Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
PETER BART: The major corporate players this year seem more jittery than ever about defying the rules of the marketplace, real or imagined – witness Apple’s abrupt decision to pull its first movie, The Banker. The early results of awards season, however, remind us that filmmakers seem as defiant as ever in setting their own rules. Some fine movies about black protagonists were made this year by artists who are not black, including at least five contenders (Waves and Just Mercy among them) Strong films about women were directed by men (Bombshell). And at a moment when the attack dogs like to take aim at “fact-based” movies, films of this genre seem to be taking even greater liberties with “the truth.”
FLEMING: The fascinating story here is the contrast in how two distributors, one experienced and the other brand new, handled a #MeToo controversy. Warner Bros stood behind its cornerstone filmmaker Clint Eastwood and Richard Jewell, telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution and its lawyer Marty Singer to pound sand when they threatened to sue for a depiction of ruthlessness by the paper in outing Jewell as a person of interest in the FBI investigation, and for the scene showing its deceased crime reporter Kathy Scruggs putting her hand on the knee of an FBI agent in a bar, and moving it up seductively, as the Fed whispered Jewell’s name. They then left the bar for what clearly seemed like a bedroom romp. Apple did exactly the opposite of Warner Bros when faced with controversy over The Banker. In its first outing as theatrical film distributor, Apple yanked The Banker hours before its AFI Fest premiere, and pulled it off the release calendar where it was to play before going on Apple TV+. The move was made not for anything objectionable shown onscreen, but because the daughter of that film’s protagonist claimed that her half-brother molested her and her sister when they were kids. Also, she complained that her mother was left out of the film.
Apple clearly was being cautious to protect its global consumer brand from a possible #MeToo backlash, and indicated it would investigate the claim by Cynthia Garrett against her half-brother Bernard Garrett Jr. Latter had co-producer status for selling certain rights to the film’s producers, including eight hours of audiotapes of his father telling his own remarkable story, in how he defied an institutionalized banking system that excluded blacks from its elite club. Garrett Jr, who has denied his half-sister’s allegations, removed his name from the credits when the controversy occurred. The problem: it is next to impossible to investigate such a heinous charge from so long ago, and Apple doesn’t seem to have done much sleuthing or even communicated much with the filmmakers about what it plans to do with The Banker, which Apple acquired as a finished film earlier this year. It has left the filmmakers in the dark and robbed momentum from a film that tells a worthy and timely story about two black millionaire businessmen from Los Angeles who used a white front man to purchase Texas banks (the sellers knew their true identities). Aside from a desire to make money, Garrett Sr and his partner Joe Morris were motivated by a desire to allow blacks to get mortgages and loans for businesses, a wealth-building process unavailable to them in the Jim Crow South.
Controversy over the depiction of a quid pro quo sex-for-scoop on Richard Jewell overwhelmed what was meant to be the story of a hero. It didn’t help box office, as the film was the lowest opener of an Eastwood movie in decades, despite its A Cinemascore. The controversy effectively swung the narrative away from the formula Eastwood used in American Sniper, The 15:17 to Paris and Sully — “common American man rises to hero and weathers the repercussions.” Instead, the reaction to the film has become surreal. President Donald Trump has likened himself to Jewell, a good man dragged through the mud. Feminists and female journalists understandably have teed off on the picture, saying the depiction of a woman reporter willing to trade sex for a big story is a terribly unfair trope faced by women at a time when the hardships they’ve endured in areas of advancement and sexual harassment are finally front and center because of the scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves and Roger Ailes, latter of whom is vilified in Bombshell opening Friday.
Some have linked the Richard Jewell seduction scene to Eastwood’s conservative politics, inferring he took a backhand swipe at media and the FBI. I don’t agree. I think he made the movie to shine a light on Jewell and the unfair way that his life was turned upside down by that first newspaper article. The article was technically true; the FBI was eyeing Jewell based on some contrived “lone bomber” theory that seemed more hunch than anything. But it turned out to be a completely false lead, and someone else confessed to the crime. It was only possible to depict Scruggs as a woman of loose morals because she died and isn’t around to sue, but just because it was legally possible to put that scene in a movie doesn’t make it right. It robbed the movie of a chance to be a discussion piece, and offer Jewell’s fate as a cautionary tale as the pace of news coverage is quicker in the digital age. My colleague Anthony D’Alessandro tried hard but couldn’t find a smoking gun that validated the seduction scene; the closest we came was testimony from Scruggs in a libel suit waged by Jewell against the AJC where she acknowledged she once dated an Atlanta cop. The scene added little to the overall story, other than to underscore the ruthlessness of journalists; the higher implications completely undermined the film and therefore was a terrible mistake to include.
