Editor’s note: Before Don’t Worry Darling hits theaters on Friday, revisit this essay on the long history of dramatic Hollywood productions.
You probably haven’t yet seen Don’t Worry Darling, the second film directed by Olivia Wilde, but you’ve almost certainly heard about it. The film became the subject of TikTok-fueled rumors of on-set tension between Wilde and star Florence Pugh as far back as 2021. Since then, the stories of behind-the-scenes troubles have multiplied, picking up subplots involving infidelities, he said/she said accounts of cast changes, and a video of Harry Styles maybe-but-almost-certainly-not spitting on Chris Pine that’s been studied with a Robert Langdon–like intensity. At this point the movie itself feels like an afterthought, a still nucleus surrounded by buzzing electrons that set off one unstable reaction after another.
Yet the movie remains just that: a movie, as hard as it might now be to watch it without thinking of all the trouble and fuss that went into making it. In some ways that’s always true. It’s impossible to entirely shut out what we know about the people who make movies while disappearing into the worlds they create, but it’s usually easy enough to put to one side. We can think of Ben Affleck as both the Dunkin’-loving guy who married Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Wayne without our brains short-circuiting. But sometimes the story behind a movie can overwhelm the movie itself, particularly one like Don’t Worry Darling, whose story seems likely to continue unfolding up to the moment of the film’s release. Will the cloud around Wilde’s film ever lift? History is filled with films overshadowed by scandal and tragedy, but it’s hard to draw a conclusive answer from the past. Taken together, however, some of the most troubled films provide some suggestions of what’s to come for Don’t Worry Darling.
One of the biggest scandals of Hollywood’s golden age doubles as a kind of best-case scenario for troubled films. In 1949, Ingrid Bergman was one of the biggest and most beloved movie stars in the world after immigrating from Sweden to Hollywood a decade earlier. In 1950, she was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Colorado’s Edwin C. Johnson, who called her “a powerful influence for evil” and proposed a licensing system whereby those who committed immoral acts would not be allowed to work in the film industry. Bergman’s offense: She fell in love with a man who was not her husband and had become pregnant with his child. Specifically, she fell for Roberto Rossellini, director of her film Stromboli. Rossellini had become a leading light of the Italian neo-realist movement thanks to films like Rome, Open City and Paisan. An admirer of his work, Bergman wrote Rossellini a letter proposing they work together. They began an affair while making the film that became a public scandal and Bergman gave birth to her first child with Rosellini, a boy named Robin, shortly before Stromboli’s release.
In the press the film itself became, at best, an afterthought. One page from the February 16, 1950, issue of the Los Angeles Times tells the story in headlines, stuffing four Stromboli items next to one another. One concerns Rossellini’s assertion that the film had been altered for American audiences (the cheeky subhed: “Director Repudiates Parentage of U.S. Version of Bergman Film”); another quotes a Cleveland cleric discussing the affair as an example of the “sex exhibitionism which is a symptom of the moral decay of the West;” a third covers a Vatican judge who defined the affair as adultery; and finally, a story about its performance at the box office observed, “Ticket Buying on Thin Side at Bergman Film Premieres.”
Elsewhere, protests erupted and calls went out to suppress Stromboli, including a vaguely threatening letter to a Birmingham theater owner written by future civil rights archvillain Eugene “Bull” Connor “urgently request[ing]” it not be shown within city limits. Critics were also generally unkind, from The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther (“feeble, inarticulate, uninspiring and painfully banal”) to Variety (“all it lacks is a good story” … “the star portrays a bosomy wanton through 95 percent of the footage”). The movie was doomed.
Except it wasn’t, at least in the long run. Stromboli is now rightly regarded as a key film in both Bergman and Rossellini’s career, an imperfect but ultimately stunning fusion of its star’s Hollywood glamor and its director’s fondness for real locations, non-professional actors, and street-level human drama. (It also features some truly dramatic scenes of tuna fishing.) It helps that Bergman—who looks like a misfit in these surroundings—is playing an outsider, a Lithuanian refugee fleeing disgrace and seeking a new life by marrying a sympathetic Italian fisherman (Mario Vitale) who brings her back to a life of hardship on the eponymous island. In time, Stromboli’s reputation would be restored, as would Bergman’s, who returned to Hollywood at the end of the decade and, in 1972, received an apology from the U.S. Senate. The movie now looms over the scandal that defined its release.
That’s the best-case scenario, one helped by the quality and importance of the film at the center of the tumult. Other films, though, haven’t been as lucky or as successfully rehabilitated. Movies that go over budget or produce stories of directorial hubris are particularly prone to being damaged by bad press. Among many others, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Elaine May’s Ishtar, and Kevin Reynolds’s Waterworld all hit theaters after talk of bloated budgets and production overruns. Some were flops. Some ended up making money. All have been reclaimed by admirers to one degree or another in the years since their release without ever quite shaking their reputations as failures, undeserved or not. History suggests that the only sure way to quiet that kind of press is overwhelming success. In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola brought Apocalypse Now to a stunned world after a troubled production that stretched on for years and put his personal finances in danger. Almost three years later he wasn’t nearly so lucky with One From the Heart.
