Meanness Is Having a Moment (Guest Column)

Some public figures relish in being mean, while others are trying to repair their reputations, Michele Willens writes

hollyblog guest blog banner

“This is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves, and to hold onto the goodness in each other.”

So said Chloe Zhao, in accepting her Oscar, and my vote for the most necessary words of the night.

This, after all, is a time when Scott Rudin is stepping away from Broadway and Hollywood due to recent (and belated) reports of the way he treats employees. Harvey Weinstein, who was also a feared man to work for, sits in prison for actual criminal behavior. Andrew Cuomo is fighting all kinds of accusations, and as Ross Barkan, the author of a new book about the New York governor told me, “I put nothing past him. He is not normal.” Ellen DeGeneres has watched her ratings drop, due to this nice girl’s apparently not so nice treatment of those behind the stage

Harassment and #MeTooism have garnered most of the attention of late, but now, sheer meanness is getting its deserved moment. Throwing out a cruel White House for a decent duo showed us that many — or at least enough — voters agree.

What remains baffling, of course, is that bad people can have good taste or even concerns for issues. Weinstein should never see the light of day but a lot of his past films have and should. Rudin’s treatment of underlings is despicable, but his list of Broadway shows is nothing less than exceptional. I cover that world, and many a time, I’d look back and see him standing, nervously watching the response. And he can apparently be devoted to friends and performers. (One cast member of “Mockingbird” told me Rudin helped his family with a financial issue.) The Cuomos have made many enemies, but they have lived lives of serving the public, whether in Albany, Washington, or on CNN. 

Another “and…..yet” sector that has taken hits is philanthropy, which, theoretically, is all about goodness. Although the entertainment industry has seen the names of bruised benefactors (Les Moonves, among others) erased from walls and wings, they did do things to get up there. Yes, many show up to repair damaged images, or to get on George Clooney’s good side. But, if they stay past the first press release, and treat those around them well, some kudos may be warranted. The new documentary “Citizen Penn” arrives soon, so we will see if a guy named Sean, clearly committed to causes, but not always known for his warm and fuzzy behavior, comes out on top.

Some still cling to the belief that meanness (when labeled toughness) is an asset for certain arenas, be they in Hollywood agencies (hello, Ari) or on athletic courts. But one can be competitive without resorting to foul attitudes (Roger Federer and Steph Curry come to mind). In George Saunders’ recent novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” one character says, “If such things as goodness and brotherhood and redemption exist, and may be attained, these must some time require blood, vengeance, the squirming terror of the former perpetrator, the vanquishing of the heartless oppressor.” The book takes place during the Civil War, but the words sadly resonate. 

Within limits, forgiveness is always an option, especially when growth occurs. Years ago, producer Peter Guber slammed a door in my face when I mentioned that we would be at the same dinner later that week. “No we won’t,” he said rudely. He not only turned out to be civil at dinner but spoke passionately about education issues. Guber is now more into sports than films (maybe a few too many doors slammed?) and sits on the University of California’s prestigious Board of Regents. Something changed there.

“Queen Bees,” a new film about folks in an assisted living facility, is all about being able to find kindness before it’s too late. (“They are mean girls with medical alert bracelets,” says an initially excluded newcomer.) In the end, the meanest “girl” makes a turnaround. “So you’re just going to change overnight?” she’s asked. “I am going to try,” she answers.

Will Scott Rudin change in his “time off” or even try? Will Cuomo’s apologies stick, or find protection behind popular proposals like legalizing marijuana and sports betting? Has Ellen become a better employer — let alone person — after her backstage woes went public? If “people at birth are inherently good,” as Chloe Zhao stated, can their goodness make a comeback? 

Well, as Ernest Hemingway (a pretty bad person who left us a lot of great things) said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *