It’s been one year since the New York Times and New Yorker investigation into the sexual misdeeds of Harvey Weinstein unleashed the #MeToo movement and a courageous fury over the ways women are mistreated. We look back at the movement that has completely reshaped the way we think of men, women, sex, and power.
When coined in 18th century Italy, the phrase prima donna was straightforward: a lead female opera singer. As it evolved, its use shifted to describe a “temperamental person.” Yet that’s not quite accurate. Broken down, prima donna translates to first (prima, or prime) lady. It’s a sly way to describe a difficult person, especially when the person in question is, by definition, a woman. Diva is perhaps more commonly used, but it carries the same connotations: demanding, self-important, famous — and female. There may not be a colloquial male equivalent, but look no further than Hollywood, and you’ll find him.
“I was told that the actor I wanted to hire might sometimes not come to set,” says filmmaker Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, Leave No Trace). “He might not feel like it, or he might be in a bad mood — but he’s held in such high regard! I didn’t know that there was all this dispensation for bad behaviour among high-priced actors.” She recalls a time when another actor was so dismissive of her direction, her male director of photography had to act as a conduit. “I think it’s on an unconscious level. He didn’t even know he was allergic to my voice.”
The #MeToo movement has created a necessary flood of awareness for bad behind-the-scenes behaviour, exposing an epidemic of sexual abuse and harassment overlooked in the entertainment industry for many decades. While the ensuing reckoning has ushered in more professionalism and easier avenues through which women and minorities can speak out against mistreatment, what about all of the non-sexual abusers? When is the reckoning for the regular, run-of-the-mill assholes — both in front of and behind the camera — who’ve abused their power for just as long? Are we far from the end of the Prima Dons and male divas?
[T]here’s a lot of men who’ve not been accused of anything that haven’t taken the time to think about this.
After years of allegations of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein surfaced in October 2017, his career evaporated in a cloud of salacious details and complicated cover-ups. Quickly tumbling down behind him came Jeffrey Tambor who, just weeks after the Weinstein story broke, was accused of sexual misconduct by a former assistant and a co-worker on the popular series Transparent. Tambor’s response offered little in the way of apology. Perhaps in an effort to deflect from the more lascivious allegations, he repeatedly admitted to a history of anger in subsequent interviews, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I can be volatile and ill-tempered, and too often I express my opinions harshly and without tact.” While Tambor lost his role on Transparent, his name was still among those top-billed on season 5 of Netflix’s Arrested Development in May. One of his more admittedly bombastic outbursts was an incident on that set, during which he berated co-star Jessica Walter, who clearly still felt the sting during an uncomfortable New York Times interview.
In tears, she mentioned that she’d never been treated so harshly in her 60 years in the industry. Explaining away the blowout, co-star Jason Bateman noted that such outbursts are “incredibly common” in their field, which he described as “a breeding ground for atypical behavior.” It was Alia Shawkat, the only other woman in the room, who responded quickly and assuredly. Shawkat was shaken by the experience. “That doesn’t make it acceptable,” she said. In a subsequent interview with Broadly, she added, “[W]hat surprised me — but maybe also didn’t — was that there’s a lot of men who’ve not been accused of anything that haven’t taken the time to think about this.” (Bateman would later apologise for his insensitive remarks.)
Men like Tambor repeatedly receive second (and third, and fourth) chances. Bryan Singer, who has faced — and denied — sexual misconduct allegations, still has the sole director credit for next month’s Bohemian Rhapsody, despite having been fired and replaced after halting production with his repeated absences and reportedly heated arguments with star Rami Malek. Last month, he signed on to direct the comic book adaptation and potential franchise, Red Sonja. Hollywood can’t seem to quit Mel Gibson, whose history of anti-semitic, anti-women, homophobic tirades and domestic abuse were no obstacle to landing his umpteenth chance as writer and director of a remake of The Wild Bunch.
It does seem as though the industry is attempting to course-correct in some areas. SAG-AFTRA issued a new code of conduct outlining how its members are to be protected from sexual harassment. Time’s Up was formed in an effort to put an end to “sexual abuse, harassment, and inequality” in all workplaces — from the farmhouse to the boardroom. This extends to verbal and emotional abuse. In a statement released by Time’s Up in January, founding member and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said, “Our goal is to define a work environment where the basic principles of respect, human decency, and equality define the workplace everywhere.”
And yet, we’ve become so fixated on cases of sexual abuse and harassment. Why is no one addressing the verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse that were basically sewn into the seams of the Hollywood system? It shouldn’t take criminal charges to necessitate change.
The legend of the temperamental movie star is as old as Hollywood itself. Herbert Corey, in an exposé for the October 1919 issue of Everybody’s Magazine, wrote: “[N]o matter how good the story may be, or how artistically or realistically it is produced, it fails if the cast lacks the one individual needed to ‘get it over’…naturally—almost invariably—they develop what the stage call temperament.” The Hollywood system is notoriously hierarchical, and the prima in prima donna is a crucial part of the equation. Top billing is more than just the order in which one’s name appears on the call sheet. The discrepancy in both profile and pay grade between above and below-the-line talent facilitates an on-set dynamic in which the artist is king.
