2017 was rough on Hollywood, and rightly so. Explosive stories about predatory producers and directors making the lives and careers of countless women (and men) hell have somewhat diminished the sheen of Tinseltown. In light of this, it feels odd in some ways to write my first post on blog dedicated to my love of film, and it’s largely why the blog is starting in March, rather than its intended New Year launch.
The grim truth, however, is that mega-egos and abuse of power did not begin with Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, or any other contemporary entertainment big-wig. A vein of misogyny and power lust has always run through Hollywood (give William Randolph Hearst a quick Google). Rumors of “casting couches” and elicit affairs have floated around the industry practically since its inception. It’s also worth noting that this by no means purely a Hollywood problem. Where gender inequality and massive power discrepancies are present, abuse seems bound to arise.
My hope in spite of all this is that upheaval will lead to improvement, and that improvement will extend the breadth and depth of creativity in Hollywood and elsewhere in the film world. That what has always been true will finally become obvious — that creativity and ethics can co-exist. I’ve never had much patience with “that’s just the way it is” logic, and that has apparently prevailed in the movie industry for quite some time. I would like this to be a turning point.
There’s a stereotype about most creative fields that circumstances must be awful to create good art. Mental illness, addiction, and abuse — all food for the tortured and talented soul. Whatever truth there may be to this “beauty from pain” theory (a cliché I still think is often exaggerated, and frankly annoying), it too often seems to manifest in making excuses for unacceptable behavior. An out-of-control actor or abusive director is not just typical creative-people wackiness. It’s a problem, and not an unsolvable one.
As many great films that have been made with on-set horror stories behind them (hey, Mr. Kubrick), there have also been many that were made with an overall copacetic, if sometimes tense and hectic, atmosphere. It is the latter that needs to become the norm. (If Billy Wilder could get through Some Like It Hot without a tantrum, I’m pretty sure it’s possible for others.) I’m not expecting or asking for complete smooth sailing all day, every day. That’s not feasible inside or outside of Hollywood, nor would it be all that interesting or conducive to imagination. I’m asking for creative differences to be the bulk of the problem rather than power imbalances and ego trips so massive they give rise to a culture of verbal abuse, sexual assaults, and literal espionage.
There’s no denying the world of creativity is wild and weird, and Hollywood has always been in somewhat strange creative territory because it must combine art and business in ways that other mediums do not. This can partially account for its toxicity — combining corporate power structures with the large and fragile egos of artists seems to beg for an explosion. But the implicit argument behind allowing the current culture to continue is that “creative weird” and “abusive” can and should be conflated. And that’s bullshit. I want Hollywood to get its act together, not just because this whole ordeal has been exhausting and appalling, but because of what movies can be for the people who are a part of them and for the people who see them. I don’t want any more disillusioned Hollywood hopefuls; I don’t want any more horror stories from behind the scenes; and I don’t want to have to keep abandoning long-beloved works because of disgusting revelations about the men behind them.
So, what does this mean for movies? My guess is that the quality of filmmaking can only improve as the treatment and behavior of filmmakers does, and the changes needed in Hollywood are as pragmatic as they are ethical. Increasing diversity on- and off-screen, expanding the kinds of stories we tell, and inviting more perspectives and styles to the table increase audience interest and box office performance. All of this is more easily achieved if the people who do make it into a studio can walk back out without stories of embarrassment and trauma that lower their morale and discourage them from ever returning.
With all of this in mind, and with the absolute doability of the improvements Hollywood can and must make, I still love the movies. For over a century, movies have represented artistic and entrepreneurial innovation, technological advancement, and the coming together of versatile talent and art forms. Movies are stories, and like all forms of storytelling they have the capacity to change hearts and minds. Influencing and influenced by popular culture, world history, political life, and even personal ideology, movies — when done right — can affect us in deep and intimate ways. They can have personal associations; they can inspire careers; they can start deep and meaningful conversations; and they open windows to other people and parts of the world.
When movies and movie making are at their best, they can entertain, educate, inspire. They can literally change lives. For all that movies have been, and all they have the capacity and potential to be, I love them. So, for reasons that are moral, professional, and artistic, Hollywood has got to do better. The better Hollywood becomes, the better movies — and most importantly, people — will be.