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One of the questions that has popped up again and again since the advent of #MeToo is: can you separate a predator from their art? Historically, the answer has been yes – as long as that art is considered good, and it makes money.
The release of Leaving Neverland, a documentary detailing historic allegations of sexual abuse by Michael Jackson, has lead to many declarations over the last week that his alleged crimes outweigh the merit of his music. But while this is an understandable response, until recently it was far from the default.
Jordan Chandler’s 1993 accusation of child molestation against Jackson, and the many controversies that followed and cost him millions, had no affect on his status as the King of Pop. Until very recently, though perhaps an admittedly “complicated” figure, Michael Jackson has been hailed in popular culture as one of music’s immortal icons.
Many men have survived in their industries for decades in the face of accusations and even convictions of abuse, especially when they are considered uniquely talented.
Roman Polanski remained one of the world’s most revered film directors in the 40 years since he fled his conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl – a crime he admitted. His autobiography is packed with references to sex with teenagers, and when Martin Amis interviewed Polanski after he skipped the US, he told him: “Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls – everyone wants to fuck young girls!”
Many men have survived in their industries for decades in the face of accusations and even convictions of abuse.
Despite further accusations of rape, A-list actors and filmmakers continued not only to work with Polanski, but to defend him. In 2009, more than 100 major industry names signed a petition to free him, after he was arrested in Switzerland regarding the 1977 underage sex charge.
Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Harmony Korine, Alexander Payne, Michael Mann, Tilda Swinton, and Woody Allen were among them.
The strangest – and almost most disturbing element – of all in this, is the degree to which Polanski’s peers were historically prepared to emotionally disassociate from what he had said and done.
In September 2017, Kate Winslet told the New York Times: “Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.” Winslet later stated that she “bitterly regretted” working with certain “men of power”.
In 2018, Quentin Tarantino apologised after a 2003 tape recording surfaced, in which he defended Polanski’s rape of then 13-year-old Samantha Geimer. He said: “I incorrectly played devil’s advocate in the debate for the sake of being provocative.”
Several signatories of the Polanski petition, such as Natalie Portman and Monica Belluci, later came out in vocal support of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, after the Harvey Weinstein revelations in October 2017. Portman was one of the first stars to publicly express regret for signing the Polanski petition in the first place.
When colleagues choose to denounce peers who face abuse claims, it is often only after they have been publicly accused. Following allegations of child sex abuse – first published by Buzzfeed – against Kevin Spacey, House Of Cards employees began to come forward claiming that Spacey had created a toxic work environment, typified by “predatory” behaviour.
Most did not speak out prior to a major news organisation breaking a story first, even though many concurred that grim rumours were common knowledge. This is understandable however, when one looks at the reception “speaking out” has tended to receive.
Elijah Wood mentioned in a (pre- #MeToo) 2016 interview with The Sunday Times that Hollywood is full of “vipers.” He continued: “If you can imagine it, it’s probably happened.” The interview garnered a great deal of attention, and Wood later clarified with the Hollywood Reporter that he had no firsthand experience of abuse, but had picked up the information from films he’d seen and articles he’d read. One of these was An Open Secret.
When the 2014 film An Open Secret, which covers child sex abuse in Hollywood, was released, it had almost no promotion. According to Gabe Hoffman, who was in charge of the film’s financing, it received “zero” Hollywood offers for redistribution, though a pirated version was illegally downloaded 900,000 times. It has a 94% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
The film details the stories of five former child actors who say they were preyed on as kids, focusing predominantly on Mark Collins-Rector, former co-owner and operator of the Digital Entertainment Network (DEN).
Collins-Rector was subsequently convicted of child sexual abuse but An Open Secret bombed upon its release, only re-emerging into the public consciousness post- #MeToo.
A man’s capacity to create art the world enjoys – art that makes money – is in direct proportion to the degree he will be given a pass by his colleagues and the public should he abuse his power.
While speaking about any form of controversy in Hollywood often invites censure, turning a blind eye, or otherwise steering clear of any uncomfortable issue, has consistently proven a professionally sound option. If not actively rewarding, it was certainly safer. It’s no wonder, in a culture within which power hierarchies are so deeply entrenched.
As Kate Winslet explained in a 2018 interview: “The message we received for years was that it was the highest compliment to be offered roles by these men.”
Most Weinstein accusers claim to have been “blacklisted” by Hollywood, after reporting abuse.
For now, Harvey Weinstein’s remains the most famous and seismic fall from grace in showbusiness history. But it took a fantastic degree of external pressure, iron-clad reporting, and the backing of the most famous newspaper in the world to break the story.
Again and again, the message has been that a man’s capacity to create art the world enjoys and respects – art that makes money – is in direct proportion to the degree he will be given a pass by his colleagues and the public, should he abuse his power in any way.
When Michael Jackson found himself in tremendous debt towards the end of his life, the option of playing concerts which might have net him millions of pounds was still open to him.
One can only hope that this would not have been the case had Leaving Neverland been made sooner. The only way stop the cycle of abuse in Hollywood, music, or anywhere else, is to quit paying more attention to a man’s art – or his money – than his crimes. When victims tell their stories, we must listen.
Holly is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes regularly for CNN and The New Statesman, among others.