In a striking and raw demonstration of the angst that has accumulated over Hollywood’s sexual harassment scandals, HBO host John Oliver sparred with Dustin Hoffman during an awkward 45-minute Q&A intended as a prologue to a 20th-anniversary screening of the film Wag the Dog.
Tonight’s event at the 92nd Street Y, a benefit for the Tribeca Film Institute, featured Hoffman, Robert De Niro, producer Jane Rosenthal and director Barry Levinson in an onstage discussion. About half of the talk surfaced somewhat familiar but nonetheless interesting material about the way the film’s sardonic, David Mamet-scripted take on public-image management and politics has gained new relevance during the Trump Era. In other words, typical Q&A material.
Then, about 20 minutes in, Oliver brought up the current climate around sexual harassment in show business, saying he was going to go “around the room” to gauge all panelists’ sentiments. (Later, when Hoffman would complain about having been ambushed, Oliver said it was “on the organizers” for not conveying his stated intention to bring up the ultra-hot-button topic.)
Levinson managed a thoughtful response about the current atmosphere, but it was quickly eclipsed by what followed. Seated next to him was Hoffman, who earlier this fall issued an apology following accusations that he inappropriately touched production assistant Anna Graham Hunter, then 17, during the making of a TV movie version of Death of a Salesman in 1985.
Warning it was “likely to be the tensest part of the evening,” Oliver started in with Hoffman. The tension would linger for 30 agonizing minutes as the two engaged in an anguished back and forth centering on the actor’s deeds and the response to his response to the allegations. “You’ve made one statement in print,” Oliver said. “Does that feel like enough to you?” Hoffman replied, “First of all, it didn’t happen, the way she reported.” He said his apology over the incident, offered, he said, at the insistence of his reps, was widely misconstrued “at the click of a button.” But the Last Week Tonight host seized on the portion of the actor’s public apology, in which Hoffman said the events that happened on set didn’t reflect who he is as a person.
“It’s that part of the response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said. “It is reflective of who you were. You’ve given no evidence to show that it didn’t happen. There was a period of time when you were creeping around women. It feels like a cop-out to say, ‘Well, this isn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”‘
Hoffman shot back, “You weren’t there.” Oliver responded, “I’m glad,” drawing gasps from the well-heeled audience, many of whom had paid hefty ticket prices. Heightening the spectacle was the fact it was occurring in the Y’s wood-paneled Kaufmann Concert Hall, an august Upper East Side venue that had last seen an uproar like this when John Ashbery dared to read a poem in free verse.
After a two-month exegesis of the industry (and other parts of society) confronting decades of sexual misconduct and abuse, what made this exchange unique was the fact that Hoffman came back energetically at Oliver to both defend his reputation and decry the current climate. Accused perpetrators by the dozens have been issuing statements — or, in extreme cases like Harvey Weinstein’s, engaging in legal maneuvers–but an A-list star revealed in this environment has not responded as vigorously as this.
“You’ve put me on display here,” Hoffman told Oliver, seething but never raising his voice or leaving his seat. “You have indicted me. … That’s not innocent until proven guilty.”
Hoffman tried to put it in historical context, saying sometimes the atmosphere on set decades ago involved sexually charged banter, which he said was not meant in an offensive way. ‘I don’t love that answer either,” Oliver said, cringing. “What response do you want?” Hoffman demanded. “It doesn’t feel self-reflective in the way it seems the incident demands,” Oliver explained, adding, “I get no pleasure from this conversation. But you and I are not the victims here.”
When Oliver quoted from an account Hoffman’s accuser wrote, the actor asked Oliver, incredulous, “Do you believe this stuff you’re reading?” Oliver said he did “because she would have no reason to lie.”
As this went on, the other panelists largely stayed mum. The audience seemed divided — some in the well-heeled crowd, who had forked over hundreds of dollars to spend the night re-living a Clintonian satire, took offense at Oliver staying on the issue. “Move on!” one person shouted. “He thinks it’s funny,” sputtered one man as he escorted his wife out of the theatre. Others applauded when Oliver expressed his view. “Thank you for believing women!” one woman called out. The spasms of conflict and accusation were followed by long stretched of silence, during which no one in the theatre knew quite what to do.
Rosenthal at one point decided to enter the conversation, “as the only women here on this panel.” She turned the focus to the larger struggle and issues like pay inequality and the need for more female representation on boards and executive suites. “We’ve got to start moving that conversation forward,” she said, drawing applause. Oliver would not let it go. “We’re about to watch a movie where sexual harassment is an under-plot and there’s an elephant in the room because this conversation is not being had,” he said, explaining his interest in pursuing the topic.
Rosenthal fired back, “It wasn’t produced by Weinstein Co. or Miramax, so you don’t have a really big conversation. Kevin Spacey wasn’t starring in it. Let’s look at real sexual criminal predators.”
After about 15 minutes, Hoffman appeared to have persuaded some in the crowd, but he voluntarily returned to the topic and re-engaged with Oliver. When Levinson and Oliver agreed that social media has distorted politics and culture, Hoffman interjected, “Well, it’s affected you in terms of your feelings about me.” While the audience applauded, the line opened up a gut-wrenching 15-minute sequence that closed the night.
“The so-called, alleged comments that are made are truth now,” Hoffman fumed. “And if you try to defend it, you’re guilty.” Oliver granted, “I see where you’re coming from,” but insisted, “it’s a little more complicated than that.” Several times, he expressed anxiety over ruining the audience’s night and the experience of watching the film again. And yet, “I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” Oliver conceded. “That leads to me at home later tonight hating myself, asking, ‘Why the f–k didn’t I say something? No one stands up to powerful men.'” Hoffman asked Levinson, incredulously, “Am I the powerful man?” Levinson said, “I wasn’t sure what the reference was, which powerful men.”
Hoffman then offered examples of the empathy he had always tried to show for characters and colleagues during his 50-year career. “Have you seen Tootsie?” he asked Oliver at one point. When Oliver insisted that he had and that he enjoyed Hoffman’s performance in it, Hoffman told a detailed story about staying in makeup and costume as Dorothy, the film’s title character, after shooting had ended one night and experiencing misogyny first-hand. “How could I have made that movie if I didn’t have incredible respect for women?” he asked. “It’s shocking to me that you don’t see me more clearly.”