For Quentin Tarantino, a man whose taste for portraying violence against women has often been mistaken for feminist filmmaking, the line between fiction and reality is equally blurred.
As a writer and director, Tarantino is famous for pushing his female heroines towards acts of brutal violence; but more often than not, Tarantino’s women find themselves on the receiving end of the director’s graphic imagination—raped, beaten, killed, whipped and branded.
Like so many (male) directors before him, Tarantino’s work has relied on the rape-revenge fantasy—an outdated trope that throws in a sexual-assault backstory instead of doing the work of female character development. As a Mic article, “Kill Bill and Our Troubled Relationship with Rape Revenge Movies” elaborated, “While sexual assault is worthy of in depth exploration on screen, these rape and revenge films do not depict the reality of how these assaults can affect women. Rather, they look to fetishize the act and use it as motivation for unabashed gore and violence. What should be empowering films featuring women rising out of past trauma to exact justice are often instead turned into a form of torture porn.”
And yet, Tarantino has often been called a feminist—usually by other men. He’s the auteur of choice for cinephiles who like their directors male and their “feminist” films full of sexualized violence and lingering feet footage. Harvey Weinstein himself called Tarantino “the most pro-woman ever,” continuing, “[Look at] Uma Thurman [in Kill Bill], Pam Grier [in Jackie Brown], Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger [in Inglourious Basterds].”
Since Weinstein, who stands accused of sexual assault by more than 90 women, asked, maybe it is time to revisit those iconic Tarantino heroines—and take the director to task not just for the female characters he’s created, but the real-life women he mistreated in the process.
In recent years, Tarantino’s legacy has come under fire by increasingly skeptical critics. In 2015, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called 2015’s The Hateful Eight “an orgy of elaborately justified misogyny.” And new allegations by his former muse, Uma Thurman, threaten to unmask Tarantino as little more than what his films would suggest: a man who is altogether too interested in torturing women.
Over the weekend, Thurman accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault in The New York Times.
In a series of painful, shocking anecdotes, the actress also revealed that Tarantino pressured her into a potentially life-threatening scene while filming Kill Bill. Thurman told the Times that this incident occurred after she had disclosed to Tarantino that Weinstein, who produced Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, had previously assaulted her.
Thurman had expressed that she wanted a stunt person to do the dangerous-seeming scene, which involved operating a wobbly car that she described as a “death trap.” But Tarantino was insistent. “He was furious because I’d cost them a lot of time. But I was scared. He said: ‘I promise you the car is fine. It’s a straight piece of road,’” Thurman recalled. “‘Hit 40 miles per hour or your hair won’t blow the right way and I’ll make you do it again.’” She added, “The seat wasn’t screwed down properly. It was a sand road and it was not a straight road.”
Newly-released footage shows the subsequent crash, which Thurman says resulted in a concussion and knee damage. She described the accident to the Times, remembering, “The steering wheel was at my belly and my legs were jammed under me. I felt this searing pain and thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m never going to walk again’…When I came back from the hospital in a neck brace with my knees damaged and a large massive egg on my head and a concussion, I wanted to see the car and I was very upset. Quentin and I had an enormous fight, and I accused him of trying to kill me. And he was very angry at that, I guess understandably, because he didn’t feel he had tried to kill me.”
Thurman also told The New York Times that Tarantino withheld the crash footage from her for years, saying, “Quentin finally atoned by giving it to me after 15 years, right?” She added, “Not that it matters now, with my permanently damaged neck and my screwed-up knees.”
A recent Sydney Morning Herald article fleshed out the connection between the director’s oeuvre and the new accusations: “No matter how Tarantino might defend his blood-spattered back catalogue as pro-woman or true cinematic equality, violence in the QT pantheon so often seems to be, with a few exceptions, something done by men to women…Tarantino loves to put his female characters through hell. We know now, from Thurman’s account of his on-set behaviour, that he also likes to do the same to at least one of his actresses in the name of authenticity in performance.”
In the past, Tarantino has admitted that he “knew enough to do more than I did” about Harvey Weinstein. He told The New York Times that, “There was more to it than just the normal rumors, the normal gossip. It wasn’t secondhand. I knew he did a couple of these things. I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard. If I had done the work I should have done then, I would have had to not work with him.” Tarantino said that his ex-girlfriend, Mira Sorvino, had told him about Weinstein’s “unwelcome advances and unwanted touching,” and that he also knew about Rose McGowan’s settlement with the producer. Weinstein distributed his directorial debut Reservoir Dogs in 1992, and has served as a producer on every Tarantino project since.
