Time’s Up… Again. We Need a New #MeToo for Domestic Violence
When will days of reckoning come for men, in and out of Hollywood, who beat up women?
When I was in high school, I worked as a host at Red Lobster in Kissimmee, Florida. Yes, that Red Lobster, the seafood chain Beyoncé anointed as a post-coital reward in her song “Formation.”
I spent my entire senior year greeting hungry customers after school, dealing with impatient ones, cranky ones, and one who refused to let a “faggot nigger” like me seat him. The worst one by far, though, turned the lobby into a battlefield over an error in his bill.
As the man bellowed and the cashier cowered, his female companion tried to talk him down.
“Honey, it’s OK. Let’s just leave,” she pleaded.
“Shut up, bitch!” he yelled, backhanding her so hard she fell to the ground.
“I’m tired of this shit!” she screamed, getting up and storming out of the restaurant in tears.
It was the first — and thankfully, the only — time I ever saw a man hit a grown woman. I’ll never extricate that slap from my memory.
As days of reckoning have come for sexual predators in and out of Hollywood, I can’t help but think back to that scene from a marriage (or a clearly violent relationship) in the Red Lobster lobby. When will days of reckoning come for men, in and out of Hollywood, who beat up women?
Over the course of the recent Oscar season, we saw multiple men and women accuse Kevin Spacey of sexual misconduct, leading to his being excised from a film and replaced by Christopher Plummer, who ended up getting nominated for his pinch-hitter performance.
We saw last year’s Best Actor winner Casey Affleck bow out of presenting due to uproar over allegations that he sexually harassed a female employee on the set of a movie in 2010.
We saw James Franco miss out on his second Oscar-nomination for his Golden Globe-winning performance in The Disaster Artist, presumably because several women came forward and accused him of predatory behavior on and off movie sets.
We saw former NBA star Kobe Bryant win the Best Animated Short Film Oscar for Dear Basketball, inciting controversy over a 2003 rape allegation against him. A group has even organized a campaign on The Petition Site aiming to strip him of his Academy gold.
We saw Darkest Hour star Gary Oldman, an actor who was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife 17 years ago, sail through Oscar season with relatively muted opposition and not even a quantifiable fraction of the backlash heaped on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for supposedly mishandling racism.
“Gary Oldman was so good that I don’t care if he hit his wife with a telephone,” one Oscar voter anonymously told The Hollywood Reporter.
Apparently, many fellow Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences members agreed. Oldman took home the Best Actor Oscar for his spot-on impersonation of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the joy and admiration of his peers in the audience and his fans. The general consensus: It’s about time this great actor was finally rewarded for his body of Oscar-worthy work.
As I watched Oldman accept his gong, I wondered what was going through the head of his ex-wife Donya Fiorentino, who filed papers in L.A. Superior Court in 2001 claiming Oldman hit her “three or four times” with a phone in front of their two children during a domestic dispute. (Another Oldman ex-wife, Lesley Manville, was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Phantom Thread.)
Watching Aziz Ansari and James Franco accept Golden Globes in January inspired their accusers to speak up. That’s why Franco’s ex tweeted her claim that he once forced her to perform oral sex on him in a car. It’s why “Grace” spilled the career-damaging details of her date from hell with an allegedly sexually aggressive Aziz Ansari.
“Congratulations, Gary, and congratulations to the Academy for awarding not one but two abusers with Oscars,” she told TMZ after the coronation, referring, presumably, to Kobe Bryant and Oldman.
Her comments prompted their 20-year-old son Gulliver to defend his father and brand his mother a liar in a public statement. He said he witnessed the alleged abuse incident, which would have happened when he was around 3 years old, and his mother’s account is not what went down.
We may never know for sure what happened betweeen Oldman and Fiorentino, but if the Academy voters and the public had taken their domestic drama as seriously as they did the allegations against Franco, would Call Me by Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet now be the youngest Best Actor winner in Oscar history?
Oldman has indeed taken his knocks, but not nearly as many as Casey Affleck did last year and Franco, Bryant, and Woody Allen have this year. If Manchester by the Sea had come out post-#MeToo, I doubt “Oscar winner Casey Affleck” would exist today. Oldman’s path to Oscar glory, however, was a relatively smooth one. The grand prize was never not his to lose.
In an “only in Hollywood” twist, Frances McDormand won Best Actress for her performance as an abused ex-wife in Three Billboards. Her costar Sam Rockwell got Best Supporting Actor for playing a character who punches a woman in the face during a pivotal scene. Meanwhile, Allison Janney nabbed Best Supporting Actress for playing an abusive monster mom in I, Tonya, a “comedy” that included numerous scenes of Tonya Harding — portrayed by Best Actress nominee Margot Robbie — being bullied and assaulted by her husband.
I enjoyed Oldman’s performance in Darkest Hour, and I don’t think the Academy should rescind his Oscar over unproven allegations in a case that was dismissed years ago. But the current climate makes this 17-year-old story a timely one, and we owe it to our progress not to shrug it off as ramblings of a troubled woman, as many have done.
Time’s Up and #MeToo can tackle so much more than sexual misconduct and the gender wage gap. But we can’t expand our conversation about men and women if we’re so enthralled by an actor’s gifts that whether he hit his wife with a telephone becomes irrelevant.
Domestic abuse has been a Hollywood scourge for decades, but we barely flinch when it’s onscreen, and we might not even be aware of how often it happens offscreen. Some of the all-time great leading ladies were well-acquainted with it. Ava Gardner was brutally beat up by two A-list lovers, Howard Hughes and George C. Scott.
Two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper once slapped Patricia Neal, his The Fountainhead costar and extramarital mistress, after seeing her kissing Kirk Douglas. Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, and Doris Day all played strong women onscreen while enduring physical abuse from husbands at home.
In more recent times, future Oscar winner Melissa Leo was embroiled in a highly publicized custody battle with her longtime partner John Heard in the ’90s in which she accused him of, among various other things, physical assault. A New York judge awarded custody of their then-9-year-old son to Leo in 1994, citing Heard’s history of domestic abuse in the ruling. The Home Alone actor, who died last year, was applauded during the Oscars’ in memoriam segment.
And then there’s Rihanna. We all gasped at the photos documenting the damage her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown did to her beautiful face. It seemed all but certain that Brown’s career would be over, but it’s not. It was temporarily derailed, but he eventually went right back to making hits and collaborating with female performers (including Rihanna herself) who should have refused to be in the same room with him.
Likewise, the fast and furious fists of the Coopers and Scotts of Hollywood’s past haven’t tarnished their legacies. They’re long dead and gone — a backlash or a campaign to revoke their Oscars wouldn’t hurt them now.
But it’s not just about crime and punishment. We get off track when we put too much focus on destroying legacies and livelihoods (and taking back Oscars). The primary goal should be inspiring change, preventing domestic abuse by not sweeping it under the red carpet, by not turning away, like I did that evening in Red Lobster.
As #MeToo and Time’s Up have proven, when women talk and people listen, revolution can follow.