As a portrait of an uncompromising artist with intimacy issues, “Zappa” offers a rock-and-roll bookend to “Mank,” David Fincher’s just-released drama about “Citizen Kane” screenwriter (ahem, co-screenwriter) Herman Mankiewicz. Portrayed with avuncular jocularity by Gary Oldman, Mankiewicz wears his vices humbly on his ink-stained sleeve throughout the movie, which addresses his drinking and gambling habits, as well as dalliances with other women — a crazy-quilt of shortcomings that led his wife to be known as “Poor Sara.”
Set in the 1930s and 1940s, “Mank” was always intended to be a period piece. And, like Zappa, Oldman’s Mank is nothing if not lovable, his flaws portrayed as frailties rather than a cruel or evil character. But at a time when best practices and awareness of personal boundaries are becoming normalized on movie sets — introduced in the wake of #MeToo and reinforced by pandemic-mandated precautions — the behaviors on display in “Mank” look as anachronistic as a stenographer typing in nothing but a pair of pasties (one of “Mank’s” early visual gags).
Fincher ends his film with Mankiewicz presenting a 300-page screenplay to the director Orson Welles, who turned it into the classic that is often cited as the finest movie ever made. They clash in “Mank,” auguring the notorious conflicts over writing credits that would ensue. But Fincher is more interested in Mankiewicz’s artistic process. And one of the movie’s tacit messages about that process is that the trope of the “difficult genius” is alive and well, if prone to the occasional hangover.
Whether it’s Jackson Pollock in the art world or Norman Mailer in literature, Elia Kazan in the theater or George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, the image of the narcissistic, controlling, borderline sociopathic artist is such an enduring archetype that it’s become a cliche. But nowhere is it more thoroughly inscribed than in the iconic figure of the cinematic auteur, whether in the classic forms of domineering figures such as Erich von Stroheim and Alfred Hitchcock or, more recently, Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner and David O. Russell.
Some of these figures are known for being exacting, while some have been called out as straight-up bullies. Others are accused of being sexually inappropriate, some for being predatory. Maybe they’re prone to occasional fits of pique, or insensitive to the point of sadism. The behavior exists on a continuum, but wherever it lands, it’s been habitually justified as being in service to the greater creative good. Kill his demons, goes the conventional wisdom, and you kill his God-given gifts, as well.
And it’s almost always a “him.” There’s always room in American cultural lore for one more story about the demanding, mercurial diva — Viola Davis gives an electrifying performance as one in the upcoming adaptation of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But the myth of the temperamental auteur holds pride of place in Hollywood, functioning as an extension of the male gaze that has dominated American cinema for the past century and a half, with its practitioners regularly comparing the direction of a film to leading an army into battle or quarterbacking a football team all the way to the Super Bowl.
Much like the punishing residency schedules that become a point of pride for the doctors who survive them — regardless of how useful they are, educationally or medically — being “difficult” has become part of a director’s macho bona fides, a sign that he’s above such mundane matters as empathy, mutual respect or common consideration.
That model began to show cracks a few years ago, when multiple sexual assault charges against producer Harvey Weinstein led to a cascade of similar accusations throughout the film industry. What was once perceived as business as usual was suddenly revealed for what it was: an inexcusable — and often illegal — abuse of power. Male directors can no longer assume that their film sets are personal playgrounds; instead, they’re workplaces, where cast and crew are entitled to the same expectations and standards of civility of any professional space.
In a parallel development, more attention and energy has gone into making crews and creative leadership more inclusive: As women reach critical mass as directors and department heads, a culture steeped in the rites and rituals of fraternity hazings will look increasingly ludicrous — and harmful beyond those who are immediately victimized. In “The Assistant,” one of the best movies of 2020, Julia Garner plays a secretary to a Weinstein-adjacent movie mogul whose barbaric behavior infects the entire office, not just the unwitting young women he invites to his inner sanctum.
“The Assistant” brilliantly limns the ripple effect of moral injury to enablers, bystanders and ignorers. And it illuminates how utterly fatuous and counterproductive the mythology “difficult genius” has been. “I hate the narrative that people have to be tortured in order to be good artists,” the writer-director Marielle Heller said in the Guardian recently. “I think it’s a solipsistic view that people use in order to be selfish. I don’t think we have to be jerks to make good art either, but somehow we as a society have romanticized that idea.”
Heller noted that when she made “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” she obeyed “French hours” — a 10-hour day with no break for lunch. The result was that she and her collaborators could go home in time to have dinner with their families. “For many women, that’s the difference between working and not working,” she noted.
At Women in Film and Video’s ScriptDC conference on Nov. 17, the director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”) shared her own methods, including how to exert control with often male-dominated crews. She doesn’t engage in theatrical swagger to establish dominance. She arrives early, with her shot list, knowing where she’s going to put the camera for the first shot. Then, she said, “I just stand there,” so that the technicians know exactly where to put their equipment. The strategy worked even with “the crustiest English grips and electrics” when she was filming “Miss You Already” in London. “They saw that I knew what I was doing and I had a plan,” she recalled, “so nobody ever argued with me.”
Heller’s and Hardwicke’s approaches coincide with a transformation underway in how Hollywood operates. Today, producers frequently employ “intimacy coordinators” to help protect actors from being harassed or assaulted in the course of doing their jobs. In the wake of the coronavirus, film crews include consultants on following health and safety protocols. Hello masks and six-foot perimeters. Bye-bye creepy, unwanted hugs.
Even when production goes back to normal, “normal” will have shifted. Whether out of principle or brute self-protection, thoughtfulness and intentionality are being baked into the process, accelerated by millennials and Gen-Zers who are increasingly loath to accommodate bad behavior.
In other words: We might finally be able to envision a world in which creativity is decoupled from pathology, leadership from impunity and greatness from unaccountability. Even the most gifted directors aren’t angels sent from on high or alpha dogs marking their territory. They’re human. Which means that it’s fully within their prodigious imaginative capacities to also be humane.