The Hollywood Comeback: A Story of Epic Redemption or Collective Trivialization?

Olivia Minor-Jacques

About a year ago, Louis C.K. was my favourite comedian. I loved the way he would craft his jokes, easing into his premise slowly, always causing an anticipatory silence among the audience, bluntly revealing his punchline, and continuing to use the punchline as material for an additional long-running and increasingly dark bit… he deserved the title of “America’s Undisputed King of Comedy.” My devotion to Louis’s comedy is what made me all the more appalled when one morning last November, I opened my laptop to find this headline on the New York Times: “Louis C.K. is accused by 5 women of sexual misconduct.” But even as shocked and utterly dismayed as I was by this news, I was far more surprised by the recent rumours of Louis making a comeback – and how he seems to be welcomed back with open arms by the majority of his comedian counterparts.

Based on Hollywood’s most infamous controversies of the past and the public reactions to them, we have no reason to expect that this situation be handled any differently. For years, celebrities have been able to continue their career in the film industry after committing the most heinous acts of racism and misogyny. Mel Gibson’s horrifically sexist and anti-semitic rants set the media ablaze when they were leaked in 2006 and several public figures came to Gibson’s defense, saying that he simply “had a few too many.” Placing the blame on alcohol ever so conveniently is yet another way that many public figures dodge accountability for their harmful actions. Although some of them have recently been called out by the MeToo movement, there are many others who managed to slither back into the spotlight long before the film industry developed the slightest sense of morality.

For every man who is forbidden to return to the spotlight, there are several who make it back. For every condemned and globally despised Harvey Weinstein, there is a Mark Wahlberg, Casey Affleck, James Franco, and David O. Russell who continue their career with minimal consequences and no tarnish on their professional reputation.

So what is it that determines the severity of the punishments imposed on these actors and directors? Which factors contribute to the public ruling of whether or not they be allowed to come back? Revisiting these celebrity assailants’ justifications for their past wrongdoings, I hope to find clarity as to how some approach their scandals in such a way that wins over the public and ultimately saves their career… while others are condemned?

When Mark Wahlberg was sixteen years old, he spotted Johnny Trinh, a Vietnamese man walking alone on the street. He beat Trinh, partially blinding him, while spouting racial slurs. This unprovoked, brutal attack resulted in an attempted murder charge and prison time for Wahlberg – a whopping total sentence of forty five days, followed by the nearly immediate acceptance back into Hollywood, where he continued to make millions and to happily live out his days in his Beverly Hills mansion. But hey, he made a great Dirk Diggler so he deserves it, right? Wahlberg was young at the time of the assault which is often the singular component used to justify his comeback.

In addition to age and remorse expressed by these public figures that evidently qualify for a “get out of jail free card”, the support of other credible and widely respected celebrities is strategically used to convey to the public that, despite the atrocious behaviour committed by some actors and directors, they are genuinely good people who do not deserve their careers to be negatively affected. James Franco’s scandal (or what would be more accurately described as a minor instance of “bad judgment” as the way Hollywood insignificantly reacted to it implies) is an example of this. In 2014, after evidence was published of Franco flirting with and propositioning an underaged girl, he appeared on Live with Kelly and Michael and attempted to deflect the negative publicity by stating “social media is tricky, you know, it’s a way people meet each other today… you don’t know who you’re talking to. Not only do I have to go through the embarrassing rituals of meeting someone, sometimes if I do that, it gets published for the world. So now it’s doubly embarrassing.”

Yup. It’s almost as if thirty-six-year old men should stay away from teenagers altogether to avoid this “embarrassment.”

Franco’s PR managers have failed him greatly to have prepared him with this laughable excuse, but this claim was unhesitantly backed up by Kelly Ripa who responded with: “I think the way you came out here and handled it is perfectly acceptable. It happens to everybody.” This publicly announced support of Franco’s inappropriate behavior allowed the problem to diminish rapidly and to be buried deep in the pile of various celebrity scandals that continue to be ignored to this day.

To quote Us Weekly, In Touch, and every other pointless magazine infested with paparazzi shots of celebrities picking up their dry cleaning, stars are “just like us!” in that they sometimes do things that they later regret. That does not necessarily warrant immediate termination of their careers, but it would be ridiculous and down-right harmful to allow them back into the industry without first examining what exactly they did and what it says about them as a person and as a worker. Remorse, severity of the crime, and the amount of time that has passed since the crime should always be taken into consideration before further opportunities in the film industry are offered to the culprit. Currently, this is not being done. The MeToo Movement, although it has been successful in calling out some men who have sexually harassed or assaulted women in the workplace, has not circled back to the many instances of sexual misconduct that occurred long before the movement started, allowing men like Mel Gibson and James Franco to get away with their wrongdoings.

The one most important aspect that should determine the future of these assailants (but is often overlooked) is the victim. As Sady Doyle, the author of Trainwreck: The Women we Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why puts it, “rather than worrying about whether we’re being fair to the abusers or urging survivors to be the “bigger person” at the expense of their own health and safety, we need to build a culture where the survivors come first. We need to center survivors’ needs, ask them how they want us to deal with their abusers, and then honor those requests.