maker who didn’t pay his bills on time, berated his staff, and got into lawsuits even on films that were triumphs with people like Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore.
When Daniel Day-Lewis promotes Phantom Thread imminently, the actor might be more bracing in his assessment of Weinstein as he replays their famous battles on My Left Foot, when the Miramax chief issued marketing materials driven by images of the handsome actor, instead of Day-Lewis in character as cerebral palsy-stricken Christy Brown. When he told me about that, Day-Lewis noted that Weinstein’s tireless campaigning probably rescued the film from obscurity, with five Oscar noms and two wins, including his Best Actor trophy. I wonder if he will be that charitable when he tells the story this time around. People will just have to set their own filters and decide for themselves if they want to dismiss or discount the work of now disgraced directors, actors and executives. Weinstein would have been remembered as a Hall Of Fame caliber producer/mogul; his epitaph now will be serial sexual predator. That’s whether he winds up behind bars or not, or whether civil lawsuits against him wipe out a lot of those LOTR gross proceeds.
BART: There’s this question, too: will we be judging film and TV work in a different light because of the scandals? The TV and film critics of the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece acknowledging that they would view old Mad Men episodes differently now that Matt Weiner is accused of bad behavior. The scenes of men chasing women around the office on those shows aren’t funny any more. That excellent film, American Beauty, will be seen in a different light in view of Kevin Spacey’s issues — Spacey plays a suburban father wrongly suspected of seducing a teenage girl. I don’t like rewriting art or rewriting history, but that’s what may be going on.
FLEMING: I vividly recall that the makers of American Beauty discussed a version where Spacey’s character seduced his daughter’s underage female friend, and that Spacey was adamant he would not do that version of the movie. Those LAT critics you mention are simply bowing to human nature. Though it won him the Best Actor Oscar, Spacey’s character can only feel creepier now, given the allegations against him. No one will have to ponder these thoughts on All The Money In The World, because Ridley Scott is right now re-shooting Spacey out of that film.
My question for you: Is there room for forgiveness in the court of public opinion? I’ve noticed that some journalists have used this discussion to throw fresh mud at Mel Gibson; I think we need not follow The Crucible crowd by trying to end imperfect people. Artists are a quirky bunch to begin with, and Hollywood has never been a bastion of morality. People deserve second chances. The fact is, Gibson’s polarizing drunken outbursts cost him a whole decade of his directing career, and doomed his staggeringly good film Apocalypto. I know he did a lot of work behind the scenes on himself and atoning to groups he alienated; this was detailed in Allison Hope Weiner’s 2014 Deadline column asking that Gibson be invited back into Hollywood’s good graces. He made the most of that chance with the Best Picture-nominated Hacksaw Ridge. If people want to hold the past against him they are entitled and he would be the first one to acknowledge that, just as Woody Allen knows he’ll always have to answer tough questions each time he releases a movie. Will Louis C.K. be able to reclaim his career that got tossed aside for a pathetic predilection that must have been horrific for women to observe? Probably; he’s too talented. It might take a long time, though. Prefacing his mea culpa by saying that he thought it was OK to masturbate because he asked the female writers in the room for permission won’t shorten his stretch in the penalty box. That didn’t sound very remorseful. The behavior he exhibited isn’t appropriate in the primate house at the zoo, let alone a writers room. The rote apology of Louis C.K. and numerous others, revealing after they’re busted that they have suddenly had an epiphany and realized they need to work on themselves, is laughable. Who raised these people, that they didn’t know what they were doing was vile and inappropriate?
BART: As I said, the “penalty” phase will be difficult to define. We don’t need Javert to help.
FLEMING: But there is opportunity for real cultural change here. If zero tolerance for abusers is what comes from this sordid mess, this could be an historic moment. Right now, the pain continues and I am lamenting all those who will be out of jobs because CBS is ending the Jeremy Piven series in the wake of repeated allegations against the actor. But hey, Peter, only a few weeks until the holiday break!