A Progressive’s Dilemma

This time last week, I posted my review of the P.T. Barnum musical The Greatest Showman, in which I declared the film to be “exceptional” and “spellbinding”. Soon after the review was uploaded, I took the liberty of sharing the review through my private social media accounts, which I often do to keep friends and family up-to-date with the happenings on this very blog. Usually, the responses to my articles are pretty innocuous – a few likes, and maybe one or two supportive comments – and I expected this occasion to be no different.

Within minutes of linking the article to social media, one of my friends had commented with a post (and two handy hyperlinks) elaborating on Barnum’s past misdeeds, particularly his history of exploiting vulnerable people, including Indigenous Australians. Having no knowledge of Barnum’s past – The Greatest Showman doesn’t exactly trumpet his transgressions, for obvious reasons – this information came as a shock to me, not least because I had always considered myself to be an advocate for human rights and other social causes.

Later that week, I underwent a similar experience with a completely different film. On this occasion, it was The Disaster Artist, which was being tainted by numerous sexual misconduct allegations made against its director, James Franco. While none of the alleged incidents happened on the set of his film, and his acts aren’t in the same league as someone like Harvey Weinstein, it is reprehensible to know that someone who takes advantage of women should be allowed to maintain his status as one of Hollywood’s leading men.

Both of these incidents had me assessing the values which I claimed to hold so dear. I kept asking myself: Am I wrong to like these movies? Am I a hypocrite for suggesting that people should see them? Should I even be calling myself a Progressive? At one point, I even considered retroactively removing The Disaster Artist from last Friday’s Fish Called Wanda Awards, which I had done for The Greatest Showman in light of the previously-unknown information about Barnum – it was gifted as 2017’s “Best Musical”.

After much deliberation, I reneged on the removal of the two films from the article, partly for reasons of posterity, but mostly to acknowledge wrongs – not just my own, but also those of individuals linked to both projects. My feeling is that by removing these films from any written content, I’m only contributing to Hollywood’s habit of figuratively sweeping issues under the carpet, rather than openly admitting and addressing them. (It’s attitudes like this that allowed Weinstein and his cohorts to act the way they did, and get away with it for so long.)

But now the issue arises as to whether or not the two movies can still be enjoyed, even with their tainted legacies. While both The Greatest Showman and The Disaster Artist can be appreciated on their own merits and without any historical context, the producers of both films should at least have taken steps to acknowledge the wrongdoings of Barnum and Franco, respectively. In the instance of the former, they already have, albeit in the subtlest of ways.

While it’s probably too late to call-out Barnum for his faults, The Greatest Showman does address them through the character of James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who suggests that the museum’s shows are making a mockery of the unfortunate. And, in one of the earlier scenes, when the short-statured Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) asks why he should join Barnum’s museum, the ringmaster says, “They’re laughing anyway, may as well make them pay for it.”

That throwaway line is actually the reason many decided to join Barnum and his travelling circus. In the case of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, they were regarded as savages and weren’t even allowed to become citizens in their own land, so when the opportunity to be sheltered, fed and paid came along, they couldn’t say no. Incidents such as these are not uncommon for Barnum, who would use his fame and fortune to lure society’s most marginalised people into performing for his brand.

Some might say Barnum’s actions bear a striking similarity to those of James Franco, who also used his position in the film industry to exploit people, this time young women – many of those making allegations against Franco were aspiring actresses taking part in his acting classes, and felt they had no power over their male teacher. While Franco has shown signs of remorse for his inappropriate behaviour, and the industry seems willing to forgive him, watching him accept a Golden Globe while wearing a Time’s Up pin is still enough to make one feel uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, there’s little that The Disaster Artist can do to address those accusations of misconduct, and it’s not just because Franco is the star and director. The film is written by Scott Neustadtler and Michael H. Weber, who based their script on a book by Greg Sestero, who in turn based the book on the tumultuous production of The Room, which was directed by the enigmatic Tommy Wiseau. Here, one can see that there are multiple parties involved in the making of The Disaster Artist, and some of those would be unhappy if the project were to become Franco’s means of an apology.

With this in mind, it’s doubtful that The Disaster Artist could ever have tackled the allegations surrounding James Franco; The Greatest Showman, in a sense, does take steps to address Barnum’s shady past, but it doesn’t go as far as it should. As an industry that prides itself on being liberal and forward-thinking, Hollywood has a responsibility to inform and educate the public about the wrongs of the past, and by romanticising the life of P.T. Barnum – and allowing the likes of James Franco to go unpunished – it is going against the values that it professes to stand for.

And these aren’t isolated incidents, for Hollywood has a long history of hypocrisy when it comes to social and political issues that continues to this very day. Commentators continue to applaud Roman Polanski despite his assault of a 13-year-old girl; Woody Allen’s most recent movie, Wonder Wheel, was financed and produced by Amazon Studios despite allegations of assault made by his daughter; and just last year, the Academy presented Casey Affleck, who has also been accused of assault, with an Oscar for Best Actor. If America’s film industry can’t follow its own principles, what hope do the rest of us have?

For those who enjoyed The Greatest Showman and/or The Disaster Artist, and feel hypocritical for doing so, fear not – it is Hollywood that is to blame for making you feel so.  Audiences should not have to know the ins-and-outs of a person or event before viewing a film, and they shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for unwittingly forgoing their values. But if you believe that a film (or person) deserves to be condemned for its (or their) misdeeds, then you have every right to change your mind and do so.

And if all else fails, you can at least live with the knowledge that you adhere to your ideals better than Hollywood ever will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s