What can a mere critic do in the efforts to change the culture of exploitation and abuse in Hollywood, spotlighted so dramatically recently by the Harvey Weinstein scandal? Gary Raymond argues, for a start critics can stop mythologising the sexual abusers of Hollywood’s past, and try to understand better exactly what is going on in the present.
The fall of Harvey Weinstein is, in some part, a chapter in the story of the decline of the American Empire. Decline is always most obvious when the propaganda department begins to falter, and for a hundred years Hollywood has done an impeccable job of not only perpetrating the lie that America is the land of the free, home of the brave (rather than home of slavery and the capitalist coward), but that the way it treats women on and off screen is the way that things work in a civilised, progressive society. That it has frequently created exciting, engaging, iconic pieces of art has only intensified its importance to the project. And while it is vital that women speak up about the sordid mechanics of an industry built on the exploitation and abuse of women, the conversation must grow wider, to the point where we all have to ask ourselves how complicit we have been in this.
In Wales Arts Review yesterday, Nia Edwards-Behi, film writer and co-director of the Abertoir film festival in Aberystwyth, wrote about how she was re-evaluating her role in the film-making business in light of the revelations. Colin Firth, Hollywood’s favourite Englishman, yesterday came out to speak of his shame for his years of silence regarding what he knew of Weinstein. Firth, then, had made decisions based on his career ambitions that supported Weinstein’s position of power from where he could continue his abuse. We must not slip into the trap of praising Firth for his honesty, but many others in the business, whilst offering mea culpa for not acting on rumour, are not going as far as to admit that they knew and did nothing.
America is a country that listened to a man brag of his sexual molestation of women and then elected him president. It is naive to think that it is a country not deeply conditioned by the output of its film industry. The culture and attitudes of Hollywood have far-reaching consequences, because it is Hollywood that has played a huge part in normalising this behaviour in the fabric of the twentieth century’s most influential nation.
And critics are absolutely culpable in this. Many critics are guilty of being enamoured with the romance of the world behind the art, and nobody wants to be disgusted by a man whose art has moved them. The solution has always been to make the man more acceptable. This is worse than the complicity of silence; critics actively contribute to the myth-making, we write and talk in ways that support and perpetuate the abuse. And now is the time to draw a line in the sand. We must change the way we write, and change our attitudes to our separations of artist and art.
And we can begin by being truthful, and being honest, and by not contributing to the abusive power dynamic of the Hollywood system.
For instance, recently I found myself asking the question, is it really okay for Darren Aaranofsky to push Jennifer Lawrence to the brink of a breakdown on set of Mother! in his pursuit of his artistic ambition? The critics and audience have been guilty of mythologising this already, but nobody has talked about how it emphasises the rotten power dynamic of auteur/muse that has always been exploitative and quite often violent and abusive. That it has the potential to create great art simply cannot be a good enough reason for us all to nod our heads and earnestly allow it to play out.
Personally, I am sick to death of being involved in conversations where we debate the separation of art and artist once we discover something unpalatable about the man (always a man) behind the work. Klaus Kinski, who sexually abused his own daughter, has a body of work that must now rot on a landfill, but Woody Allen movies continue to receive warm reviews, and inexplicably attract the brightest young (and particularly female) talent around. Allen’s movies have been unremittingly dreadful for the last twenty-five years (ironically since Mighty Aphrodite, which bagged an Oscar for Mira Sorvino, one of the first actors to speak out about Weinstein), and yet still he is courted, lauded, and defended by the film industry and critics. No other film-maker would get away with films as feckless as Match Point, as puerilely scripted as Midnight in Paris, or as misogynistic as Vicky Christina Barcelona, whilst also being the centre of child-rape allegations. Today he came out expressing sympathy for Weinstein.
Likewise, Roman Polanski is always part of an Oscars conversation and is often the subject of industry petitioning of the US State Department, who have had a warrant out on Polanksi concerning the rape of a minor since the early seventies. The Oscars have given one best director award to a female director in eighty-nine years, and yet they seem oddly desperate to give more to one particular rapist.
Alfred Hitchcock was a serial molester and misogynist whose hatred of women drips from his every frame. His appalling treatment of his female leads has become a romanticised Hollywood legend. He was in fact a pathetic little pervert who used his position of power to letch over beautiful women (he had utter contempt for any woman who did not fit his ideal of beauty, including his wife). He once threatened Tippi Hedren that he would end her career when she refused to sleep with him. In our desire to worship a man who did compelling things with a camera we have turned a sex pest into an avuncular genius.
We must not just stop making excuses for these men, but we must stop mythologising them, normalising them, and stop idolising them. But this is not only an exercise in nostalgia.
Recently I finally got around to seeing Elle, Paul Verhoeven’s Oscar-nominated film from 2016. I had been attracted to it because of the ways critics I admire had talked about it. A black comedy rape revenge drama, one that was going to be a tough watch but which was brave film-making and asked a lot of important questions with a towering central performance from Isabelle Huppert. A challenging revenge thriller with a great female central performance; sounds right up my street, I thought.
When the film finished, I couldn’t quite believe what I had just seen. Elle is a not a black a comedy, and is in no conceivable way a “revenge drama”. The message of the film is simple: all women secretly desire to be raped. The easiest way to sum it up in one tag line would be “male rape fantasy apologia”. I went back to the critical pieces that had allured me to the film – all of them written by men, and all of them way off the mark in their misrepresentations of what Elle is.
Emboldened by the critical response, Elle was nominated for an Oscar. On review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 91% approval rating. It appeared in the top ten lists of almost every major publication in the world for that year’s best movies. Director Verhoeven had spent some time complaining that every big name American actress he had approached for the role of Elle had turned him down after reading the script. Verhoeven said that he was disappointed American actresses were averse to taking risks in the roles they chose, thus calling people like Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron and Marion Cotillard cowards for not wanting to take part in his sordid little movie. They could not possibly have been turned off by the repugnant message of the film.
Elle was not universally lauded, it must be said. Some women wrote about it in exactly the terms I express above (I subsequently discovered after watching it). But they were drowned out by the overwhelmingly male mainstream critical response.
If Weinstein’s fall is to mean anything, it must mean a wholesale change in Hollywood film culture, and critics are not only not immune from that, but we can lead the way. To be part of the solution is always to be asking if the subject of the review is part of the problem. Once the critic has answered that question in their mind, they can move on to whatever comes next.
Because I for one am sick to death of mealy-mouthed idolaters, finding nuanced narrative justifications for the rape scene in Marnie. I am sick to death of making jokes about the fact Woody Allen has for fifty years cast himself opposite beautiful female leads whose ages have remained static even as he careered toward his dotage. I am sick to death of accepting the bad taste in my mouth as I try to separate my admiration for Rosemary’s Baby from the fact its director is a child rapist. I am sick to death of being a part of the critical culture that empowers this bullshit.