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Hollywood coddles abusers of all types in the name of making “great art”

You can make uncompromising art without being an asshole. Why is this so hard to comprehend?

Harvey Weinstein and Alfred Hitchcock
Harvey Weinstein is Hollywood’s latest Very Bad Man. But the industry has a long history of abusive bad actors — like the genuinely great director Alfred Hitchcock.
Getty Images/Wikicommons
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It’s a tale as old as Hollywood: The man (and it’s almost always a man) with the uncompromising vision, the brilliant talent, and the terrible temper sets out to make a movie or a TV show. He squabbles with the studio or network, with his fellow behind-the-scenes personnel, sometimes even with his stars. But at the end of the day, that uncompromising vision results in something bold and groundbreaking — a movie unlike any other.

We’ve heard versions of this story that range from the abusive, like angrily berating actors until they break down, to the anodyne, like demanding lots and lots of takes to get exactly the right one, or keeping exhausting working hours. But even if you’re only a casual fan of movies or TV, you’ll have heard at least one story like this. The American entertainment industry is famously motivated by whatever will help it make lots and lots of money, to be sure, but it will almost always indulge an artist’s bad behavior if it thinks he’s brilliant enough.

In the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall, it’s become harder to ignore the fact that much of the legend of the uncompromising, difficult auteur is rooted in behavior that makes for a toxic workplace at best and an abusive one at worst.

And we don’t have to reach far into Hollywood’s past to find examples. In recent years, directors like David O. Russell have chastised their actors on set, leading to leaked tapes that reveal fractured, frustrating work environments, filled with anger and acrimony. On the milder side are those like the famously exacting director David Fincher, who might not verbally accost his actors but will put them through many, many, many takes, over and over again, leaving actors and crew members exhausted. Hollywood’s history is similarly filled with men who treated those on their sets poorly, perhaps most famously Alfred Hitchcock.

All of these directors have made films I love. Some have even made genuinely great films. But is any movie — or even any body of work — worth the pain their production might cause? My line will be different from yours. I think Fincher’s endless takes are probably defensible in the context of trying to create something of incredible precision. But you might feel differently. My larger point is this: We should be having more of a conversation about this question, not simply assuming that anything is defensible if the results are good.

The assumption has always been that bad behavior is just the cost of doing business in Hollywood, that when you’re trying to create art, you’re going to have to bruise a few egos along the way. It’s just the way things are.

But does it have to be? My experiences covering the TV industry have made me believe there’s another way.

The “no asshole” rule

When I first started covering television, one of the first shows I had some degree of access to was Cougar Town, the ABC/TBS Courteney Cox vehicle about a middle-aged divorcee and her tight-knit circle of friends. The handful of times I visited the set, there was an easy, laid-back vibe, seemingly unaffected by the presence of a critic/reporter (albeit a very fledgling one who didn’t yet know exactly what she was doing).

Over the years, I would come to realize that Cougar Town was an exception. It’s not that I frequently visit sets and find people yelling angrily at one another (though I’ve seen that). It’s that I’ll visit sets where it’s obvious that the actors and crew are putting on a happy face for the press, as opposed to a scenario like Cougar Town’s, where everybody involved seemed pleased to be there, doing their job.

The more I looked into why the Cougar Town set felt so different, the more I concluded that it came down to the leadership of the show’s co-creators, Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. Lawrence was the creator of Scrubs, for which Biegel had written, and on Scrubs he instituted something he called the “no asshole” rule, meaning that if anybody at any level of power became too big of an asshole, they’d be shown the door. (There’s also a popular book with the same title.)

To be sure, I don’t know what Lawrence would have done if, say, Zach Braff (Scrubs’ star) had suddenly started shoving people against walls, but as per Lawrence, simply stating that “don’t be an asshole” was the most important rule of working for him led to far fewer assholes than he’d seen on other Hollywood productions.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the folks on Cougar Town and Scrubs were just really good at pretending there wasn’t any trouble brewing on their sets, because they knew they were on low-rated shows that couldn’t survive any bad press. It’s entirely possible the “no asshole” rule is an elaborate lie.

But I’ve never gotten that sense, even after both shows concluded long, long runs. And whether or not you actually enjoyed Scrubs or Cougar Town, it’s hard to deny that they both fit in with the very particular vision of their creators. Lawrence creates affable comedies filled with lovable people that nevertheless probe darker territory about death and broken human spirits and the like. Both shows fit that vision.

The point, to me, has always been clear: You can be uncompromising and certain of your vision while still being kind. You can be the one who calls the shots and makes the big calls while still leaving room for the good ideas others bring to you, no matter where they rank in the power structure. Film and TV are inherently collaborative, after all. They require directors and writers and performers — to say nothing of dozens to thousands of behind-the-scenes personnel.

There are all sorts of reasons that someone who makes it big in Hollywood might be an asshole, from a lack of confidence in their own ability to pressure from someone higher up the food chain to a generally jerky personality.

But in the wake of Weinstein, of Amazon’s Roy Price, of so many others, isn’t it far past time for Hollywood to start worrying about building safe, productive work environments for everyone?

Abuse is abuse is abuse

To be clear, this is not solely a Hollywood problem. There are toxic or abusive workplaces in every industry, in every city, in every country. Human beings are sometimes not good at respecting the lives, emotions, and bodies of others, and that is too often reflected in behavior that is illegal or at least immoral.

But we hear about it far more when it comes to Hollywood, because the industry is heavily covered by journalists and because the resulting stories tend to involve very famous people. (For instance, one of the actors that David O. Russell had a very public falling out with is none other than George Clooney.)

I’ll also emphasize that the behavior of enfant terrible directors and showrunners who berate their actors and crew members, while awful, still pales in comparison to the behavior of an alleged serial sexual predator like Weinstein. Though both are abuses of power, Weinstein’s is a far greater, far more egregious one.

But it’s still so hard for Hollywood — or any industry, really — to consider that abuse is abuse is abuse. It may not be physical or sexual abuse when a director creates a hostile working environment through ranting and yelling at his cast and crew, but it’s still emotional abuse, and whether the end product is any good shouldn’t justify the means used to get there if those means create psychological scars and a workplace where people are afraid to speak up. Abuse begets abuse begets abuse, and a bad boss tends to create bad employees and a bad atmosphere, all the way down the line.

It’s possible to make great films or great television shows without being a difficult asshole. I guarantee you that some of your favorites were created by people who tried their hardest to make sure that workplace conflict was minimized and everybody felt free to do their job. Making a movie or TV show is hard enough as it is. Why do we keep glamorizing those who make it even harder?