In the New York Times story, Thurman briefly summarized other abuses she suffered on the set of Kill Bill, with the Times reporting that, “Tarantino had done the honors with some of the sadistic flourishes himself, spitting in her face in the scene where Michael Madsen is seen on screen doing it and choking her with a chain in the scene where a teenager named Gogo is on screen doing it.”
In a subsequent Deadline interview, Tarantino called Thurman’s car crash “one of the biggest regrets” of his life. He told Deadline that “the good things I did are in the Maureen Dowd article,” but complained that, “they are de-emphasized to not make any impression.” These “good things” seem to include making Weinstein apologize to Thurman for assaulting her, and the “herculean task” of going to a storage facility to find the tapes of Thurman’s car crash, which she told the Times she’s been trying to get for years. Tarantino expressed zero regret for strangling and spitting on his heroine, essentially bragging to Deadline about the skill with which he spat on Thurman for a Kill Bill scene. “So the idea is, I’m doing it, I’m taking responsibility,” Tarantino explained. “Also, I’m the director, so I can kind of art direct this spit. I know where I want it to land.”
Actress Jessica Chastain commented on this perverse directorial dynamic in a series of tweets on Saturday, writing, “I keep imagining Tarantino spitting in Uma’s face and strangling her with a chain for KILL BILL. How many images of women in media do we celebrate that showcase abuse? When did this become normalized ‘entertainment’? When violence against women is used as a plot device to make the characters stronger then we have a problem. It is not empowering to be beaten and raped, yet so many films make it their ‘pheonix’ [sp] moment for women. We don’t need abuse in order to be powerful. We already are.”
Chastain concluded, “Directors inserting themselves into a scene depicting abuse is crossing a boundary. How can an actor feel safe when your director is strangling you?” Judd Apatow also reacted to the allegations on Twitter, writing, “The number one job a producer and director has on a set is to make sure that everyone is safe. That can mean safe from reckless stunt preparation or safe from predatory producers physically attacking them. There is no excuse for not protecting your cast and crew.”
Thurman isn’t the only woman who has suffered from Tarantino’s boundary-crossing.
Diane Kruger, another actress whose Tarantino role Weinstein pointed to as one of the director’s feminist credentials, told Parade about her unique death scene in Inglourious Basterds: “I get strangled, which was especially weird because you feel it when someone is choking you, so it was an interesting day at the office. The funny part is that Quentin’s hands are in the close-up. I won’t give away the name of the actor who kills me, but Quentin said, ‘He’s not going to do it right, it’ll either be too much or too little. I know exactly what I need and I think I should just do it.’ I have to say it was very strange being strangled by the director.”
In an appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Tarantino recalled asking Kruger if she would “let [him]” strangle her: “And so I just said to her, what I want to do is, I’m going to be the hands, and what I’m going to do is, I’m going to just strangle you. I’m going to cut off your air for just a little bit of time, we’re going to see the reaction in your face, and then we’ll cut.” He bragged, “It was real. It looked really good,” explaining that, “When somebody is actually being strangled there is a thing that happens to their face, they turn a certain color, and their veins pop out and stuff.” In other films, he complained, “It always just seems fake.”
In an interview promoting 2007’s Grindhouse, Fergie recalled being bitten by the director during one rehearsal. She said, “He came to the set and ran lines with me. In one scene Quentin got really into the character and bit me. My manager has it on his camera. I’m not going to sue him or anything, but I wanted documentation. It was crazy cool.”
Rose McGowan, who also starred in Grindhouse, wrote in her new memoir Brave that, “The first time I met Tarantino, and for years after, every time he’d see me, he said, ‘Rose! I have your movie Jawbreaker on laser disc! I can’t tell you how many times I used the shot where you’re painting your toes!'” She continued, “That means Tarantino paid extra money to jerk off to my young feet and told me about it loudly, over and over, for years, in front of numerous people.”
Additionally, according to The Telegraph, “McGowan writes that for all the praise Tarantino receives for depicting strong female characters in his films, he also ‘beats the s--- out of them for his enjoyment.’”
Thurman, who has spent years fighting for her video evidence, and even more years staying silent, has some of the strongest insight into the cult of Tarantino—the fictional women he brings to life and the real ones he endangers. “Personally, it has taken me 47 years to stop calling people who are mean to you ‘in love’ with you,” she told the Times. “It took a long time because I think that as little girls we are conditioned to believe that cruelty and love somehow have a connection and that is like the sort of era that we need to evolve out of.”
Tarantino is currently on the hunt for an “authentic Polish thespian” to play the part of Roman Polanski in his upcoming film, which will reportedly take on the 1969 Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate.
This piece has been updated to include comments from a Deadline interview with Tarantino published late Monday.