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On Bad Men and Unseen Art

In response to reports of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct, Hollywood has begun to bury the work of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and others. Is this a turning point in the art-versus-artist debate?

An illustration of Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Harvey Weinstein with red bars obscuring their eyes Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This September, Jerry Seinfeld appeared on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show and did something unusual: He changed his mind. In a conversation about their influences, Colbert had noted that he could no longer listen to Bill Cosby’s comedy albums in light of reports that Cosby had drugged and raped women. “I can’t separate it,” he said. Seinfeld dismissed Colbert’s queasiness: “I know it’s tragic, but comedy, you know, there’s a lot of tragedy in comedy,” he replied. After returning from a commercial break, however, Seinfeld announced that Colbert had swayed him; Cosby’s work was, in fact, now tainted by his hideous trespasses. “Now that you’ve said it, and I thought about it, it would bother me,” Seinfeld announced.

The exchange was notable because Seinfeld embraced an opposing opinion on the spot—a rare event in televised disagreement. But it was also unexpected because Seinfeld seldom tackles provocative social issues, preferring to focus on mild observational humor about being left-handed or airplane safety demonstrations. Until very recently, the comedian most likely to engage in this sort of charged conversation about art-versus-artists was Louis C.K., who has made discussions of misogyny and sexual misconduct a focal point in his comedy.

C.K. was scheduled to appear on The Late Show last week, but his spot was scrapped after The New York Times published an exposé detailing multiple instances of C.K.’s sexual misconduct. In the Times piece, five women—Abby Schachner, Rebecca Corry, Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov, and one woman who preferred to remain anonymous—shared stories that C.K. later confirmed; several reported that he had masturbated in front of them without their consent. The story seemed to verify well-publicized rumors that had followed C.K. for years, and the industry fallout was swift: FX, which had given C.K. a creative home by airing his celebrated sitcom Louie and other series from his production company, announced Friday that it was severing all ties. Film distribution company The Orchard announced that it had canceled the release of I Love You, Daddy, C.K.’s latest film, previously scheduled to premiere November 17; Netflix announced it would no longer stream an upcoming comedy special from C.K. And HBO, which had worked with C.K. on multiple television shows in the past, pulled the comedian’s previous work from its streaming site.

The C.K. boycott echoed very recent precedent. Following reports of sexual assault and harassment by the actor Kevin Spacey and the producer Harvey Weinstein, a pattern of erasure has begun to emerge. Spacey was suspended from the final season of House of Cards, which has also suspended production indefinitely. He had already completed acting work for the upcoming film All the Money in the World, which is scheduled for release in late December, but after the reports of his predatory behavior surfaced, director Ridley Scott decided to X-Acto Spacey out of the film and replace him with Christopher Plummer. After Weinstein was ousted from the Weinstein Company, which he cofounded, the company pulled its historical drama The Current War, which had been slated for an awards-friendly November 24 release. (It does not yet have a new release date.) And the upcoming BBC television show Ordeal by Innocence, starring Gossip Girl actor Ed Westwick, has been indefinitely postponed after two women said that Westwick raped them.

These decisions to expunge the works of accused abusers represent a startling about-face in how Hollywood responds to reports of grave misconduct from its stars. C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy is an homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Both films are highly stylized comedies about relationships between old men and teenagers; both films were made by men who now stand publicly accused of sexual abuse. But while C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy has been stuffed into an L.A. dustbin, the work of the man I Love You, Daddy celebrates has not. Woody Allen has been accused, on the record, of sexual abuse. In the time since, he has been able to make several films and a television series, including Wonder Wheel, scheduled to be released this December. He completed his next film, A Rainy Day in New York, this past October, and it is slated for a 2018 release.

Allen’s scandal-proof career is not unique. Roman Polanski, who was arrested for child rape in 1977, still went on to enjoy a feted career in exile after he fled to avoid serving the terms of his guilty plea, earning multiple Oscar nominations in 1981 and winning in 2003. (This year, a German actress reported that Polanski raped her as well, in 1972.) Even after details of two sexual harassment settlements were made public, Casey Affleck enjoyed a warm reception for his performance in Manchester by the Sea, culminating in a Best Actor Oscar in 2017. Despite his history of racist and anti-Semitic comments and domestic violence, actor and director Mel Gibson was nominated for an Oscar this year and stars in this month’s Daddy’s Home 2; the film made $30 million on its opening weekend. Rather than expelling its monsters, Hollywood’s time-tested default strategy is to cloak them in accolades or put them in a time-out box until enough news cycles have passed.

