Over the weekend, Winona Ryder gave a revealing interview to the Sunday Times, addressing her experiences as a woman working in Hollywood. Specifically, the Stranger Things star shared two stories about male colleagues — seemingly unrelated, but when, combined, present a compelling picture of the behaviours the industry continues to tolerate, despite renewed calls for change.
The first story touches on an alleged encounter with Mel Gibson from nearly a decade ago, during which the actor reportedly called her an “oven-dodger,” alluding to Ryder’s Jewish heritage and the horrific methods used by the Nazis to carry out the genocide of millions during World War II. In that same breath, Gibson also made a homophobic comment.
“We were at a crowded party with one of my good friends,” Ryder said. “And Mel Gibson was smoking a cigar, and we’re all talking and he said to my friend, who’s gay, ‘Oh wait, am I gonna get AIDS?’ And then something came up about Jews, and he said, ‘You’re not an oven-dodger, are you?’”
The second story dates back to Ryder’s days on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which she described the director hurling abuse at her to make her crying scene as Mina Harker seem more believable. Coppola reportedly stood behind the camera, calling her slurs like “whore,” and also required Ryder’s male co-stars — including Keanu Reeves — to do the same. Reeves, who has repeatedly proved that he is one of — if not the — best men in Hollywood, refused, sparking a lifelong friendship with Ryder that has translated into a prolific working relationship. The two have since starred in 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, and 2018’s Destination Wedding.
Neither stories, while certainly shocking and disturbing, are particularly surprising. Gibson has a long pattern of racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic behaviour, not to mention a history of domestic abuse. This isn’t even the first time Ryder has told this particular anecdote. She first referred to the incident in a 2010 GQ profile, and it has been re-reported multiple times since. And yet, Gibson was still nominated for Best Director in 2017, and continues to get work, despite Hollywood’s public disavowal of his actions. Just check out his IMDb page. In 2020 alone, he has four movies scheduled for release, including July’s Force of Nature, in which he plays a retired cop alongside Emile Hirsch, who plead guilty in 2015 to assaulting a studio executive at the Sundance Film Festival.
As for Ryder’s description of verbal abuse on-set, it’s far from an isolated incident. Uma Thurman has described the toxic environment created by Quentin Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill, which could easily have resulted in her death during a car stunt gone wrong. In 2016, Amy Adams told GQ that David O. Russell made her cry every day on the set of American Hustle, one of many similar allegations leveled at the director. In 2018, Jessica Walter teared up during an Arrested Development cast interview when describing Jeffrey Tambor’s history of violent speech, while her male co-stars stood by silently. (Separately, Tambor has also been accused of sexual harassment by two women on the set of Transparent.)
Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of sexual harassment and misconduct may have been an industry secret for years before it was widely reported by the New York Times in 2017, but his history of verbal abuse was not. Kate Beckinsale recently shared that the producer — who was sentenced to 23 years for one count of a criminal sexual act and one count of rape in the third degree earlier this year — once made her cry after a 2001 film premiere gone wrong. Her experience is one among hundreds shared by people across Hollywood over the years, in addition to the harrowing tales of sexual harassment by the disgraced producer.
And yet, all of these men — save for Weinstein, who is now incarcerated and awaiting trial in Los Angeles on charges of rape and sexual assault— have continued to work, many of them lionised as cinematic auteurs, employing difficult techniques in pursuit of their craft.
Some will certainly argue about whether the different kinds of abuse and bad behaviours listed above are equivalent in their severity. But what's clear is that Hollywood has a track record of letting most of them slide.
Ryder told the Times that she and Coppola are “good now,” but it’s frustrating that at a time when the industry has repeatedly made commitments to dismantle the systemic inequality and lack of inclusivity that allows such actions to go unchecked, it continues to put the onus on women and marginalised people to do most of that heavy lifting. Thankfully, there are men like Keanu Reeves, who can help carry the load.