There was something grimly humorous about the treatment of Jeffrey Tambor during the promotional tour for “The Death of Stalin,” Armando Iannucci’s farce about the end of the Stalinist terrors.
Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov in the darkly comic treatise on bureaucratic evil that revolves around the efforts of Stalin’s cronies to determine who will replace him as the head of the Politburo. It would be difficult to overpraise Tambor’s work in the film: Initially withdrawn and a bit cowardly, he grows into his role as the presumptive head of the Soviet Union, turning imperious and caustic as the movie progresses. The film closes with a series of stills in which we see actors airbrushed out, a reminder of the very real way in which the Stalinists tried to control the present by destroying the past.
When news broke that Tambor had been fired from “Transparent” — Amazon’s Emmy-winning series in which he played a transgender woman transitioning late in life, and the ripple effect on her family — over accusations of sexual harassment, art imitated life in the most absurd way possible. IFC, which was distributing “The Death of Stalin,” airbrushed Tambor from the movie’s poster, replacing him with actress Andrea Riseborough.
The absurdity of a movie about Stalinism deploying Stalinist tactics to disappear undesirable elements played into the hands of those who believed the #MeToo movement, initially lauded for taking down notorious predators like Harvey Weinstein, had morphed into a Stalinist moment, one in which accusations equaled guilt.
Removing an actor from a poster isn’t the most dramatic aesthetic response Hollywood has had to the #MeToo moment — Kevin Spacey, accused of sexually assaulting minors, was literally cut from a film and replaced by Christopher Plummer and removed from “House of Cards” before filming on its forthcoming season started — and director Iannucci has said that taking Tambor out of the picture wasn’t in the cards, noting, “it was great to work with him.”
Tambor is also in the new season of “Arrested Development,” debuting May 29, and prominently featured in the trailer announcing the return of the show. He will reportedly be doing media for the show and sat down for a long, one-on-one interview with the Hollywood Reporter in which he addressed the accusations. The forthcoming months will likely be somewhat awkward for Tambor, but he’ll keep working.
And that’s for the best.
There are people who have been exposed in the wave of #MeToo stories who may not deserve to work in the industry again, people who have been accused of using their position and their power to extract sexual favors and destroy those who do not go along to get along. Harvey Weinstein deserves everything that has happened to him, as does Kevin Spacey. The allegations against Brett Ratner are damning and likely preclude him from being a Hollywood power player ever again. Matt Lauer isn’t going to be a newsreader in the near future. Charlie Rose will spend his remaining days in exile. Bill Cosby may spend his in prison.
But Tambor’s alleged activities come nowhere near the level of the men above. His was a far more marginal case — he likely mistreated an assistant and is accused of making inappropriate contact with, and comments to, a costar — and Tambor has long been targeted by a coterie of activists unhappy with the fact that a cisgender man was playing the role of a transgender woman. He has paid a steep price, losing a plum gig on an award-winning show.
Re-reading Tambor’s memoir “Are You Anybody?” in the light of his dismissal from “Transparent,” I was struck by his neuroses — and the energy he pours into his craft.
“I have a thing called the ‘callback’ and it has followed me pretty much all my life,” Tambor writes. “My friend Jill Clayburgh called me out on this. She said, ‘I always know you’re going to call back and correct something you said or wonder if I was somehow offended by anything you said. …
“In my acting class, I get confrontational and very personal with my kids. I push ’em hard. Then I get home and I wonder if I’ve pushed them over the edge. If I’ve been too much. I sometimes send an e-mail, checking—’Are you all right?'”
Given Tambor’s temperament, I can’t help but think he’s living in a hell of his own making as it is, running through events constantly, rewinding his memories and poring over them in an effort to see what he did wrong. He has been punished professionally, castigated personally. But he doesn’t deserve the professional death penalty. His sanction and slow-motion rehabilitation may be a useful step forward in shaping the workplace sentencing guidelines for a wide variety of #MeToo cases in an industry trying to figure out how, exactly, to navigate the range of sexual harassment claims unleashed in recent months.