Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling opens this week — but one could be forgiven for thinking it’s already been out for ages, because of the sheer amount of press coverage its controversies have generated. The movie marks Wilde’s second time behind the camera, after her well-received coming-of-age film Booksmart. There was much anticipation about Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller set in 1950’s suburbia.
But for weeks now, the focus has been on the alleged affair between Wilde and Harry Styles, an unfortunate press conference at the Venice Film Festival (what the heck was Styles trying to say? Did he really spit on Chris Pine? And why didn’t Florence Pugh show up at all?), and the supposed offscreen feud between Wilde and Pugh. And that’s without even mentioning the infamous Shia LaBoeuf fallout, in which Wilde claimed she fired the actor, he publicly rebuffed her, and then a video emerged in which Wilde is seen begging LaBoeuf to rejoin the film and saying — presumably of Florence Pugh — “I think this might be a bit of a wake-up call for Miss Flo.”
Early reviews of the film have been mediocre. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a mere 32 percent. Jennifer Heaton from Alternate Lens wrote in her review: “Don’t Worry Darling is a beautiful trash fire; a trainwreck you can’t look away from that confuses vagueness for subtlety, confusion for suspense, and pomposity for importance.” Manohla Dargis from the New York Times echoed those thoughts, writing: “Wilde isn’t a strong enough filmmaker at this point to navigate around the story’s weaknesses, much less transcend them.”
So, is anybody who has followed the behind-the-scenes brouhaha going to actually watch this movie? Is there any chance that it will be a hit?
We don’t know yet, but there’s a history of famous films that survived significant off-screen controversy. There was Cleopatra, the 1963 Richard Burton/ElizabethTaylor vehicle notorious for both the stars’ torrid affair and its gargantuan budget. Nevertheless, Cleopatra went on to be the year’s top box office winner (raking in $57.7 million). Then there was the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford horror classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Buzz on that one included the vicious infighting between the two superstar actresses, which led to both petty pranks (Crawford put rocks in her pockets when Davis had to drag her across the floor onscreen) and dangerous stunts (Davis gleefully spoke of enjoying pushing Crawford down the stairs in one scene.)
History indicates that a production known mostly for its controversy usually doesn’t achieve lasting success. While Baby Jane stands the test of time, Cleopatra is mainly talked about nowadays in reference to its scandals and problems. Tom Breihan, writing for The AV Club, speculates: “Cleopatra made as much money as it did because people were curious about this overwhelming boondoggle. It’s one of those clear cases…where the backstage stories trump almost anything that shows up onscreen.” Sheer curiosity often does drive a strong initial performance at the box office.
The gossip surrounding Don’t Worry Darling has been matched this year only by a controversy over on Broadway, specifically concerning the first ever revival of Funny Girl. The original star of the show was Beanie Feldstein; she departed abruptly in July. Her replacement is Lea Michele, who famously played a Funny Girl-obsessed student in the TV series Glee. Feldstein has been both vilified by some for her appearance and lightweight singing voice, and fiercely defended by others. Rumors flew about Michele’s previous on-set behavior, including allegedly racist remarks and an unwillingness to share the spotlight with other actors.
The result? The show, which had been tanking at the box office, saw by far its strongest week ever when Michele began her run as Fanny Brice. It appears that the backstage drama has sparked greatly renewed interest in, and increased attendance at, the musical.
It’s not uncommon for people to relish tales of shortcomings and misdeeds of the rich and famous. Perhaps because the stories bring the stars down from their pedestals, average folks feel better about their own troubles and the messiness in their own lives. For whatever reason, much of the public loves to hear about celebrities behaving badly.
Don’t Worry Darling has a lot to worry about at the moment. The days and weeks ahead will tell whether or not the momentum of press surrounding it will carry the movie to box office success. Did showman P.T. Barnum speak the truth when he said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Will all the gossip and speculation about the cast and crew make Don’t Worry Darling the “trainwreck [ticket buyers] can’t look away from”?