It’s been a long, impossible summer for the publicists of Hollywood, especially those tasked with spinning the most damaging of movie-star scandals just in time for opening day. (Looking at you, The Birth of a Nation flacks.) But as we consumers keep attempting to parse the public consequences of celebrities’ private lives, either to appease our own consciences or punish theirs, the proof inevitably materializes in the pudding: Should we separate our valuation of art from our gossipy opinions of beautiful famous people? Can we even do such a thing?
This week has crystallized that eternal question in two very different ways, for two very different actors whose personal lives have become inextricably entangled in the movies they have to open. Most visibly 2016 has been the Year of Watching Nate Parker Squirm, sometimes almost gracefully but mostly otherwise, under a microscopic lens that’s reached back 17 years into his past to illuminate the ugliest rape allegation since Woody Allen. Opening wide in 2,100 theaters, his Birth of a Nation is on track for a third-place opening with pundits guesstimating a box-office take between $7 million and $10 million—not quite what anyone might have hoped when it sold for $17.5 million with eyes on a multi-Oscar awards run.
The case more than earned its controversy over the course of this year, and with Birth of a Nation finally opening in theaters this week we’ll see if audiences are more curious than unforgiving. Part of why Parker’s story has proven so enduringly problematic is that, in 1999, as a college wrestler at Penn State, he was accused of raping a female student along with his friend—and future Birth of a Nation collaborator—Jean Celestin. In addition to accusing the men of having sex with her while she was too intoxicated to consent, the unnamed woman alleged that they and their supporters subsequently launched a smear campaign against her around campus.
Parker was acquitted, and Celestin’s conviction later overturned, and nearly two decades later they’d moved on with their professional careers. Parker wrote, starred in, directed, and produced The Birth of a Nation and sold it out of Sundance in a record bidding war with a buzzy, ready-made, behind-the-scenes narrative. Only after its premiere, and the first wave of rave reviews, and the historic acquisition by Fox Searchlight, and the media spotlight that ensued, did the issue of his rape case resurface, begging new scrutiny.
That the rape accusation existed was a major issue in itself—until Parker’s demeanor addressing the case dug him an even deeper hole. He fumbled through a tone-deaf succession of interviews on the subject, clearly ignorant of the distance it created between his image and The Birth of a Nation’s message of pursuing righteous justice for wrongs, or how his Nat Turner is catalyzed to his heroics by the vicious rape of the women in the film. Only months ago did Parker insist he had no idea the woman, still suffering from great emotional distress, committed suicide by overdosing on pills in 2012, and that it made him sad. As recently as this week, he told Good Morning America he’d been falsely accused and would not be apologizing for anything.
The Birth of a Nation, a rare telling of Turner’s anti-slavery insurrection framed as a corrective addendum to whitewashed history books, has a great deal to say about race, gender, power, and resistance that echoes particularly loudly in our era of Black Lives Matter activism and social awareness. But it also features Parker’s fingerprints from top to bottom, start to finish, and in every frame of the majority of scenes he’s in, acting heroic, avenging rape victims. For many moviegoers, the contradiction will be a hard pill to swallow. It’s not as simple as separating the art from the artist when the artist’s alleged real-life transgressions are writ large upon the screen, reminding us of our unresolved revulsion.
It’s only natural that we struggle to separate the performer or the artist from the art, because the way we consume entertainment is designed to conflate our concept of a person’s identity with the fictional one they project onscreen. We sometimes know too much about an actor, certainly our most elite A-listers, to fully forget who they are while we’re watching them work. Our repeat desire to watch specific performers is what makes a movie star. And the farther they ascend into the stratosphere of celebrity, the more distant the heights of fantasy we tether them to, blurring our perception of who they are into split personas, their real lives becoming just another character.
In the case of Hollywood golden boy Brad Pitt, persona has been intertwined with performer for so long it’s hard to remember a time he wasn’t a household name—or tabloid catnip. After breaking out in Thelma & Louise, he became the heartthrob of the 1990s, defined for a pop audience as much by his offscreen romances as his onscreen roles. It’s telling that as soon as his separation from wife Angelina Jolie went public last month, fans and media scrambled to dissect Jennifer Aniston’s reaction to the dissolution of a union famously established in the ashes of her own marriage to Pitt. When Jolie announced she was divorcing Pitt “for the health of the family,” the shocking end of Brangelina signaled an ugly end to the biggest, most beautiful Hollywood coupling since Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.
