Hollywood’s hypocritical attitude to cancelled stars

Alec Baldwin (left), Johnny Depp (centre) and Kevin Spacey (right) - ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images/
Alec Baldwin (left), Johnny Depp (centre) and Kevin Spacey (right) - ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images/

Thierry Frémaux must be having sleepless nights. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski will both have films ready for next year’s Cannes Film Festival, while Maïwenn Le Besco, director of Johnny Depp’s forthcoming movie La Favorite (about Louis XV and his mistress), is often a shoo-in for a Croisette appearance. Frémaux, director of the festival, would usually book them all – so will he hold his nerve and place Cannes in the centre of the culture wars?

The list goes on. Kevin Spacey was recently found not guilty of sexual assault by a New York court, and his performance as Gore Vidal, the last movie he made before allegations were made against him, is sitting on the shelf at Netflix. If he is found not guilty of five further charges in London next year – and he has denied them all – might that film appear? Could even James Franco, who settled a sexual-misconduct lawsuit for $2.2 million (£2 million) last year, and Armie Hammer, whose ex-girlfriends accused him of rape and cannibalistic fantasies but who faced no charges after a police investigation, find their way back to the screen?

The issue of whether to – and how to – rehabilitate cancelled stars is still Hollywood’s hottest potato. “I’ll avoid this one on anything except ‘deep background’,” one senior producer said over the phone. Hollywood is about both relationships and money, she went on to explain – but money usually comes first. “Short of an actual felony conviction, the question is, ‘Will they sell tickets?’”

PR veteran Mark Borkowski agrees that the bottom line eventually talks. “If there’s jail time or outspoken victims, it will be very hard. R Kelly and [Harvey] Weinstein aren’t coming back. [Yet] Depp and Allen haven’t been found guilty of, or sentenced for, anything. Social media is torn over Depp, especially TikTok, but 18 to 30-year-olds aren’t the Depp or Allen audience. I suspect older audiences will give them a chance – if the work’s good.”

It’s appropriate that Allen and Depp could appear on the same Cannes bill as Polanski. The former pair both have films financed and shot in France, where the Chinatown director has been living since he fled a child sex conviction in 1978. While Allen has never been convicted of anything, accusations of child abuse from his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow, first made in 1992, arose again in 2017 and have lingered since. Despite Allen having always denied the allegations, Amazon Studios halted the release of his 2018 film, A Rainy Day in New York, and when it appeared outside America the following year, its stars Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning and Selena Gomez refused to do publicity for it, and donated their salaries to abuse charities.

Woody Allen has denied child abuse allegations from his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow - AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Woody Allen has denied child abuse allegations from his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow - AP Photo/Christophe Ena

That film managed to make over $20 million globally, but Allen has struggled to find US backing or major stars for his movies since. His latest – currently known as WASP 22, aka Woody Allen Summer Project 2022 – is described as a “Parisian version of Match Point” shot almost entirely in French. It stars Niels Schneider, Lou de Laâge, Melvil Poupaud and Elsa Zylberstein. The money is American, Allen claims, but the source is as yet unidentified.

“Woody Allen feels clammy to US producers even though he hasn’t been convicted,” says film journalist Ian Nathan. “The financiers who he’s worked with in Spain and France believe him, but they can’t get significant distribution in the US.” The media analyst Tom Harrington agrees: “Allen has had a couple of hits in the last couple of decades. Backing him only makes sense if it’s a tax write-off.”

Depp, meanwhile, lost one defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard in Britain and won one in America, and was dropped in the process from the Fantastic Beasts franchise. “His superstar status and billion-dollar franchise,” says Nathan, “are behind him. He’s like Morrissey, whose fans don’t care about his dubious statements and carry on buying his albums. Depp is still punk rock – and he could make it back to Hollywood if he stars in a brilliant European arthouse hit.”

The actor, however, doesn’t appear to be playing ball. In CNews, the French journalist Bernard Montiel has reported tension on the set of La Favorite between the former Jack Sparrow and actor-director Maïwenn. Depp, Montiel wrote, has frequently been late, and sometimes doesn’t show up at all; production is going “very badly”. (Maïwenn was not available for comment at the time of writing.)

Johnny Depp lost one defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard in Britain and won one in America - Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS
Johnny Depp lost one defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard in Britain and won one in America - Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS

By contrast, Nathan suggests, in the case of Will Smith, the redemption story is smoothly under way. “At screenings of Emancipation [about a 19th-century runaway slave], stars such as Rihanna were literally saying that it’s his redemption film. We might see that film released before Christmas – and might also see the ultimate irony of him winning an Oscar again while still banned from the ceremony.

“Unless Depp changes course, however, he will be treading water in strange environments for years.” (Belying the contrast, however, Depp is reportedly going to appear in none other than Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fashion show, released on Amazon Prime Video next Wednesday.) Alec Baldwin’s case is unclear, and not entirely within his control. Since his involvement in the fatal shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of Rust last year, he has (he told CNN in August) lost at least five jobs. “I’ve been talking with these guys for months,” he said, “and they told me yesterday, ‘We don’t want to do the film with you because of this.’” On the other hand, Rust will now resume filming in January. It remains to be seen what audiences make of it, as and when it arrives.

Without a successful redemption narrative to cheer on, post-scandal audiences tend to divide as much along culture-war lines as anything else. The Scottish stand-up comedian Jerry Sadowitz added the Hammersmith Apollo to his national tour this November, thanks to the publicity around his Edinburgh Fringe show being cancelled when the venue received complaints about “racist slurs” and Sadowitz exposing himself on stage. The Apollo audience, if ticket sales are anything to go by, are not regular Sadowitz fans, but people who oppose his “cancellation”.

The same is true for the audience at Louis C.K.’s recent gig at Wembley Arena, according to Steve Bennett, editor of comedy site Chortle.co.uk. The comic lost a movie deal and his TV career – costing him some $35 million, according to his own count – after admitting to lewd acts following a 2017 New York Times story that accused him of pleasuring himself in front of female comedians. His self-financed, self-written, self-directed and self-edited 2022 comedy Fourth of July bombed at the box office – earning just over $325,000 – and was critically dismissed. The first time he tried to tour after his MeToo shaming, there was a huge backlash, and the promoter pulled the gigs. He finally played the UK in October this year.

“Louis C.K.’s material used to have a lot of nuance, playing with or against audience expectations,” Bennett recalls. “This time he sold maybe 60 per cent of the place, and the audience was more of a Joe Rogan crowd. He got an enthusiastic cheer from the announcement that he was the ‘the disgraced, disgusting Louis C.K.’, suggesting the crowd was revelling in his seedy reputation. Everyone was there for the harsher stuff, so he delivered that. It felt as though a side had been picked for him.”

The problem for actors, says one agent, is that people who want to be successful on screen usually want a particular kind of fame. “For movie stars, just finding any audience is fine, but they’d much prefer younger audiences,” one agent told me.

“Depp’s major problem is that he’s lost his cheekbones over the trial and doesn’t look like the handsome, tortured, beautiful boy he once was. He looks more like a potato – and no one wants to see Jack Sparrow played by Mr Potato Head.”