Magazine | February 5, 2018, Issue

Robespierre in Hollywood

James Franco (left) with Stephen Colbert, January 9, 2018 (Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)
The post-Weinstein revolution has reached its Terror phase

‘Pandora doesn’t go back in the box. He only comes out,” James Franco’s character says in Pineapple Express. Having worn a “Time’s Up” pin to signify his feminist awokening during the Golden Globes ceremony, Franco found himself called out for sexual infractions on social media during the actual ceremony. Two days later, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Franco was having a hard time shoving Pandora back in the box.

Hollywood’s renaissance dude — his résumé includes film adaptations of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury as well as films people actually saw, often involving nudity and weed — praised the new spirit in the air. “Being in that room that night was incredible. I support it, I support change.” Franco called for more women, people of color, and people in the LGBT community to get leadership positions. “I completely believe in that,” he said, though no one had asked.

Faced with allegations of misconduct, Franco’s defense was: I’m a liberal and Yay diversity! It’s the go-to move on every episode of CSI: La La Land these days: Caught with your hand in the cookie jar? Hey, cookie theft is a very serious problem and we need industry-wide initiatives to get out ahead of this global problem. That’s why I’m starting up a new charity to distribute more Chips Ahoy! to communities of color [applause]. No really, don’t thank me, this is something I have to do . . .

Franco was appearing on the Colbert show not to promote his movie The Disaster Artist, which was winding up its low-impact theatrical run, but to campaign for an Oscar nomination. The nominating ballots were due three days later, and the nominees will be announced January 23. In the meantime he was supposed to do an event with the New York Times, which instead was canceled after the Globes. Was it Oscar-nomination week or end-of-career week? Unclear.

Franco said that he respected the women making the claims but that their claims were false. Unless they were true, in which case he promised to make amends. (“The things that I heard that were on Twitter are not accurate. . . . If there’s restitution to be made I will make it. So if I’ve done something wrong I will fix it.”) The audience applauded warmly, not asking itself why someone who is the target of a smear campaign would have such kind thoughts for those trying to destroy him.

So it goes in Hollywood these days: vague, often anonymous accusations, flustered responses, careers terminated. Franco couldn’t put together a coherent answer because he didn’t know how much his accusers had on him, nor how much they were willing to say publicly, nor to what extent the public would believe them, nor to what extent the public understands what constitutes business as usual in the entertainment industry. When five accusers finally let loose in the Los Angeles Times on January 11, what they had to say was this: He’d asked them to do nude scenes in his movies, and they’d either refused or not refused. “I felt like I was selected for something based on my hard work and my merit, and when I realized it was because I have nice [breasts], it was pretty clear that was not the case,” one dismayed actress said.

If having given attention to women with nice [breasts] is disqualifying, Hollywood is going to have to fire so many men that it’ll have to shut down for lack of anyone to move the equipment around. And whatever will HBO put on the air on Sundays at 9 p.m. if it can’t continue giving us artfully crafted shows that just happen to place their crucial expository scenes in strip clubs, peep shows, and medieval orgies?

The Hollywood feminist uprising that began with the Ashley Juddites toppling King Harvey I from his throne has with startling speed moved on to its Robespierre phase. The tumbrils are laden with prisoners, all heading for the same public guillotining of their careers. The degree or credibility of the charge doesn’t matter, provided it’s sufficiently salacious. New rules: No privileging nice [breasts]. No sleazy comments on sets. And: No being a jerk on a date.

Just two days after the L.A. Times piece on Franco, fellow Golden Globe winner Aziz Ansari, America’s favorite cuddly Muslim teddy bear, found a virtual mob outside his doorstep baying for his head. Among Millennials, Ansari is, or was, universally beloved and also seen as the epitome of a nice guy thanks to his roles on Parks and Recreation and his adorable Netflix romcom Master of None. He had even co-written a nice-guy guide to love, the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Modern Romance. He seemed warm, relatable, funny, and most of all harmless. After a pseudonymous young woman calling herself “Grace” cast him as crudely sexually aggressive on a horrible date in Manhattan last year in a detailed account that went viral after it appeared on a site called Babe.net, Modern Romance seemed destined for the same remainder bin containing the Steve Bannon–is–a–genius books. At the least, Ansari’s brand was shattered. His career, which depended on that nice-guy image, hung in the balance — thanks to 3,000 words of what The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan dubbed “revenge porn.” Flanagan noted that instead of complaining of feeling pressured or violated (even as she performed oral sex on Ansari), “Grace” could have simply declined and left the apartment. Since he had already apologized in a text to her right after the bad date, there seemed to be little purpose to Grace’s going public except to embarrass Ansari.

Like the chubby antagonist in the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person,” Ansari seemed to be under the impression that dates, even first dates, should proceed much like porn films. In both cases the young lady involved hoped to be treated a bit less like someone named Randi Fanny or Luna Loveme. In her 50s, Flanagan found it slightly startling that a man who had known a woman for exactly one conversation at a party plus one hurried dinner would think it appropriate to rush her back to his apartment, prop her up on his kitchen counter, and begin performing oral sex.

It’s a Reservoir Dogs–style circular shootout within liberal Hollywood, and the conservative impulse is to say, “Pass the popcorn.” Franco and Ansari are, necessarily, Hillary Clinton supporters. Ansari endorsed her and in 2016 published an anti–Donald Trump op-ed in the New York Times. Franco joined in the Women’s March and once cut a Hillary Clinton campaign ad in which he posed wearing nothing but a bath towel with a stylized H on it.

Yet as the feminist Daily Beast writer Erin Gloria Ryan put it on Twitter in response to the Ansari revelations, “the bigger a deal a guy makes of how woke he is the more suspect I find him.” Great start! Now follow the trail. A natural corollary is: Less woke guys, i.e., conservative ones, are less suspect. Could it be that the conservative approach to sexuality might itself be less suspect? Maybe romance isn’t actually a porn movie, and porn in general is bad for women and bad for men? Might it be that the Left’s respect for women ends at the lapel pin, the pussy-hat march, and the awards podium? At the Golden Globes, Hollywood congratulated itself for starting a conversation. Let us all take them up on that.

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