Opinion //

Controversy at the cinema

While a straightforward answer to the question posed above seems improbable, the one thing that’s certain is that, in any workplace, those in higher positions should be held to higher benchmarks regarding their behaviour.

Image Courtesy: The Guardian.

“Don’t ever think that the world owes you anything because it doesn’t. The world doesn’t owe you a thing,” says Joy Mangano, Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Joy (2015), directed by David O’Russell — the subject of this article.

Based on a true story, Joy follows an inventor-turned-entrepreneur as she faces challenges in her career and personal life, involving  a turbulent home and complicated family relationships. Despite many setbacks, she creates, patents, manufactures, and promotes her one-of-a-kind ‘miracle mop’ to business success. All in all, it is the genuinely inspirational and emotional story of a single mother navigating the taxing, male-dominated realm of commerce. While critics considered this a weaker O’Russell entry, praise was unanimous for the lead performance and the “fascinating fact-based tale”.

Unfortunately, O’Russell has continued to create and promote his other films to critical success despite a long history of sexual assault allegations and on-set abuse, documented by testimony and evidence. So, this brings about an important question:  

Can you still enjoy and value a film starring your favourite actors when knowing of its director’s unremedied, problematic behaviour?

O’Russell’s past re-emerged following the trailer release for his upcoming film, Amsterdam (2022). Due to the particularly incendiary nature of information on the internet,this meant that the film’s cast, including Christian Bale, Robert De Niro, Margot Robbie, and Taylor Swift, naturally faced criticism for deciding to collaborate with a director owning such a notorious track record. 

The Mary Sue summed up the ongoing controversy surrounding the film aptly: “Russell is possibly better known for his horrid workplace behaviour than he is for his actual films at this point”.  

Yet criticism of the actors, while perhaps necessary, should not entirely place blame on their shoulders. Those in positions of authority in the film industry, namely the executive producers who hire directors, should arguably bear the most blame but are not in the public eye to the same extent. 

Meanwhile, actors, as high-profile figures, enable directors’ projects to come to fruition. Absolving alleged aggressors of their offences, and the reputational smear that comes with them, in any home, workplace, or institution, sets a poor public standard. Unfortunately, when audiences begin to hold them accountable for supposedly unscrupulous behaviour, artists fall onto the useful crutch of crying ‘cancel culture’, muddying public discourse on the need for accountability. 

Many fans were especially disappointed by the hypocrisy of stars who preach about justice and gender equality in deciding to support a project overseen by O’Russell, particularly in the post-#MeToo era. 

Feigning ignorance is also a poor defence when these accusations are supported by leaked emails and reports, including: 

  • O’Russell’s 19-year-old transgender niece filed a complaint that he groped her over a decade ago. O’Russell confirmed this, justifying his action as a response to her “acting very provocative toward him” – in other words, she asked for it. 
  • His abusive demeanour on Three Kings (1999), led to the second-assistant director quitting.  
  • O’Russell allegedly put Christopher Nolan into a headlock to force him to let go of Jude Law in Memento (2000) in favour of his own project.  
  • Video proof shows him swearing at and demoralising Lily Tomlin, with an unidentified crew member hiding in the corner, as O’Russell violently threw objects across the room.    
  • He also reduced Amy Adams to tears until fellow actor Christian Bale intervened, who reunited with Russell for Amsterdam. Journalist Jonathan Alter confirmed this incident to Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. 

Tomlin has since responded that she and O’Russell “made up” after that fight, which, while a personal decision, potentially demonstrates that higher-up crew members can get away with abuse.

Adams’ response was different and she has not worked with Russell since. “I was really just devastated on set. I mean, not every day, but most. Jennifer [Lawrence] doesn’t take any of it on. She’s Teflon. And I am not Teflon. But I also don’t like to see other people treated badly. It’s not OK with me. Life to me is more important than movies,” she said in a 2016 GQ interview with Stuart McGurk.

Russell did not direct another movie for six years after the Tomlin incident, but still ended up making The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and American Hustle (2013).  His first project after Joy was to be an Amazon series with the Weinstein Company, but Amazon only opted out after Harvey Weinstein’s prevalent sexual abuse was uncovered; O’Russell’s abusive behaviour played no part in the cancellation. 

While the film industry may not “owe us anything”, many people are choosing to separate the art from the artist due to the ever-growing list of controversial figures, particularly directors. While a valid argument, when a director has not faced nor accepted the consequences for their behaviour, their continuing to receive remuneration and reward for their work becomes jarring for onlookers. 

So, can you still enjoy and value a film starring your favourite actors, knowing of the director’s unremedied, problematic behaviour?

While a straightforward answer to the question posed above seems improbable, the one thing that’s certain is that, in any workplace, those in higher positions should be held to higher benchmarks regarding their behaviour. Film directors should not be an exception.

When I rewatched Joy, I found myself thinking of the director’s reputation, and how it changed the meaning of what was unfolding on screen. I love Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, but would prefer to enjoy one of her other iconic performances, minus the controversy attached to its director.

I believe that it is up to personal discretion to consume a piece of art, but if your opinion of those involved in its creation suffers, it is likely that your admiration of the piece will too. After all, it is up to audiences to sustain an artist’s success, and rightfully so.  

To finish, I shall alter the quote from Joy at the start: “Don’t ever think that an artist should owe you anything because they don’t. The artist doesn’t owe you a thing, but you don’t owe them anything if they consistently let you down.”