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

Why are so many actors and filmmakers being cancelled?

From Kevin Spacey to Armie Hammer, why are those in Hollywood facing the axe of cancel culture more than ever before?

Not very long ago, if you were a film studio that had put together a major production that would be directed by Bryan Singer, maker of X-Men and The Usual Suspects, written by Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon and would star the likes of Kevin Spacey, Armie Hammer and Gina Carano, you would have considered yourself extremely pleased with the result and confident that you would have a considerable box office hit on your hands. Now, the chances of such a film being made are roughly on a par with Lord Lucan being seen riding Shergar at full pelt down Whitehall, serenaded by the sailors of the Marie Celeste.

Like the residents of Craggy Island in Father Ted, each of the above figures has found themselves becoming persona non grata for a distinct but unsavoury offence that, without leading (so far) to a criminal conviction in any of their cases, has meant that their careers in the mainstream entertainment industry appear to be over. Singer and Spacey have both been accused of molesting young men, and in Spacey’s case numerous lawsuits have been filed against him as a result.

For every success story like Robert Downey Jr there are many more troubled figures

Whedon has been accused of both bullying and sexual harassment by actors on the ill-fated Justice League film and, more recently, by those who appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the latter makes a mockery of its central message of female empowerment. Hammer had numerous jaw-droppingly bizarre messages leaked into the public domain that seemed to suggest that he was a pervert with a fetish for cannibalism and assaulting women, and Carano’s status as a rare female right-winger has seen her fired from a popular TV show for that decidedly twenty-first century faux pas: a succession of tasteless and provocative posts on social media, in this case the suggestion that contemporary politics could be likened to the events of the Holocaust.

And then, of course, there is Johnny Depp, a greater star than any of his peers, and for a long time arguably the biggest actor in Hollywood. The decline in his career has been rapidly hastened by the failure of a libel suit that he took out against The Sun for calling him a wife-beater. The second suit that he is engaging in in America, where he and his former wife Amber Heard are countersuing one another, will either confirm his pariah status or, in the event that the suit succeeds, muddy the waters to a confusing and inexplicable extent. Just as the protagonist Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest announced that he is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country”, Depp would then face the strange and contradictory fate of having been decreed to be a wife-beater in Britain but innocent of the charge in the United States. But in any case, it is safe to assume that the career damage has largely been done there, too.

There is a general tradition when a high-profile figure in the entertainment industry has committed a sin grave enough to warrant cancellation that they will firstly issue an apparently heartfelt apology to all of those offended, and then disappear into obscurity for as long as is felt to be necessary to absolve themselves of their sins. It will be made very clear that they will be going into rehab – the catch-all term for the purgatorial period in which they will spend a long time sitting around talking about the horrors of their childhood and why they are now so thoroughly toxic to all around them – and that, only after a long period away from the limelight, might they even consider being able to resume their former career.

Hollywood actors have always behaved badly, and sometimes paid the price with their career

In some cases, this has worked extremely well. Robert Downey Jr, who began his career as a bright and talented young actor, fell spectacularly foul of Hollywood thanks to his well-documented drug issues and chaotic lifestyle which saw him convicted of various crimes and spend years in prison. In a surprising development, after several years of low-profile supporting and character roles, he became a megastar thanks to his starring as the superhero Iron Man. Subsequently, he has segued from an irreverent, witty actor, wryly commentating on the foibles of an industry that could hand him the means of his own self-destruction with one hand and chastise him for taking it with the other, into the epitome of a well-paid company man, forever flashing a million-dollar smile at premieres of the mega-budget films in which he stars. Occasionally, one wonders if there is a well-concealed darkness still lurking there, or whether he has overcome his much-publicised demons and is simply grateful to be able to have a career at a considerably higher level than he did previously.

Yet for every Downey Jr there are many more troubled figures: the Charlie Sheens and Lindsay Lohans of the industry, who find themselves turned into objects of derision and pity, cast in B-movies that exploit their stars’ notoriety for cheap sensation. These unfortunate actors have become little more than the contemporary equivalent of the freak show star of the Victorian era, dragged into the increasingly harsh glare of the limelight in order to be ridiculed and vilified. A recently unearthed clip of the chat show host David Letterman sneering at Lohan leaves a deeply uncomfortable taste, both for its obvious sexism and for the way in which it is clear that Letterman would not have dared to speak in that manner to someone whose career was likely to resurface. As the recent Carey Mulligan controversy showed, publicists and agents have long memories, and seldom forget a slight directed towards their high-profile clients.

