Spoilers ahead. In the world of Don’t Worry Darling’s Victory, a sun-cloaked desert planned community, 1950s-era gender roles are alive and things aren’t as they seem. Alice (Florence Pugh) comes to the horrified realization that her idealized suburban life of house cleaning, roasts, and dinner parties with friends isn’t something she or any of the other women in her neighborhood have chosen for themselves. All of the wives are, in fact, trapped by their husbands, which includes her own hot-and-heavy partner Jack (Harry Styles). It's a realization that captures the film’s central theme about the insidiousness of toxic masculinity and the ways in which it entraps not only men, but the women in their lives as well.
But in many ways it also describes the movie. Despite a stellar performance from Florence Pugh (seriously, she carries the film), Olivia Wilde’s second directorial bid has been trapped — and stifled — by rumored on-set conflicts and public disputes, the latest example of what happens when buzz, both good and bad, and drama surrounding around a movie overtake the movie itself.
A round-up of what went down in case you somehow missed it: Pugh and Wilde are supposedly feuding over claims that Pugh had to direct the movie because Wilde was sidetracked by her new relationship (while unconfirmed, fans have taken Pugh’s limited press for the film as an indicator that something’s amiss); Shia LaBeouf, who was originally cast in the film, was either fired by Wilde (to protect Pugh, Wilde says; shortly after he left the film LaBeouf faced allegations of abuse from a former partner) or chose to leave production (LaBeouf publicly shared texts and a video from Wilde disputing this); fans speculated that Wilde and pop superstar Harry Styles, who replaced LaBeouf, may have begun their romantic relationship on set while Wilde was still engaged to Jason Sudeikis; and finally, #Spitgate had the internet replaying clip after clip to decipher if Styles indeed spat on co-star Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival.
Don’t Worry Darling fell into the backdrop, which isn’t anything new. While it may feel like the inferno that was the Don’t Worry Darling press tour is unique, Hollywood and the personalities who inhabit it are no strangers to rumors, dalliances, and backstage feuds. There has been countless drama BTS that has almost, if not entirely, overtaken and overshadowed the actual work on screen. Early into its run, Grey’s Anatomy was plagued by rumors of on-set problems, specifically between Katherine Heigl and the rest of the cast and crew. In 2008, Heigl was labeled “ungrateful” and “difficult” after withdrawing her name from Emmy consideration for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, something many took as a snub towards the series’ producers. A year later, she was outspoken about working conditions on the show, which fueled public perception of her being difficult to work with. As iconic as the original Beverly Hills, 90210 series was, almost more infamous was the on-set disdain between leads Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, and Shannon Doherty. It’s a feud that was even written into their character’s storylines in the eventual reboot. And while the couple is no longer together (and the allegations of abuse against Brad Pitt are unsettling), Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s reported BTS coupling on their 2005 film Mr & Mrs. Smith while Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston became the only thing anyone could talk about.
The conversations around Don't Worry Darling do feel different though, and much of it has to do with good old misogyny. Although Wilde may have overpromised her film’s message about the dangers of toxic masculinity to an almost innumerable degree (TLDR: the movie is just okay), it’s no secret that women have to work twice as hard in order to succeed in the film industry, let alone get films made and sit in the director’s chair. The disdain for Wilde is something a male director would never have to contend with. In fact, numerous studies and research have proven that society doesn’t view successful men and women in the same way. According to Lean In, women in positions of power have to be seen as likable in a way men in the same positions don’t. It’s difficult to picture Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky having to advocate for the messaging behind his film as a means to prove its value, to both studio execs and the audiences coming to see it. In essence, because of sexism, Wilde was forced to build up the messaging within the movie as a way to measure and demonstrate its value. It couldn’t just be a film with a female director helming it, even one with whose debut was the wildly popular Booksmart. Even pleading with LaBeouf to return to the film, perhaps a bid to just get it made, could have been informed by this.
The fact is the movie is overshadowed by its own negative reputation. Alice’s realization that she’s actually imprisoned in her vintage world gets at what the heart of the film is supposed to be about and sets up the preceding feminist comeuppance that Wilde so clearly has been teasing in press. Which on its own might have been fine, except for the fact that everything around the film is actually saying more about feminism and misogyny than any scripted line. And that leaves us with a film whose true merit – whether good, bad, or in this case just average— is marred from ever being fully realized. Just look at 2011’s Melancholia, a criminally underrated film starring Kirtsen Dunst about being pushed into a life you don’t want. The film, which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, was overshadowed by controversial comments from director Lars von Trier, who said he understood Adolf Hitler and jokingly announced he was a Nazi.
Art is an important avenue for discussion and sometimes can impact real-life change, but the controversies surrounding Don’t Worry Darling reduced potential conversations around the film to gossip and pop culture fodder and prevented the movie from standing on its own and speaking for itself. It’s a disservice to what could have been an important and timely message on the extremes of toxic masculinity and incel-like men, and the power of female resilience. Maybe Don’t Worry Darling wouldn’t have had any actual social impact — but the reality is that we’ll never really know.
Is it entirely fair to Wilde and the movie? No. Plenty of male directors have treated actresses in less-than-empowering ways on set (*ahem* Quentin Tarantino *ahem*) and are still celebrated as one of the greats. But what was meant to be a triumph on screen has instead become a mere mention in the footnotes of all this drama, and leaves viewers with a story that’s as empty as the egg shells in Victory.