Our reaction to those responsible for sexual abuses in Hollywood has been admirable, but misguided. We should still enjoy art for art’s sake.
At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Steven Spielberg was in town to promote his new film, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. It was at one particular press event where a wily journalist threw a spanner in the works by asking Spielberg (a man not one to shy away from his Judaism) what he thought of the fact that Dahl was prone in his day to utter the occasional antisemitic slur. It came as a surprise to the filmmaker, who hadn’t heard such claims before. In a later interview with the The New York Times, the same topic was brought up, after enough time had passed for Spielberg et al to find out the truth about Dahl: while not an overt antisemite, he was prone to saying the occasional offensive thing, apparently just to stir the pot and be provocative.
Discussing the topic, Spielberg was resigned to the fact that the man had made such statements, motivated by God knows what (aside from white privilege and entitlement, perhaps boredom), but that his work still stood the test of time. “Artists are complicated,” Spielberg said. This remains true, amid what can only be described as a significant moment in our culture’s history. Ronan Farrow’s exposé in The New Yorker about Miramax and Weinstein Company founder/producer Harvey Weinstein’s litany of sexual improprieties (which is putting it mildly); from that, stories of sexual predation have emerged around screenwriter James Toback, director Brett Ratner, actors Kevin Spacey and George Takei, and comedian Louis CK.
Few could argue that it’s a groundswell, a turning point, in that the acts of powerful men in positions of authority, exercising their power with sex acts over those subordinate to them, with their victims held to scorn as money grubbing opportunists…it seems these days are numbered. Nobody should not by all rights argue that point. But the spate of incidences coming to the light involving these high-profile men in entertainment gives those who are, or were, fans of their work pause for thought: can you still appreciate the body of work of someone who – it turns out – is a sub-standard human being?
There are two reasons why I say yes, and would encourage others to do so as well. For one, the art and the artist are separate entities. Substandard people can create substantial art. Scholars of classical music are all-but unanimous in their vaunting of Richard Wagner as a composer, and there was a man with a moral compass squarely aimed at zero. If Nazism had a theme tune, it would doubtlessly be by Wagner. And say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, they knew a thing or two about architecture, men’s fashion and documentary filmmaking (not to mention both high-end and budget automotive design).
The award was for “Achievement in Directing”, rather than “Character of the Director”. Even Polanski’s now-adult victim said he deserved the award for his work.
Secondly, the works of Weinstein, Spacey, CK, Ratner et al are not produced in a vacuum. The allegations made against Kevin Spacey do not detract from the fine work done in the collaborative effort that brought us the multiple seasons of House of Cards (and if we can no longer watch it, we are denying ourselves the great work of Robin Wright and show creator Beau Willimon – neither of whom have done anything to deserve it, aside from association). One cannot now simply dismiss out of hand the excellence encompassed by all who contributed to American Beauty, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, The Ref or LA Confidential. Kevin Spacey has always been a phenomenal actor – nothing will change that; it’s an objective truth. His past work is testimony to this fact, the only thing that changes now is that he’s going to be faced with an uphill battle to get work again. You may think differently about his screen credits now that this information is out there, but if you can’t watch Kevin Spacey’s work any longer, you may have to apply the same standards to Mr Weinstein’s screen credits (which include Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, The King’s Speech, Gangs of New York, Lion, Carol). It’s getting tricky, here. And what Weinstein did was nothing new. Harry Cohn was the head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 until 1958 and was notorious for his casting couch – do we blanket ban the Columbia catalogue because its co-founder was a lecherous bastard? What about Walt Disney? Louis B Mayer? Jack Warner?
Not for a second.
The art is great, no matter what. Nothing can change that. Roman Polanski fed a 13-year-old girl some Quaaludes and then raped her in a jacuzzi; faced with criminal charges, he fled the US. He has since then gone on to have a stellar career, taking home the Best Director Oscar for his 2002 holocaust drama The Pianist. The thing is, the award was for “Achievement in Directing”, rather than for “Character of the Director”. Even Polanski’s now-adult victim said he deserved the award for his work. You dismiss the work of Polanski, you are now robbing yourself of the joy that is Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The Kerouac rule: Separating the artist from their creations
- Spacey coming out as gay in the same breath as his apology sets us all back
- Me too: One actor’s observations facing Weinstein’s Hollywood
You may or may not believe the accusations made by Woody Allen’s estranged daughter, Dylan Farrow, that in 1992 amid Allen’s and Mia Farrow’s custody battle over their children, Allen was accused (though never charged) of molesting the then-toddler Farrow. She remains convinced it happened to this day, and wrote an op-ed about it in the New York Times in 2013. Allen also remains as fastidious in his denial. You can believe Dylan Farrow in this case; one might presume that the 176 actors who have worked with Woody Allen in his 26 films since 1992 do not. (Though one of them, Ellen Page, has spoken out recently about how she feels shame having worked with him, given the allegations.) But if one is to blanket ban all the work of Woody Allen in this case, should we not, by proxy, also apply the same process to the actors who worked with him since 1992, knowing that these accusations were out there? You start doing that and your film and television options are becoming very limited, indeed (not to mention that Allen has been responsible for some of the finest American films – Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors – ever made). This doesn’t even begin to touch on the work of Michael Jackson (if any of the allegations are or were true, does that stop Off the Wall and Thriller from being great records?), or Picasso (a well-established prick of a human). And should we not hold people in other industries to the same standards? Henry Ford was a vile human, so we should all stop driving Fords? Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs might as well have been titled “Brilliant Arsehole“, for that man was a walking textbook of emotional, verbal and psychological abuse, while he was inventing electronic gadgets that changed the world. Put away your Apple devices, even the one you’re currently using to read this very missive.
People, artists, humans are complicated. Great things do not necessarily stem from great people. We should not be punished for the bad deeds of complicated artists. The future will, in all likelihood, be devoid of new work by Louis CK and Kevin Spacey; but they are not the only people creating art in this world. They have in part been responsible for bringing joy to millions; we should not allow their actions to rob us of the joy that’s already been brought. This turning point in our culture is one which allows for new beginnings, a learning opportunity for men in general (straight or gay), and a chance for other voices to be heard and other visions to come to life.
You didn’t perpetrate the crime, why should you be punished?
What is past is prologue; we can be guided by it and not allow the same acts go unpunished from here on. We cannot erase the products of our cultural history because of the actions of those partly responsible for their creation. Great art is great, and will remain so, no matter who is responsible for it.