One has to be not tone deaf in this moment. My football team, the New York Giants, cut their best defensive back because he used the word “r*tard” in a derogatory way on social media (the playoff-bound Saints had no such qualms and claimed him off waivers). And though Survivor just issued guidelines about sexual harassment after it tossed Hollywood manager Dan Spilo off last week’s show because of an off-camera incident (Spilo was shown in earlier episodes getting handsy in a Joe Biden way with several contestants in camp), Survivor is the same show that a decade ago saw its first winner Richard Hatch return for an all-star edition and insist on competing nude in an obstacle course event. He rubbed his junk up against a female contestant to gain an advantage, and host and exec producer Jeff Probst didn’t do a damn thing about it. That would never happen today; he would have stopped the event and disqualified that boorish contestant. Hollywood filmmakers also need to incorporate these sensitivities into their work, or risk their own Richard Jewell fiascos.
BART: So have other fact-based movies been faithful to their narratives? The Two Popes is a strong movie, but the real Francis and Benedict XVI barely knew each other. Further, the Hitler of Jojo Rabbit is a benign goofball and the scams perpetrated by the dancers in Hustlers have been elegantly re-invented. For that matter, the true victims in the Manson murders (Sharon Tate, among them) managed to escape harm in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but then Quentin Tarantino has always enjoyed rewriting history.
FLEMING: But c’mon, Peter. The conversations between Popes were invented by Anthony McCarten for his play and the Netflix film, and Jojo Rabbit is satire with Hitler meant to be taken as seriously as the Hitler who ended up gunned down in a movie theater in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino makes palatable endings out of appalling historical events, as he did this year with the loathsome Manson family. I thought you were going to bring up The Irishman, which introduces the umpteenth theory of how Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa was killed. Questions about the veracity of that story could become an issue as Oscar nominations arrive and the mud flies like it did last year with Best Picture winner Green Book.
BART: The expanding number of fact-based movies imposes challenges on both filmmakers and distributors, who have an obligation to stand behind their artists. Early in my career at Paramount, the studio pulled the rug out from under an excellent film that I fostered titled Medium Cool. Directed by Haskell Wexler, the movie presented a love story set against the background of the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention. A top executive of Paramount’s parent company – and a top Democratic fundraiser –decided that the movie made his party look clumsy and inept and he sabotaged its marketing budget. It flopped. I fumed. Apple’s position on The Banker is obviously quite different, but the result is the same. Apple hasn’t renounced the film, but it won’t release it. The filmmakers deserve better.
FLEMING: I have had numerous email exchanges with Cynthia Garrett and I interviewed at length The Banker‘s director, George Nolfi. He described exactly what went into the story he told on the screen, breaking down 80 main plot points and showing the source information that verified each. He acknowledged that the one scene where he took dramatic license — a final moment where Garrett Sr emerges from prison after serving a stretch for bank fraud — and falls into the arms of wife Eunice. Cynthia Garrett correctly says that by then, her father was married to her mother, Linda Garrett. That kind of dramatic license is done all the time and Linda wasn’t integral to the narrative, and few viewers of the film would even notice. Nolfi would not comment at all on the sexual assault allegations, but he said that contrary to Cynthia Garrett’s assertions, Garrett Jr had nothing to do with the architecture of the period film Nolfi co-wrote and directed.
This is a terrible situation for Cynthia Garrett. Over the years, she has spoken about the trauma of being assaulted by a relative, though she wouldn’t go beyond that in identifying him and there is no evidence the filmmakers behind The Banker had any idea. I saw The Banker and it presents as laudable a portrayal of her financial genius father as Cynthia Garrett could hope for, save for the excising of her mother because it would have been cumbersome to introduce and explain a new character in the final scene. Like Jewell, Garrett Sr is depicted as an American who paid a high price for doing something he believed in, something to help others. Nobody is likely to make another movie about Bernard Garrett, and he is played memorably in an awards-caliber performance by Anthony Mackie. But given the sexual assault allegations Cynthia Garrett has raised, how could the movie bring her and her sister anything but horrible memories and resentment their half-brother cashed a check and they were excluded? It’s tragic.