That creativity today is often manifested as Method acting, which came to prominence in the 1940s and ‘50s under the guidance of Lee Strasberg. His classes were populated by some of the biggest stars of the last century, from Marlon Brando and James Dean to Bradley Cooper and Jane Fonda. Debra Wiley, who has been acting and teaching the Method for over 40 years and studied briefly with Strasberg, describes the technique as a “series of exercises that help the actor to behave more personally and believably the way they believe that their character would.” But she makes an important distinction between the traditional Method technique and what is frequently called the same in contemporary media: “It is not about being literal. It is about finding what we’ve experienced that we can use, that will allow us to have an analogy to what the character has experienced. It’s not gaining weight. It’s not losing weight. It’s not staying in character for two years.”
And so what was intended to add verisimilitude to a performance has, with its frequent displays of outlandish stunts, become exactly the opposite: an act. What’s more, it’s become an excuse for terrible and sometimes dangerous behaviour.
On the set of 1977’s Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman provoked emotional reactions from Meryl Streep by constantly mentioning the name “John Cazale,” the boyfriend she had lost to cancer only months before, and once slapped her in the face to prepare for a more dramatic scene. It’s not clear if Hoffman ever apologised for how he acted while filming, though he has apologised for allegedly grabbing Streep’s breast on a separate occasion. By contrast, Streep’s most “abusive” treatment of a co-star was perhaps when she was cold to Anne Hathaway between takes on The Devil Wears Prada. She did make Emily Blunt cry during production, but it was because Blunt was so moved by Streep’s accolades for her performance.
When an actress makes a legitimate decision for the sake of creativity, the backlash can often be debilitating. Bette Davis made an unheard of move in 1937 by suing Warner Brothers to be released from her contract and pursue more artistically fulfilling roles. Today, her fight for autonomy is considered a pioneering step for contract players beholden to the projects produced by their studios. At the time, Warner Brothers labeled her difficult and counter-sued. She lost the case.
In 2008, Katherine Heigl withdrew herself from contention for that year’s Emmy awards because she found her Grey’s Anatomy material underwhelming and didn’t want to preclude another, deserving actress from a fair chance. Sure, the gesture might have been better received had she discussed it with her Grey’s colleagues before speaking publicly, but her choice was markedly humble and deferential for a “diva.” Heigl went from a household name with proven appeal to a B-list star with a string of cancelled TV dramas and box-office lightweights. It’s taken nearly 10 years for her to return to a hit TV series, and it’s in large part due to the duchess-sized hole Meghan Markle left in Suits.
In 2013, Selma Blair complained to producers about Charlie Sheen’s blasé attitude unprofessionalism on Anger Management and the actor summarily fired her in an expletive-heavy text message. Others had complained, but Sheen was the star of the show.
To be clear, this is not to say that no woman has ever conducted herself poorly or acted legitimately difficult on the job. But the reaction to such behaviour, both publicly and professionally, seems to be disproportionate for men and women — especially when it comes to how they demonstrate their passion.
Oscar-winning director David O. Russell reportedly humiliated an extra, allegedly made a script supervisor cry, and got into a physical altercation with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings. When filming I Heart Huckabees, video of the director screaming profanities and hurling things at Lily Tomlin went viral. Amy Adams was so terrorised by his behaviour during production of American Hustle that co-star Christian Bale, himself known to have a hot temper on set, stepped in to tell Russell to stop “acting like an asshole.” 21st Century Fox dismissed stories of on-set fights between Russell and Jennifer Lawrence on the set of Joy as part of his “process.” Russell himself has admitted to provoking his actors in order to elicit a reaction. There exists over 15 years of evidence of Russell being hostile with his casts and crews. In that time, he has continued making movies that gain critical acclaim and Oscar nominations. It was only after the sexual abuse reckoning began that Amazon decided to drop Russell’s upcoming TV series — not because of the 2011 incident in which Russell admitted to groping his then-19-year-old niece, but because it was co-produced by Harvey Weinstein.
Meanwhile, despite breaking box-office records directing the first Twilight film — and notably not striking any cast or crew members — Catherine Hardwicke was fired from the franchise for allegedly being “emotional” and making “irrational” demands. Those demands? Hiring a more diverse cast and fighting for her vision of the sequel.
Entertainment industry professions are hardly the only ones in which employees and employers mistreat one another, though it’s hard to imagine, say, a dentist gifting colleagues live rats and used condoms without consequence. That the result of such work is created specifically for public consumption makes these patterns of abuse, and the systemic framing of abuse as necessary to the work, all the more galling.
In an industry famously dominated by men, the prevalence of misconduct from men is as high as the bar for what constitutes misconduct from women is low. What will it take for the reckoning to catch up with the Prima Dons? If all it took was “no more silence,” surely there’d be fewer bullies so gainfully employed, though speaking about it is a decent start. What all of these anecdotes have in common is a systemic imbalance of privilege and power: the power that comes from getting a bigger paycheck for the same amount of work; the privilege of showing up with a vision instead of something to prove. And in the entertainment industry, with great power comes very little accountability.