The recent decision to bury work from accused men is a course correction. Instead of trotting out the old “separation of art and artist” cover, this removal strategy acknowledges the necessity of reckoning with the conditions in which art is created and supported. It represents a new Hollywood calculus in regard to what audiences desire and what they will even tolerate. Instead of assuming that fan bases will excuse transgressions, this new approach assumes it is best to perform a punishment and sacrifice the artistic product to avoid further burnishing the tarnished artist’s reputation. While it is likely that people will still see some of this work—I suspect pirated streams of I Love You, Daddy will appear soon, if they haven’t already—the decision to pull commercial releases will curb audiences and thus circumscribe the work’s influence and jettison its profitability.

The cancellation and shelving of these forthcoming television and film projects does not excuse the industry that created the environment for abusive creators to thrive, and I worry that the executives behind these decisions will feel as though these gestures are exculpatory. Going forward, the entire business of creating entertainment will require thorough dissection. With C.K.’s behavior an open secret, how was he even able to secure distribution for I Love You, Daddy? Why did it take so long to expose Weinstein’s decades-long pattern of monstrous misbehavior? How was Spacey allowed to dominate the House of Cards set for five whole seasons? These are the crucial questions, and they cannot be answered by sacrificing profits on a few projects.

Burying these projects may be sweeping dirt under the rug, but putting dirt on display invariably rewards these men by allowing them, and their enablers, to continue to profit from within an industry they have poisoned. Dumping this work is a small gesture toward the people who were harmed by these men, a demonstration that consequences—at least occasionally, when the social pressure is calibrated just so—can exist. It also sends a message to other powerful men: You, too, can be caught and relegated into the margins.

On Thursday, within hours of the New York Times piece on C.K., another disturbing report came out about a beloved television auteur. Matthew Weiner, who wrote for The Sopranos and created Mad Men, was accused of sexual harassment by his former assistant and writing partner Kater Gordon, with whom he shared a writing Emmy win in 2009. Weiner is currently the showrunner for The Romanoffs, an upcoming Amazon Studios series which began production earlier this year. The show already has a dishonorable pedigree, as it was ordered to series by former Amazon Studios head Roy Price (who has since resigned following a report of sexual harassment) and was formerly produced by Harvey Weinstein.

I have been eagerly looking forward to The Romanoffs, as have many of my coworkers. It seemed primed to succeed Mad Men and The Sopranos as the next great prestige drama; the sprawling cast includes talented actors like Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Diane Lane, Amanda Peet, Aaron Eckhart, Corey Stoll, and Andrew Rannells. Beloved Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant is creating the show’s looks. It has an intriguing premise: an anthology series about people who believe themselves to be related to the Russian Romanov family. Matthew Weiner’s history running Mad Men suggests that it will be both narratively engrossing and visually beautiful.

There will be obvious and unfortunate collateral damage if The Romanoffs is shuttered. The cast and crew who have worked hard on the show will be negatively impacted. It is unfortunate that artistic collaborators will have their work tainted because of the man leading their project. But the alternative is worse. To allow the show to continue with Weiner at the helm would be unconscionable. In the long run, it is far more important to stigmatize abusive behavior than it is to protect an abuser’s art.

It might sound severe to expect that Weiner, who is accused of verbal sexual harassment, should receive the same punishment as Spacey and C.K., who stand accused of more horrifying transgressions. Perhaps it is severe. But this industry has been so lax, for so long, that we are in a moment when severity is warranted. The reason Hollywood is in this predicament in the first place is because it has so frequently harbored, tacitly permitted, and easily forgiven harmful behavior, casting abusive men as off-kilter savants and gimlet-eyed rebels while casting the people brave and resilient enough to speak out as “crazy” and “difficult.” While the problem of abuse in Hollywood has become a flash point because famous figures like Weinstein, C.K., and Spacey have finally been called out for the trauma they inflicted, the problem goes beyond bold-faced names. The entire industry is complicit, from the producers and agents and studio heads who employed them, to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—which has consistently lauded known abusers—to the hundreds of individual actors who signed public letters of support for men like Roman Polanski and who have chosen to work with men like Woody Allen.

Casting these men to the margins means that we lose their work. But what might we gain from the newly freed-up space? We have an opportunity here to focus on ushering in new voices, or those that have been previously suppressed.

Instead of ruminating on whether Ridley Scott erased an iconic Kevin Spacey performance, or whether Louis C.K. had a masterpiece in the works that will never reach an audience, or whether there will ever be another Mad Men if Weiner is eventually ostracized for his reported actions, it seems wiser to wonder what will be lost if these men go unpunished. If Hollywood refuses to support the work of men who hurt women, it will undoubtedly lose good work. But it has already lost so much by allowing abusive behavior. Kater Gordon did not get staffed on another television show after she was fired from Mad Men three weeks after winning an Emmy. “I had the Emmy, but instead of being able to use that as a launch pad for the rest of my career, it became an anchor because I felt I had to answer to speculative stories in the press,” she told The Information last week. “I eventually walked away instead of fighting back.”

Imagine if Gordon had not been forced to choose between fleeing and fighting. Imagine if she’d been privy to an environment that let her choose to create.