(L-R) Joss Whedon, Gina Carano, Kevin Spacey and Armie Hammer
Artillery Row

The un-cancelled

It seems cancel culture is starting to lose its power

It has recently been announced that the disgraced actor and director Kevin Spacey is to return to cinema. Spacey, whose last big-screen performance came in the unsuccessful and panned (to say nothing of unfortunately entitled) 2018 film Billionaire’s Boys’ Club, has been lined up to appear in a supporting role in a picture by Django actor-turned-director Franco Nero, The Man Who Drew God.

 The subject matter, revolving around a detective investigating the case of a man accused of sex crimes, might seem near-the-knuckle, given the preponderance of accusations relating to Spacey’s activities with young men, but Nero seems delighted to have cast him. In an interview with ABC News, he commented “I’m very happy Kevin agreed to participate in my film. I consider him a great actor and can’t wait to start the movie.”

  From one perspective, Nero has achieved quite the casting coup. Although the presence of his wife Vanessa Redgrave in the cast is also impressive, it is Spacey whose continued notoriety that will give the film considerably more publicity than it would have merited otherwise. Although his role is said to be something between a supporting appearance and a mere cameo, the fascination that his actions continue to engender indicates that the double Oscar-winning actor can still command column inches with ease. 

Joss Whedon and Aziz Ansari, who have both been accused of potentially career-ending acts, have returned

His brief public utterances over the past few years seem to be almost situational pranks, whether he is making bizarre Christmas YouTube videos in character as Frank Underwood or reciting poetry in a Roman art gallery. Like Macavity the Mystery Cat, he pops up in unexpected locations; a Douglas Murray book launch here, singing La Bamba in a street band in Seville there. What there has not been is an ounce of public repentance for the many crimes that he has been accused of. While some in his situation might have thrown themselves on the tender mercies of an Oprah Winfrey interview and hoped to salvage some semblance of their career that way, Spacey instead seems to have decided that he will be judged by posterity, even as many of his accusers die in bizarre circumstances

And now he has returned to cinema once again. Although it is tempting to assume that the former artistic director of the Old Vic has always preferred theatre to film, if he were to take to the stage once more, he would run the risk of hecklers and angry protests outside. These are less likely to materialise if an otherwise unexceptional Italian film quietly makes its way onto streaming services in a couple of years. Presumably Spacey hopes that, once he has established this precedent, he can return to higher-profile roles and that, if no more criminal charges are forthcoming, he can ever, Mel Gibson-style, rebuild his career in a few years. 

It remains to be seen whether his wish will be granted. It should be remembered that Gibson, Oscar nomination for his film Hacksaw Ridge notwithstanding, has largely returned to B-movies in the new phase of his career, and shows no signs of being offered the high-profile film and television work that many of his peers enjoy. And at a time where the likes of Armie Hammer and Gina Carano are finding that their actions have led to the potential curtailment of their careers, cancel culture remains an ever-present threat to apparent wrongdoers. 

The problem with this is that great actors and filmmakers merit a degree of fascination and loyalty during their careers from fans and colleagues alike that cannot simply be dispelled by accusations, especially if no criminal convictions result from them. Woody Allen may, or may not, have sexually assaulted his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow in 1992, and had his memoir cancelled amidst high-profile outrage at its existence, but his career as a writer and director has continued. He has won an Oscar and received a BAFTA fellowship since then. Even now, beset by renewed anger, he continues to make films, complete with A-list actors such as Alec Baldwin, Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz either defending him or continuing to work with him. 

 Of course, many once-leading figures still find themselves beyond the pale

There are other signs, too, that cancelling figures in the entertainment business has not worked as effectively as it once did. Joss Whedon and Aziz Ansari, who have both been accused of potentially career-ending acts of, respectively, on-set bullying and sexual misconduct, have returned in the past couple of weeks with high-profile new TV shows, The Nevers and Master of None. Although Whedon has been removed as showrunner from his programme’s remaining episodes and Ansari has taken a minor supporting role in the third season, instead concentrating on writing and directing, their continued presence in the entertainment industry belies any attempts to un-person them. Certainly, the closing credits to the first episode of The Nevers, in which Whedon is consecutively credited as director, writer, creator and executive producer of the show, now feel almost like a deliberate provocation to those who have demanded his expulsion from the business that he once bestrode like a Colossus. 

 Of course, many once-leading figures still find themselves beyond the pale. Chris Langham, who was convicted in court of his crime, rather than merely through public opinion, has not appeared in a film since 2012’s Acceptance. Perhaps appropriately, the lead item of trivia on its IMDB page notes “Leslie Grantham and Chris Langham are both convicted felons.” The episodes of The Muppet Show in which he features have, unsurprisingly, not made it onto Disney Plus. And Harvey Weinstein continues to await further charges of rape and sexual assault, even as his lengthy sentence looks likely to last him until the end of his life.

 But there is a significant difference between someone losing their livelihood because they have been convicted of an offence, and those who cannot obtain work because they have outraged public opinion. There are still many allegations in existence against Spacey, and only the most foolhardy (or publicity-hungry) filmmaker could want to work with him if any are proved accurate. Yet if they disappear, and The Man Who Drew God does denote the beginning of a comeback for the endlessly enigmatic former Keyser Soze, it will serve as proof that Hollywood really does offer second chances to its stars, even now. 

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