Famous Men I Have Been Asked to Forgive (Abridged)

All these men. All these men. The collages floating over think pieces about rape, sexual harassment, abuse, and assault keep adding more familiar faces. As I write this, Charlie Rose, the intelligentsia’s premier interviewer for decades, has just gone down.

Gone down. Like a plane in the night; like a boy in a rec room.

I do not know whether art and personality connect to each other significantly enough for boycotts of bad men to make sense. I’ve had more questions than answers about that relationship since I was a preteen. I can’t stomach the end of love for the art of bad men, but I can’t believe people are lining up, still, to work with Woody Allen.

Is it all particular? Dependent on the abuses and the art? Rape is rape; a masterpiece is a masterpiece. Arbiters exist for these extremes, but between them, my reckoning gets fuzzier. Do I care about Al Franken’s contributions to the fabric of American culture more than I care about the women who felt violated by him?

Is the binary really so simple as that? Is it even a binary, or a kind of quantum calculation instead? Does it exist if we don’t look at it?

When all knowledge exists a mere click away, how can any man hide from his deeds?

This list is not evergreen. It’s not complete. It never could be.

The director and his dupe in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

1. Woody Allen’s despicability is of high potency and long duration. He has been obviously gross since the 1990s, when he married his stepdaughter, who is 35 years his junior. Earlier that decade, his daughter Dylan told her mother that he had sexually assaulted her in an attic.

But of course, he has made all these movies—one every year for three generations. Many are bad, or mediocre, but some are irreplaceably good.

In the scene above, Allen tries (at length) to coax Farrow into an affair, even though they are both married to other people. She reacts with what I can best describe as fatigue. Allen and Farrow are the B plot in Crimes and Misdemeanors, while Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston are the A plot, but I can’t forget this scene and its weirdness. Offscreen the actors are life partners, and onscreen it’s a mystery why they’re even in the same room, much less why sex between them is a possibility.

All of Allen’s movies have women in them. Some of these women do not rise above caricature, or fantasy, or annoyance. Others are more interesting or more central than the men. Allen does not see women in only one way. He sees them as arbiters and subjects of their own lives, as intelligent insiders to realms his men can’t always access.

Squaring the inarguable complexity of the women Allen has created over the years with the ugly way he has treated vulnerable people in his charge may prove impossible.

Choosing a side, Allen or his films, is not impossible.

But is it necessary to choose? Can we view the films without viewing the man? Literally, no, because Allen is in nearly all of his own films, performing some version of himself, I think, an irritating nebbish with heavy thoughts and bottomless, wheedling appetites.

Even if we could separate the films and their central character, and find a way to view Allen as performer instead of self-portraiteer, can we separate the maker and his off-camera behavior?

Could we/should we/do we/dare we?

2. Louis CK melds life and performance and self-exploration and self-excoriation in a strange brew called comedy. When I think about him, I think about how I would explain what it means to be funny – inherently or as a learned skill – and I feel too exhausted to continue. I don’t know enough about comedy to know what he’s doing, or whether it has precedent, but in the past I have considered him woke enough to laugh at when he talks about women and men.

Yet he’s a creep. No other way to describe a man who jerks off in front of women acquaintances with no consent and for no reason.

Should creeps keep their jobs?

I don’t care about Louis CK going down as much as I am amazed at how much he lost, and how rapidly. Total cancellation of a film, TV show, and comedy special, when he’s been coasting at the apex of standup for a decade. I’ve never felt comfortable when racist tweets get people fired or expelled, when doxxers triumph, when Facebook points and laughs at public shame. To me, such righteousness feels slippery and prone to error. And our visible era means that early mistakes are remembered forever (the internet is written in ink, not pencil, as Aaron Sorkin reminded us in The Social Network), and that inner evolution is harder to prove than outer ugliness.

Should creeps be allowed to maintain their privacy?

Although CK did lie about his accusers, referring to human beings as rumors, I’m not sure he ever genuinely lied about being a creep. Didn’t he tell us he sucked, over and over again, on stage and in screenplays and through performance?

Why didn’t we believe him when he told us who he was?

3. Brett Ratner is a scumbag, and no one in the world should feign shock about it. He’s Michael Bay, Jr., and I suspect no allegations have appeared against Michael Bay because no one would be capable of feigning surprise. Ratner’s a traffic cop, if an especially skilled one. Hundreds graduate from film school every year. Next slide, please.

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (1999)

4. Kevin Spacey is an actor of astonishing sensitivity and charisma. A schlubby-looking guy with such intense magnetism is rare and exciting. Because his art involves portraying characters who are not himself, I don’t know that what he’s done in rooms alone with vulnerable people invalidates the gleaming finery of his career. It doesn’t really hold up that he curated his acting career in the same way Woody Allen curated the subjects and stars of his films; actors choose parts, but they don’t invent them. American Beauty glares out of the crowd, but it’s a complex film, not properly boiled down to a middle-aged male fantasy.

What Spacey does is perform, speaking others’ words and embodying others’ ideas, which makes his artistic influence less extensive than that of writers or directors. Still. We don’t only see performances when we look at movie stars. That is how movie stars work: they bundle up significance of many varieties and present it to us in a moving, two-dimensional body.

Does it follow that he was only performing decency off-camera? Is he actually indecent on the inside? Do performers of such great skill ever cease performing?

5. Bill Cosby, according to dozens of accusers, is more systematic, more invested in a genuine scheme of doing wrong things to women, than others on this list. He has denied all, but such a litany of voices has swelled against him that it forms a choir worthy of Handel.

I see no reason to consider his art as potential grounds for clemency. His purported misdeeds are too rich. The only thing I wish to add is the analysis of a friend, who said that there was always something a little cruel about Cosby’s comedy, and that he felt minimal surprise at finding out Cosby was so methodical, so sociopathic, in how he treated women.

Postscript: Leonard Part 6 is so bad that I couldn’t finish it without getting drunk.

Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965)

6. Roman Polanski was accused of his crimes before culture had learned to arrange its face. His accuser was discredited, treated worse than her accused.

He’s old news. But there’s more to his story than what he did to Samantha Geimer (Gailey). He survived the Holocaust as a child, while female members of his family did not. His wife was murdered when eight months pregnant. The women in his films are unusually powerful and interesting; see Repulsion, a surreal masterpiece about a woman who refuses to be entered or possessed.

See Frantic, which made me shout at the screen in dismay, and then cry, when the female protagonist, cool-headed and smart and devious and beautiful, gets murdered. Polanski is still married to the actress who played her.

See Rosemary’s Baby, a critical feminist text. Farrow again.

These are not excuses; this is me trying to reconcile Polanski with himself. Unlike CK, unlike Cosby, Polanski’s art contradicts his behavior directly. Eye to eye.

I don’t know what to do with him. I never have, and I never will.

7. Harvey Weinstein is a disease worming its way out of a system due to newly introduced antibiotics. Do you remember movies in 1989 as opposed to movies in 1999? From Schwarzenegger to Shakespeare in Love? That’s nearly all Weinstein. He was equal parts powerful and incisive, using his public powers for good. Privately, a grasping, chasing animal with food on his tie.

The more I read about great men, the more often I encounter specimens like Weinstein. Public virtues nearly always seem to balance private vices, and the higher those virtues climb, the deeper the vices dig. Gandhi. Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomas Jefferson.

Are all men prey to this contradiction?

For the sake of the industry, should actresses have continued to rely on word of mouth, rather than public disgrace, to keep them from Weinstein’s snorting appetite? Would a virtuous man, with milquetoast abilities, have been better for Hollywood?

What bargains remain necessary for art?

Who will I be asked to forgive tomorrow?

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