The day I write this is about one month after we all first heard about the movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long habit of sexually harassing women. Over the course of that month, since the first allegations, over 75 women have come forward to say they faced inappropriate attention from Weinstein; another dozen have made the further claim that he went all the way into rape. It is also two weeks since we heard similar allegations against the actor Kevin Spacey, with 13 people coming forward so far. And just today, a friend of the late actor Corey Haim accused Charlie Sheen of sodomizing Haim on the set of his very first movie, when Haim was only 13.
Everyone has been horrified at these allegations – understandably so. The stories about Harvey Weinstein have sparked particular shock – the sheer number of cases prompted men to ask if the problem of sexual harassment has really been as rampant as all that, causing women to revive the existing “#metoo” hashtag and revive discussion on this issue yet again. Amongst my friends – many of which are theater professionals – the discussions have been especially harrowing, since some of us know others of us who have gone on to work in film – and have had their own stories to tell, or know people who’ve had stories. Spacey’s actions renewed the conversation yet further, and brought in a swath of other theater folk with yet more stories. …For the record: I’m relieved to say that I never encountered any sexual harassment when I worked in theater (other kinds of gendered attacks are something else again, albeit on a minor scale). However, I’ve heard a story or two of people I’ve personally worked with later having sad stories of their own.
It’s making us all want to do something. Talking hasn’t worked in the past, and just ignoring it isn’t good – it’s just too big and shocking. We want to act somehow; maybe we can put Harvey Weinstein in a stockade and throw rotten eggplants at him or something. But the only power this time is in the hands of the courts and all we can do is watch and wait for them to act. Which somehow doesn’t feel like enough, so people are flailing a little and thinking of ways to act. Donating to a charity, perhaps, or taking people on over on Twitter.
One really popular step has been the Public Boycott – a declaration that “that’s it, I’m never watching any of their movies again!” Some people have been so shaken by the allegations that they realize they will never be able to see Kevin Spacey or Charlie Sheen, or watch anything with the Weinstein name on it, without remembering the allegations. Those movies are forever tainted for them. Others are more pragmatic – they don’t want to give Kevin Spacey money, and watching his movies gives him money. Therefore, no more watching his movies. QED. I also considered this step for a couple seconds, to be honest – but then realized that three of Kevin Spacey’s movies – The Usual Suspects, American Beauty and Se7en – are all on the master list of the Movies To See Before You Die. And so is Platoon, featuring Charlie Sheen.
I’ve got a while to go before I get to these films; easily a few years. By the time I get there, no doubt whatever trial Kevin Spacey is facing will have run its course and whatever punishment he is charged with will be underway. Same with Charlie Sheen, and almost certainly the case for Harvey Weinstein. I doubt I’ll be able to forget that these incidents happened, but the story will be further along – the wound will not be as fresh. It may be okay.
However, the problem is that this is not a unique scandal for Hollywood.
- The silent film star Errol Flynn was accused of statutory rape in 1943. He was acquitted, largely thanks to the assistance of public donations enabling him to hire really good lawyers.
- Actress Tippi Hederen has stated that director Alfred Hitchcock sexually assaulted her during the filming of The Birds.
- 1930s star Loretta Young’s career was tainted by scandal when she conceived a child out of wedlock. It wasn’t until 1998 that she finally revealed that the father had been Clark Gable – and it had been an instance of date rape.
- European director Roman Polanski had sex with a 13-year-old at Jack Nicholson’s house at a party in the 1970s, was found guilty of statutory rape and fled the country – and has been a fugitive from justice to this day.
- Shirley Temple even once had a producer expose himself to her when she was only twelve. Fortunately he didn’t touch her – by all reports her nervous giggles brought him to his senses and he buttoned back up.
- Producer Louis B. Mayer was the Harvey Weinstein of his day, regularly propositioning actresses and pressuring them into sex – he once literally chased Jean Harlow around his office in an effort to seduce her. Mayer also would sit Judy Garland on his lap and had her sing so he could “study her technique” by placing his hands on her chest.
- ….And then there’s whatever the hell is going on with Woody Allen.
If I wanted to boycott Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein’s work, I’d have to also consider boycotting Errol Flynn’s, Alfred Hitchcock’s, Clark Gable’s, Roman Polanski’s, and Woody Allen’s as well. And if I did – well, to be honest, that would knock out a huge swath of my list, and the Movie Crash Course would essentially be over. So from a practical perspective alone it doesn’t really make sense to boycott these works.
But there’s an even better reason to keep watching them despite their creator’s foibles – and that is that none of their films were solely their work. Scores of other artists were also involved in each of their films, most of them wholly innocent – some even their victims. And they shouldn’t be punished.
Way back when I reviewed Birth of a Nation, I spoke of having wanted to see the 2016 film with the same name; director Nate Parker used the title for his story about the rebellion of the slave Nat Turner. I’d actually been looking forward to it prior to its release – not because I knew anything about Parker, but rather because of the actor Colman Domingo, who was also cast in the work. Colman is one of my “I knew him before” stories; we worked on a play together in 2003, and I’ve been watching the growth of his career from the Facebook-friends-feed sidelines ever since. And during the building to the film’s release, Colman spoke with great pride and excitement about the film and his colleague’s work, and mentioned how eager he was for everyone to see it and give their feedback. But right before its release, a story re-surfaced from director Nate Parker’s past, concerning an allegation of a rape when he was in college. The scandal irretrievably tarnished the film, and it died a quick death in theaters.
There is actually some debate about whether Nate Parker did or did not commit the crime of which he is accused. But one thing is certain – Colman did not do it. And yet it feels like Colman – as well as the rest of the cast and crew of that film – was being punished for Nate Parker’s actions. And it doesn’t seem like that helps – especially if any of the actresses in the film were themselves harassed by someone somewhere along the line.
So. I will not be boycotting any of Kevin Spacey’s films – because they’re not just Kevin Spacey’s films. Instead, when I see The Usual Suspects, I’ll watch it for Gabriel Byrne and Benicio Del Toro. I’ll be watching Thora Birch in American Beauty, and Brad Pitt in Se7en. When I watch Platoon, I’ll be watching for Willem DaFoe instead of Charlie Sheen. When I watch The Birds, I’ll be watching for Tippi Hederen instead of Hitchcock. I’ll watch Gone With the Wind for Vivian Leigh’s sake instead of Clark Gable’s. I’ll watch Annie Hall for Diane Keaton. I’ll watch Rosemary’s Baby for Mia Farrow’s acting instead of Roman Polanski’s direction.
The biggest argument in favor of boycotting these films is that “you shouldn’t separate the art from the artist”. However, each film has more than one artist in it. I’ll simply watch for one of the others.