George explores how far our enjoyment of an filmmakers’ is affected by our knowledge of their less glamorous private lives
There was concern leading up to the Academy Awards this year of whether or not Cate Blanchett – a dead cert for a while – would receive the Oscar for best actress on account of the resurgence of interest in the controversies surrounding Woody Allen. Whilst the particulars of Allen’s infamy is subject for discussions elsewhere, the issue of the significance of the personal lives, and problematic reputations of the characters behind the camera has been a part of Hollywood from its early days. The film business is not keen to support tarnished images, even when those images are not on the screen. Yet, Blanchett won the Oscar and the question this provokes is how much does it matter that a filmmaker has an uncomfortable past, and how has this issue been resolved for the filmmakers to continue work?
For an actor, the reputation allied to your image has always been precariously significant for your career in Hollywood. Since the case of Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood has proved itself of only liking a scandal when it’s glamorous. Arbuckle had a prosperous career throughout the early years of Hollywood silent era as a physical comedian, but when, in 1921, a party he was hosting left a young woman dead under suspicious circumstances, his career never managed to withstand the scandal of accusations thrown at him, despite a Jury emphatically supporting him as innocent from any blame. His career never recovered, and is proof of the hypocrisy of standards actors need to maintain in their private lives, where the worst sin possible is that of having an uncomfortable presence when they appear on screen. Tom Cruise’s worst crime was being a bit odd, but his career took a huge blow in recent years after jumping on a sofa and talking about his religious beliefs, whilst Robert Downey Jr. has never been better since he got out of rehab and returned to acting. Proved crimes of the sins of sex and drugs rarely shake up a functioning actor’s career for more than a year or two, though a lingering uncomfortable feeling about an actor is far more dangerous than moral discrepancy.
Behind the camera, the situation is similar. Michael Powell, after delivering the masterpiece Peeping Tom delved into the sin of the uncomfortable when he delivered a film which took the perspective of a serial killer of prostitutes, and his career never recovered. His previous films were in the realm of magical romance, and the shock of Peeping Tom on audiences and the industry created a black mark for his name, despite a private life free from scrutiny. Alfred Hitchcock in the same year deliviered Psycho, a film similar in many aspects, only Hitchcock himself was a celebrity, one with an image that carried morbid fascination with it. It seems that for a public reputation of a film-maker to maintain capital in the film industry, there has to be a correlation of the feelings we experience in their work and in what we can project into the imagined characteristics of the film maker.
Mel Gibson is an example the audience being less forgiving than the industry. He has had support behind him to make his comeback from various members of the Hollywood elite, but ticket sales thus far have proved indifferent to their attempts. Domestic abuse, racial superstition and sexist rants don’t correlate with his position as either hero or an anti-hero, and his reputation off-screen creates unease when it comes to enjoying his work on screen. His characters are often violent, mentally unstable, whilst remaining defenders of traditional family values; the similarities between his characters and his real-life persona are now too uncomfortable to ignore.
There are no absolutes when it comes to the ability to withstand scandal in cinema, but it appears the key to maintaining success in Hollywood is to keep your audience at ease with your public image, and not provoke too many questions about what the audience want to enjoy.