None of the five figures listed above has yet been convicted of a crime, unlike the once-legendary Harvey Weinstein, and they have refused to take the usual root of grovelling public apology and rehab. Spacey’s reaction to controversy was to out himself as homosexual, thereby ending the worst-kept secret in Hollywood, and Singer has kept quiet about the many allegations against him. Whedon left his position as showrunner and director of the forthcoming series The Nevers apparently of his own volition, blaming exhaustion and “the physical challenges” of making a show during the pandemic, although subsequent events indicate that his departure may well have been forced on him. Hammer’s sole comment on the almost baroque allegations him has been to decry the “bullshit claims” of the “vicious and spurious online attacks”, and Carano has taken on the forces of “the totalitarian mob” directly, saying: “I have only just begun using my voice which is now freer than ever before, and I hope it inspires others to do the same.” Announcing her intention to work with Ben Shapiro’s organisation The Daily Wire, she concluded, “They can’t cancel us if we don’t let them.”

Your personal behaviour may count against you, but your box office receipts will be forever in your favour

Under normal circumstances, it would be hard to try and discern a universal message from recent events. Hollywood actors have always behaved badly, and sometimes paid the price with their career: the popular silent film actor Fatty Arbuckle had his fame abruptly curtailed when he was accused of rape and manslaughter, and although he was acquitted, he was forever blacklisted thereafter. Yet in this tense and febrile climate, where to be on the right side of contemporary politics and social movements is all-important to maintain one’s career, it is interesting that Hammer, Whedon, Spacey and Singer have all been pilloried for being abusive towards women and young men, and that Carano’s right-wing leanings have become unacceptable in a post-Trump America. Not, that in a notoriously left-leaning industry, that they had ever been the norm; Carano’s earlier career, as a mixed martial artist, presumably has stood her in good stead for engaging in close-quarters combat with implacable opponents.

And then, of course, there is Mel Gibson. It is undeniably the case that his starring roles in such films as Fatman and Boss Level are less prestigious than they once were, and that his most high-profile acting opportunity in the last two decades was a supporting role in Daddy’s Home 2. Yet he was thought to have been cancelled not once, but twice: firstly for incoherently spouting anti-Semitic and sexist abuse after he was stopped for drunk driving, and then for allegations of domestic violence against his former girlfriend.

Either would have ended most people’s career, and for a while it seemed as if Gibson, once the biggest film star of his generation, was doomed to novelty supporting roles in bad films with numbers after their titles. But he came back with the film Hacksaw Ridge, which he directed but did not appear in. A war film revolving around the heroism of the pacifist medic Desmond Doss, it was a box office hit and was nominated for Oscars including Best Film and Best Director, signifying Gibson’s return to acceptance.

It proved that, in Hollywood, your personal behaviour may well count against you, but your box office receipts and awards standing will be forever in your favour. Those who have been cast out into darkness and are desperately searching for a way back may well look at Gibson’s career, as he plans Passion of the Christ 2: Resurrection, and wish for their very own near-messianic comeback. Chance, as they say, would be a fine thing.

Nor is it solely America that has engaged in such cancellations: Laurence Fox’s journey over the past twelve months, from leading actor and occasional singer-songwriter to founder of a libertarian political party, has been a fascinating one to watch, but has been accompanied by the demise of his acting career. Aficionados of his performance as DCI Hathaway in Lewis had already resigned themselves to bidding farewell to the fictional detective, but now his alter ego will no longer be seen in dramas on our screens.

Careers are torpedoed by a series of ill-considered tweets

The frequency and finality with which these denunciations are taking place do not suggest that the industry punishing its previous denizens is in a confident or happy position (which is of little surprise after a year of a global pandemic and massively reduced revenue). Agencies drop clients more or less overnight for no more explicit reason than “moral turpitude”; careers are torpedoed by a series of ill-considered tweets. There are many high-profile figures in the industry whose arrogant and inconsiderate behaviour has led them to be treated with contempt and suspicion, and a large number of those who they have hurt, snubbed or otherwise mistreated will be waiting to stick the knife into them at the first sign of weakness. If they can do so under the umbrella of a movement such as #MeToo, or BLM, so much the better.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover