Within the film industry white male directors employ abusive tactics and create hostile work environments in the name of genius and so-called authenticity.
TW/CW: mentions of rape and abuse.
You know one of the quotes I hate the most? “No pain, no gain.” There are several reasons I absolutely loathe this quote that masquerades as sage advice. But I primarily despise it because of its’ abhorrent valorization of capitalism. It is the belief that suffering is the only thing that can lead to success. Or that struggling is the only thing that can birth something beautiful, something of value.
This is at the center of how white men perceive other peoples’ pain, particularly in the arts.
The film industry, unfortunately, has too many examples of this. Recent headlines exposed this behavior with director Christopher Nolan and Anne Hathaway and what one could call “Chair Gate”. Hathaway alleged that the esteemed director did not allow chairs on set, as apparently the existences of chairs (and I guess comfort???) discouraged the very idea of working. Nolan would later emerge to vehemently deny this claim while clarifying his actual policy on cell phones, smoking, etc. Many are still debating the validity of both claims (I personally don’t think Hathaway has a reason to lie), but besides the overt ableism that would be at play if Hathaway’s claims were true, there would also be the pesky fact that it would be yet another small example of the fact that white men require the people—and the world around them—to withstand an insurmountable amount of pain and suffering to justify the existence of their, ahem, “classics”.
Other distressing examples include the “celebrated” Alfred Hitchcock and his treatment of lead actress Tippi Hedren in The Birds. Aside from the alleged assault from Hitchcock that was happening off-camera, Hitchcock promised Hedren that the climatic bird attack scene would use fake, mechanical birds. He later reneged on this, switching in live birds so that the terror would be “real”. Then there was that abhorrent rape scene in The Last Tango in Paris, where “reputable” director Bernardo Bertolucci conspired with everybody’s favorite classic Hollywood heartthrob, Marlon Brando, to assault lead actress Maria Schneider with “a stick of butter”.
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Schneider would later describe the incident as “humiliating”. Per Vox, this was Bertolucci’s intention, stating that “[He] wanted Maria to feel, not to act” and purposely sprung the butter thing (a scene that was not included in the original script) on her at the last minute to ensure that. He wanted it to be “real”. And then there was Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. Nevermind that Thurman also had to deal with the monster that was Harvey Weinstein because of his and Miramax’s relationship with “auteur” Quentin Tarantino. But on top of this, Thurman nearly died on the set of Kill Bill when she crashed into a palm tree in the rink dink Karmann Ghia that The Bride drives in on her way to vengeance. This was after Thurman and a teamster argued that the scene should require a stunt double. But of course, Tarantino needed that “cinematic realness” and disregarded Thurman’s safety as a result.
These examples of white men terrorizing the people (usually women) aiding them in making their “genius” films aren’t unique to directors either. Actor-turned-alleged cult leader Jared Leto was rightfully and publicly derided for his “method acting” antics on the set of Suicide Squad. Antics that included sending people rats. Videos of a dead hog. Bullets. Anal beads. And lots more. Veteran actress Viola Davis (who played Amanda Waller), would later add that the whole bit “scared [her] a little bit”, even though she’s “pretty tough”. I even wish that she didn’t have to add that last bit, but we know why she did—considering the vitriol that [Black] actresses tend to face when they don’t speak of these so-called “genius” [male] actors and directors in a positive light.
These examples show how particularly vulnerable (female) actors can be at the hands of directors who are megalomaniacs and who don’t care if they live or die as long as they can get a clean and pristine shot out of it. But the deeper concern here is the film industry’s obsession with authenticity, or as continuously repeated in this very piece, “realness” or “realism”. The question of authenticity is one that has plagued this medium since its’ inception. And this question is so pervasive that the teaching of film required nearly half of the classes I took while finishing my film and English degree to address authenticity. Both in a historical context and across all genres. Many directors, writers, and actors spend their entire careers chasing this elusive “authenticity” and have no problem harming themselves or others to achieve it. Why? Because lack of authenticity is almost worse than a film being genuinely bad. Because that would mean that your movie isn’t worth shit. Not even the film that it’s printed on. It’s why certain films will stress how they are based on true events or based on a true story. It is not adequate to trust your audience to suspend their disbelief long enough to believe the story your film is telling. No, you must tell them it is real and then apparently terrorize your cast to make is so.
But, this is by no means an excuse. For it simultaneously discounts the audience’s intelligence and supports the claim that your own actors cannot properly tell your story without, first, suffering.
That last part, the forced suffering, is precisely why we shouldn’t let white men who deem themselves “geniuses” off the hook for the harm they cause in the name of “authenticity”. Because film is a medium that is dominated by white men and that purposely excludes anyone else (or, in the least, greatly reduces their access to it) that does not fit that description. And as such, they bring their power trip fantasies on set with them and create these hostile environments to the detriment of those who are already marginalized by them in real-life too—women especially.
So, if we are to see some progress with equity in the film industry where this new decade is concerned, we not only have to tear down the structural inequities that enable such men to do harm; but we also have to re-imagine what we consider to be “genius”. And re-imagine how much pain is required for so-called “gain”. For so-called “authenticity”.
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