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: Whether it’s Hollywood industry news or sexual harassment allegations, the speed at which trade journalism takes place right now can be dizzying. So I’d like to add to the story Deadline broke last week, when Leonardo DiCaprio told Quentin Tarantino he would make his next film the first picture DiCaprio will star in since his Oscar-winning turn in The Revenant. I initially called him an aging actor, when I raced to break the story. What he plays, more specifically, is an actor who had his own Western show, Bounty Law, that ran on the air from 1958 to 1963. His attempt to transition to movies didn’t work out and in 1969 — the film is set at the height of hippy Hollywood movement– he’s guesting on other people’s shows while contemplating going to Italy which has become a hotbed for low-budget Westerns. The movie, a Pulp Fiction-esque tapestry of Los Angeles during the summer of the Manson murders, will now get busy with casting (Margot Robbie was asked to play Sharon Tate, as I’ve reported, but there isn’t a deal yet). I’d keep an eye on Tom Cruise, who might well surface as the other big male superstar in Tarantino’s film.
Back to sexual harassment, another subject that gets reported in a heated rush. Any hope that the outing of alleged sexual predators might ebb after the holiday break was fleeting. If anything, things have gotten more pitched, and bizarre, as journalists struggle to be fair while basically reporting tweets and Facebook post accusations, with facts often twisted to fit the #MeToo narrative. The dust-up over Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams and re-shoots of All The Money in the World is a good example. The idea that Wahlberg got $1.5 million to return for reshoots while Williams got $1000 might seem like Exhibit A as a gender disparity flashpoint, and the resulting white-hot anger prompted Wahlberg – and WME – to donate that fee and an additional $1.5 million to the #MeToo legal fund.
I think it was an exercise in leverage and that gender had nothing to do with it. Bear with me a moment while I explain. When he signed for that movie Wahlberg, who got $15 million to star in Patriots Day, wanted $5 million but took $3.5 million, because he wanted to work with Ridley Scott. When Wahlberg realized later that his director got around $7 million — and a producer fee — he was stuck. Until the Kevin Spacey implosion. By then, Wahlberg had seen a cut of the movie enough to know that while the picture got financed through his overseas value (the reason he gets those big paychecks), the fixer character Wahlberg plays basically supports the showier turns of Williams and Spacey. His agents got things like cast approval and no reshoot requirement when Wahlberg took the reduced salary. When Plummer was tapped to replace Spacey, his agents turned that leverage into cash. If Wahlberg didn’t do reshoots, the movie was dead because he had so many scenes with Spacey that had to be redone with Plummer. Wahlberg was in position, legally, to block Plummer’s casting and threatened to, until he was paid the money he didn’t get the first time around. Williams, meanwhile, was separately asked to come back for reshoots on another big holiday release, The Greatest Showman, and she didn’t. Nor did she publicize that movie, I’ve heard.
Does that make Williams, Wahlberg or Scott (who told reporters everyone came back for free) bad people? No. Williams got robbed of an Oscar last year for her heartbreaking Manchester By the Sea turn when Viola Davis entered the category despite a performance that clearly belonged in the Best Actress category. Williams and her reps saw a potential nomination in All the Money in the World and not in The Greatest Showman, and she did everything she could to keep the Getty kidnap drama from being flushed down the crapper when the Spacey scandal doomed that iteration of the film. Sacrificing her Thanksgiving holiday for that paltry per diem (she also made considerably less than Wahlberg to star in the movie) was a good move; she’s terrific as the kidnapped teen’s mother, Gail Harris, and the gender dust-up that occurred during nomination week brought even more attention to her performance at a critical moment. This is how business works in Hollywood, every day. The reshoot disparity had little to do with gender inequality. It was leverage and gamesmanship between agents and executives.
BART: I agree with your thesis, but the cold reality is that, as you point out, nothing is going away — it’s all intensifying.
FLEMING: The outing of bad boys continues apace, but ascertaining truth in the latest cases is elusive. We spent last weekend scrambling to try to verify the allegations after actress Eliza Dushku’s social media post accused stunt coordinator Joel Kramer of molesting her during the True Lies shoot when she was 12. Then, an unnamed photographer detailed a date gone awry with Aziz Ansari on Babe.com, an experience that left her feeling violated. It occurred to me that while those reporters at the New York Times and the New Yorker courageously battled threats, lawyers and ex-Mossad agents to publish their earth-shaking Harvey Weinstein revelations, at least they had months to research and sift through facts to craft their superb stories. Trying in a span of minutes to decide whether to publish an explicit report of a date gone wrong with a sort of famous comic leaves all kinds of alarm bells ringing in your head. This is stuff we wouldn’t have covered two years ago, unless the law got involved. Everything is fair game now, even when you don’t have time or the means to decipher who’s telling the truth the way you did when the criminal and civil justice system helped determine what was newsworthy.
BART: Missives from the #MeToo movement usually end by urging that “the conversation” must continue. That’s fine, except for the fact that it’s not really a conversation at all – it’s been a series of perorations and confrontations. A conversation entails two sides, but the “other side” is taking refuge in the “sounds of silence,” reflecting either a respectful desire to listen and learn or, rather, an attitude of sheer terror. The few expressions of concern or dissent have culminated in a Matt Damon-like apology – “I’ll close my mouth for a while,” he said, in apologizing for having said essentially nothing (an inane comment that butt-patting isn’t rape).
FLEMING: In the cold light of day, most would agree with what Damon said, that the behavior ascribed to Ansari is very different from the litany of accusations made toward Weinstein, or Matt Lauer, Louis CK or Russell Simmons. There are no allegations against Damon, who seems the prototype guy you’d want your daughter to marry. But simply rendering an opinion has begun to take a toll on his career. I can tell you that numerous men, responding to the outcry over gender pay disparity, are quick to point out the women who are in positions of power and influence to determine who gets paid what, at numerous studios. They also said they would never bring this up publicly for fear of being walloped on social media and possibly run out of town. So much for conversation.
