Is the age of the toxic Hollywood mogul really over? Has the entertainment industry finally worked up the nerve to banish the monsters who make the movies?
Don’t bet on it — there are plenty of second and third acts in this business and a century-long history of enablement — but as the waves of the #MeToo movement ripple further into the workplace, a number of creative figures and executives previously deemed Teflon are now looking tarnished.
In recent days, The Hollywood Reporter has delivered a one-two punch of articles confirming some ugly realities of working in show business. The first, a long profile of and interview with actor Ray Fisher — he plays Cyborg in “Justice League” — amplified earlier statements and added to the chorus of voices calling out director and TV creator Joss Whedon as verbally and psychologically abusive. In February, a number of actresses from Whedon’s breakthrough show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” went on the record about his behavior on the set of the 1997-2003 hit series, with Michelle Trachtenberg alleging that the way he treated her was “Very. Not. Appropriate.”
On the heels of the Fisher piece came an even more damning Hollywood Reporter article in which former employees of the powerful film and stage producer Scott Rudin (”No Country for Old Men,” ”The Social Network,” Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon,” and much, much more) lined up to describe years of abuse. The details are genuinely disturbing, including at least one alleged case of assault and battery in 2012: Rudin smashing a computer monitor onto an assistant’s hand, sending him to the emergency room. In the article, objects regularly fly through the air at people’s heads: laptops, glass bowls, teacups, staplers, a baked potato. “The HR person left in an ambulance due to a panic attack” is a typical comment.
These tales from the dark side follow other recent accusations of crude and toxic behavior on film and TV sets and in executive offices. Some of these have an ugly racial edge: Actress Gabrielle Union describing being told her hair was “too Black” (among other issues) when she served as a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” Sharon Osborne calling “The View” cohost Julie Chen “slanty eyes” and “wonton.” Others just paint a picture of a hellish work environment, like the scenes behind “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” that dozens of employees in July 2020 described as a snakepit of misconduct and sexual harassment.
Do these revelations actually move the needle and result in punishments, apologies, or change? Certainly more than before. Union received a settlement from NBC, and three producers were fired from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” with the host apologizing profusely on-air. More tellingly, according to the Reporter article, Whedon may have lost two high-profile gigs as a result of his behavior on the “Justice League” set — helming the “Batgirl” superhero movie and producing the HBO series “The Nevers,” which debuts this week under other hands.
And yet — powerful men (and women) in the entertainment industry have a way of holding on to their power unless they’ve committed actual crimes, even in an era when the people who’ve worked with them are finally emboldened to speak out. Since its beginnings, Hollywood has kowtowed to the monsters at the top, looking the other way from their predations and sometimes actively abetting them. Rare was the studio head in the classic era who didn’t think of his pool of starlets as a personal harem; Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had an infamous bedroom off his office for that express purpose. These men hired publicists, like MGM’s Howard Strickling, to polish up the good news and downplay the bad, and they had fixers, like the same studio’s Eddie Mannix, to do the dirty work no one else would.
The studios don’t exist like they did in the old days, but awful executive behavior still does — and it’s often lionized as part of the Type-A forward drive needed to succeed in a cutthroat business. Stories about Rudin’s sadism have been an open secret in the industry for decades — in part because everyone seems to have been one of his assistants for five minutes at one point or another — but until now it has just added to his legend. The movies Rudin has produced have won 27 Oscars; his plays 17 Tonys. He’s one of 16 living EGOTs — people to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. You don’t mess with this level of power unless it’s showing signs of weakening, as was the case with Harvey Weinstein’s long-overdue comeuppance, the event that kickstarted the #MeToo era.
The day the Rudin story broke in the Reporter, only one producer or executive made a public statement of condemnation. Megan Ellison, who worked with Rudin on the Coen brothers 2010 remake of “True Grit,” tweeted that the article “barely scratches the surface of Scott Rudin’s abusive, racist, and sexist behavior. Similarly to Harvey, too many are afraid to speak out. I support and applaud those who did. There’s good reason to be afraid because he’s vindictive and has no qualms about lying.”
Aside from that, silence. Rumors swirled that The New York Times had a similar piece on Rudin prepared last year but backed off for fear of lawsuits. The surface Ellison speaks of may remain mostly unscratched. Even if more people come forward with further tales of terror, it’s very possible those who want to work with or even for Scott Rudin will still line up to do so while his winning streak lasts and his power base stands. Hollywood loves its monsters — so long as they make money.
Postscript: An anecdote from the Fisher interview indicates where the real power lies in the entertainment business — with the corporate overlords and even their children. When the actor resisted filming a scene where Cyborg says “Booyah!” — a catch phrase in the “Justice League” animated cartoons and nowhere else, and one that Fisher felt diminished the only major Black character in the film — he was taken out to dinner by DC Films co-chairman Jon Berg, who told him, “What if the CEO of AT&T has a son or daughter, and that son or daughter wants Cyborg to say ‘booyah’ in the movie and we don’t have a take of that? I could lose my job.”
The scene was filmed.