It’s somewhat similar to the difficult situation faced by Sony and Tarantino when Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon complained about the depiction of her iconic father in a fictional scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. She reportedly brought her complaints to the Chinese government and the insinuation was that Tarantino needed to change the scene if the film was going to be allowed into China. Tarantino flatly declined and Sony backed him. This is how a distributor ought to behave. If you believed in a film enough to invest millions in it, you need to weather the adversity and stand by it, especially if the controversy had nothing to do with the story told onscreen. Apple should not have pulled the film; rather than put itself on the map as an exciting new film distributor, Apple opened Pandora’s Box for other movie distributors. Now, where do you draw the line? Will film companies be compelled to pull back films if, say, someone who worked on them is accused of criminal behavior? It is such a slippery slope. Unless it does something extreme, Apple looks like it was cowed by fear of the implications of the #MeToo movement and threw its filmmakers under the bus, rather than letting audiences decide whether or not to reject or embrace the film. Warner Bros and Sony didn’t do that. I thought of The Banker when I read a recent New York Times article that accused JP Morgan of excluding a black banker and a black investor from being allowed into an elite part of its investment portfolio, because of race. The origins of that institutionalized exclusion are on full display in The Banker, including the depiction of Garrett Sr being brought to testify in a congressional hearing, paraded for days on TV as a cautionary tale with a subtext that these outraged politicians were never going to let this happen again, where two black men bucked a system that people with his skin color were excluded from.
BART: Distributors are also watching with fascination whether female ticket-buyers will be supportive of three very contrasting films depicting forceful women who became enmeshed in complex litigation. In Bombshell, the central characters sue Ailes and win – but don’t, really, because they are precluded from discussing what happened to them. Non-disclosure agreements still stand as inhibitions. In Richard Jewell, litigation surrounds the characterization of a female reporter who may or may not have traded sexual favors for a scoop. The reporter has died but threat of a defamation suit remains.
Seberg, a new Amazon movie, poses a bigger challenge to filmgoers of both sexes. The story of Jean Seberg – in many ways the ultimate (and tragic) ’60s woman — focuses on a lissome, innocent looking Iowa girl with a pixie hair style who wades into a nightmare of racial politics, bringing down the wrath of the FBI. Jean Seberg had an extraordinary start as an actress. She played Joan of Arc for Otto Preminger (burned twice: physically and from bad reviews), then became a star of the New Wave in Breathless.
Moving to Hollywood in the hopes of expanding her career, Seberg became enmeshed in the controversies of the moment, openly contributing money to black activists and initiating a blatant affair with one of their leaders. The movie is unstinting in depicting her idealism and impulsive mistakes. The FBI of J Edgar Hoover decided to destroy her reputation and effectively accomplished its goal – her career ruined, she died a suicide.
I met Seberg in her Hollywood period when she was a co-star of Paint Your Wagon, a clunky musical Western funded by Paramount. On a personal level, she seemed remote, even hostile – a willful woman who was very much out of place and out of time. She had none of the guile and wariness of today’s stars – there were no protective PR operatives or agents. She said exactly what she thought, both about politics and sex and the press exploited her candor.
Amazon clearly doesn’t know what to do with the movie, which played well at the Venice Film Festival. Inadvertently, the Seberg screener intended for Academy voters was stuck into containers for The Report, another Amazon picture. It seemed as though a higher power was demonstrating that its distributor, like its main character, was out of sync with the moment. I respect Seberg’s writers and director (Benedict Andrews) for presenting Seberg as she was – a woman of another time – as such, both empathetic and self-destructive.
FLEMING: A final thought on the first point you made about non-black filmmakers making movies about blacks and men being involved in films about women, and whether women turn out for Bombshell. That film could have been directed by a women, but producer-star Charlize Theron chose a compassionate man in Jay Roach to helm the script by Charles Randolph. Those guys had women all around them who pushed them to be unsparing, like in a disturbing scene in which the character played by Margot Robbie is forced to demean herself in a private session with Ailes. They were tempted to bow to a studio ask that the scene be toned down — you can hear Ailes breathing like a wolf as he becomes aroused — and the women involved in that film said, don’t you dare. Women have lived with the harassment depicted in Bombshell; it is decent men who will be shocked by the degradation. Maybe having that story filtered through the male writer and director will help men wake up and be a bit more sensitive to what might be going on in their own workplaces, and more understanding when women come forward.