BART: A similar non-conversation applies to the Empowerment issue. Forceful voices can join Oprah in demanding that women gain higher positions in the power pyramid. The male sector of that pyramid, however, is turning its side of the “conversation” over to the so-called crisis managers – functionaries whose only talent is ambiguity. Wahlberg, who’s no dummy, wrote out his check for $1.5 million to the “movement” and let that speak for him.
The apology movement has even spread to France, where apologies have never been part of the culture. A letter in Le Monde, signed by one hundred women, attacked a potential invasion of “American puritanism.” The letter urges women “not to feel forever traumatized by clumsy flirting” or other “minor forms of sexual aggression.” But, whoops, Catherine Deneuve, who’d signed the letter, followed up with a semi apology in response to a denunciation from the #MeToo movement. “Nothing in the text claims that harassment is good,” Ms. Deneuve now declares. Confronted by this confusion, the New York Times followed up with an op-ed piece by Agnes Poirier, a French journalist, advising us that the anti-Denueve anger has been fueled by “a new French feminism imported from the U.S. which reflects an anti-men paranoia.” OK, now I understand – or do I?
FLEMING: A story I wrote last week with Michael Douglas left me thinking that blunt transparency by accused men might well be their best weapon in this trial by media moment we’re in. Rather than wait to be another scalp on the wall, or to have his 50-year legacy judged by a journalist’s detailing of a 32-year-old accusation he said was false, Douglas asked me to allow him to address in advance of the headline he believed was coming. I told him that if it prompted a litany of others to surface with similar allegations, we’d cover them. He said he was prepared for that but believed it would not happen. “I am not that guy,” he said. The response to the Douglas was overwhelmingly positive toward him. And the story he tried to get in front of hasn’t yet been published.
It made me recall how remorseful David Letterman seemed when he confessed to sleeping with interns on his show, even though that confession was prompted by an arrest of someone Letterman said was trying to blackmail him. Unless an accused man has other indiscretions to regret, the strategy of being as transparent seems a good way to go.
James Franco did everything wrong when his Golden Globe win for Best Actor for The Disaster Artist prompted social media accusations charging him with abuses involving an acting school he ran. He hemmed, hawed and deflected on talk shows, in that crucial week when Oscar nomination ballots were being filled out. Winning the Globe was the worst thing that could have happened to Franco and his Oscar chances, even though his turn as Tommy Wiseau is a high point in his career. He didn’t help himself by claiming he would take a hit to support the #MeToo movement. Truth is, they don’t want support from someone tainted by allegations a man won’t defend. The same dilemma faces Casey Affleck, last year’s Oscar winner who’ll likely have to drop out of presenting the Best Actress Oscar or risk a boycott from nominees, unless the Oscarcast producers use the 90th anniversary as an excuse to trot out past iconic Best Actress winners to bestow the prize. Whether there is a non-disclosure agreement or not, Affleck would be best served laying all the cards on the table and describing just what happened during that documentary he directed, I’m Still Here. An underrated actor his whole career, Affleck put together a career performance in Manchester By the Sea worthy of the Oscar, but this cloud can stay with a man for years and years. Look at what has happened to Woody Allen, who was investigated and not charged. Full disclosure at least allows some control over your own narrative, instead of having to answer allegations after the fact.
BART: From my journalistic point of view, I believe that the continuing non-conversation will turn out to be a nightmare to cover with objectivity, reminiscent of the Blacklist era. At that moment, supposed “sources” fed stories to the media about stars who were “really” Communist spies, and their defenders were afraid to speak out. When Ronald Reagan was President of the Screen Actors Guild, he told me he detested red-baiting, admitting he was fearful of speaking out (I was then covering his political rise for the New York Times). Reagan, of course, later joined the chorus of professional anti-Communists. Years earlier, Reagan remembered, similar rumor mongering had destroyed the careers of several major movie stars who were rumored to be gay (Confidential Magazine paid sources for these gay exposés). Again, fear silenced other voices.
FLEMING: That is certainly a danger, but here, it’s hard not to acknowledge that the fallen, so far, have deserved their fates. And after watching Deadline’s David Robb follow his initial story on Dushku by digging in and unearthing several other accusers with the help of other Deadline reporters who worked all weekend, I think there continues to be fine journalism being done at publications all over town. Best of all, the movement makes it impossible for a man to do something like Dushku described, and imagine he has a good chance to get away with it. After all this, you hope the next underage actress who feels preyed upon will tell someone immediately. There will be mechanisms in place to help. If this reverberates from Hollywood into other industries – seeing The Wolf of Wall Street recently made me wonder what kind of misbehavior goes on in the financial industry at the expense of women — imagine the number of women who will be spared pain and humiliation. That would be truly meaningful cultural change.
BART: Given all this, the media is reduced to covering the sad melodrama surrounding Aziz Ansari’s bad dating choices. Were the stories about his encounters with “Grace” exercises in “revenge porn?” Or were they valuable examinations of what one writer called “our broken sexual culture.” Is our sexual culture really “broken”? Or is it just the non-conversation about it that’s broken?
FLEMING: After reading the dispatch by “Grace,” it seemed clear that Ansari didn’t respect her, and was looking for something specific, that perhaps famous men thought was a perk they deserved. She mentions “verbal and non-verbal signals” she felt were not heeded, but it wasn’t clear if she definitively told him no and he continued. This ambiguity and tawdry play-by-play seems like what you’d watch on an episode of The Bachelor. Trying to decipher blame, guilt and innocence on this basis creates the slipperiest of slopes for journalists.
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