By contrast, there’s no sure way for a film to escape from a tragedy. When it was released in the summer of 1983, reviews of Twilight Zone: The Movie mostly confined talk of the on-set accident that killed Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen during production the previous year to passing mentions. But it wasn’t hard to find references elsewhere. References to their deaths—the result of a series of reckless choices that included violating child labor laws by shooting scenes with minors in the middle of the night—surrounded discussion of the film for years after its release as director John Landis stood trial for manslaughter. (He was eventually, and controversially, acquitted, in 1987.)
The accident seemingly had little immediate effect on Landis’s career, though. Ahead lay Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, Trading Places, Three Amigos!, and more. One year after his acquittal, Landis even invited the jury of his trial to a free screening of his new movie, Coming to America. But the controversy almost certainly dented Twilight Zone’s box office. Producer and co-director Steven Spielberg distanced himself from the project and Landis and the film received a muted release for a major Hollywood production. Today it’s mostly a dark footnote. (What’s true for one film isn’t necessarily true for another, however: The Crow became a considerable success after the death of star Brandon Lee in an on-set firearms accident.)
Sometimes, a film is simply too big for one element, however tabloid-fueling, to overwhelm its reputation. Steven Spielberg filled his 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds with images inspired by 9/11 and its aftermath, bringing the full strength of his directorial skill to a powerful and upsetting science-fiction blockbuster (with, it has to be said, a pretty weak ending). In the roll-out to its release, though, all of that seemed on the verge of being overshadowed by its star, Tom Cruise, who chose the press tour to make an impassioned declaration of love for Katie Holmes on Oprah Winfrey’s couch and engage in a tense interview with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer. The film was met with critical acclaim and financial success. It also set a template for troubled press tours that would follow, from Joaquin Phoenix’s apparent breakdown on the Late Show With David Letterman while promoting Two Lovers (later revealed to be staged as part of the faux documentary I’m Still Here) to Lars von Trier’s comments about “understanding Hitler” while discussing Melancholia at Cannes to Liam Neeson’s admissions of racist revenge fantasies in interviews around Cold Pursuit. Eventually, those films’ reputations settled where they belonged: Melancholia is considered a masterpiece, Two Lovers is remembered as another excellent New York drama from director James Gray, and Cold Pursuit isn’t remembered at all.
In time—and often it’s a long time—the smoke clears around even the most troubled films, allowing them to be assessed on their virtues alone. How long it takes depends on the film and its troubles. So where does that leave Don’t Worry Darling? It’s a little tough to tell, in part because new stories of behind-the-scenes conflict seem to surface every day. It doesn’t have to get past any tragic deaths or reports of budget overruns, but in many ways, the scandals surrounding it couldn’t be more of the moment: stoked by social media, aggregation-friendly news items with extremely clickable headlines, and story lines featuring celebrities with seeming armies of admirers eager to defend their champions. In other ways, uproar around Don’t Worry Darling resembles that around Stromboli, particularly the narratives that have made Wilde the villain of the piece. There’s a puritanical streak to some of the anti-Wilde sentiment—how dare she date a young pop star after separating from her beloved comedian husband!—and it’s worth considering what role sexism has played in some of the coverage. It’s not like a troubled production stopped Bohemian Rhapsody from becoming an Oscar-winning hit, and wild stories of on-set conflict didn’t overshadow 2019’s Hellboy (even if the film ultimately flopped).
On the other hand, the film itself is tough to defend too vigorously. Scripted by Katie Silberman from a story by Silberman, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke, its central concept is ultimately revealed to be a clever, tailored-for-the-2020s descendant of The Twilight Zone. The production design looks amazing and Wilde directs with considerable visual flair, but its execution is lifeless in ways that blunt its point. Its positive qualities might eventually win it champions, but shake away the scandal and there’s not that much left.
For now, Don’t Worry Darling’s press tour will go down as the most disastrous ever—until the next one. (Coming in 2023: The Flash.) The players may be new, but the story isn’t. Set against the backdrop of the Bergman affair and its aftermath, Kate Alcott’s 2017 novel The Hollywood Daughter concludes with chapters set in the late ’50s, years after Bergman’s tabloid headlines, when the novel’s protagonist, Jesse, returns to a Hollywood that’s moved on to new outrages. As she watches a tour bus line up outside the house where Lana Turner’s daughter killed her mother’s gangster boyfriend, her friend turns to her and says, “The old ones die. ... They have to, Jesse. There has to be room for all the new juicy stuff.”
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.