The fascination over the Brangelina divorce will certainly hang over the release of Allied, the Nov. 23 romance-thriller starring Pitt and French actress Marion Cotillard as WWII-era spies who fall in love while assassinating Nazis, only to be torn apart by the suspicion that one of them is a double agent. The last time Pitt top-lined a spy pic, he ended up marrying his co-star, Jolie, who later revealed they’d fallen in love on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith (while he was with Aniston).
According to the gossip rags, it was Jolie who suspected Pitt of similar shenanigans earlier this year during the filming of Allied. Shortly after the divorce news hit, Page Six breathlessly cited an anonymous source who said a jealous Jolie had hired a private eye to spy on her husband, catching him cheating with Oscar-winner Cotillard and partying hard on set with hookers and drugs. The blowback escalated so swiftly that within a day of the break-up bombshell, Cotillard took to her Instagram account to preemptively dispel the rumors, and confirm that she’s pregnant again with her longtime partner Guillaume Canet.
“This is going to be my first and only reaction to the whirlwind news that broke 24 hours ago and that I was swept up into,” she wrote. “I am not used to commenting on things like this nor taking them seriously but as this situation is spiraling and affecting people I love, I have to speak up. Firstly, many years ago, I met the man of my life, father of our son and of the baby we are expecting. He is my love, my best friend, the only one that I need. Secondly to those who have indicated that I am devastated, I am very well thank you. This crafted conversation isn’t distressing. And to all the media and the haters who are quick to pass judgment, I sincerely wish you a swift recovery. Finally, I do very much wish that Angelina and Brad, both whom I deeply respect, will find peace in this very tumultuous moment.”
“The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires,” Godard said at the start of Contempt, citing Andre Bazin in the ultimate film about marital strain in the movie business. Psychology says we develop “parasocial” relationships with our stars and celebrities, one-sided fascinations with the lives of strangers we’ll never actually know. That subconscious fixation is still the same as it ever was, even in primates: The aspirational impulse to watch how high-status members of society behave so that we may in some way, realistically or not, emulate them. It’s too easy, then, to indulge this human predisposition to keep tabs on the “normal” lives of famous people: what they’re wearing, where they eat, who they’re sleeping with. When their relationships end and their hearts break we sympathize, albeit with no small degree of schadenfreude. And when they act outside the perceived bounds of social rules, we take it upon ourselves to judge the hell out of them… unless their bizarre behavior is driven by external forces. Which is why, arguably, Tom Cruise can jump on couches and behave like a wackadoo as Scientology’s No. 1 celebrity endorser and still open $200 million-plus mega-franchise movies like the Mission: Impossible sequels (his Jack Reacher 2, incidentally, hits theaters this month).
Of course, there are filmmakers who defiantly endure their own public controversies, like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, and find themselves confronted more often by the art vs. artist debate. But even Allen has the sense to not always cast himself front and center in his films, giving them more of a shot at commercial success (see: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine) when the audience is not constantly reminded, at least for those few hours in the darkened theater, that he made them.
Mel Gibson, on the other hand, has had a tough time erasing the memory of his bigoted tirades. It’s understandably hard for some folks to want to actively buy a ticket to a Gibson movie if they have vivid recollections of his anti-Semitic comments, or his misogynist ones, or the time he used the N-word to intimidate—and strike—his ex Oksana Grigorieva. It’s all but erased genuinely dazzling turns like in Blood Father, a delightfully satisfying exploitation actioner that he’s actually pretty great in, and which got quietly dumped into a Lionsgate digital release this summer. It’s more likely that a film like November’s awards hopeful Hacksaw Ridge, the based-on-a-true-story WWII drama he directed starring Andrew Garfield as a pacifist hero, will be the kind of good-guy tale that can make audiences briefly forget its director’s ugly past.