So what happens next for celebrity suck-up artist Billy Bush? By now we’ve all seen the video, we’ve all wagged a judgmental finger at his smarminess, his titillated laughter, his hug demands. His chortle session with self-proclaimed lady-grabber Donald Trump won’t be good for his career in the short-term. The host of the “Today” show’s third hour has been suspended, and reports suggest his punishment will be permanent.
But if history tells us anything, it’s that guys like Bush usually get another shot. Is that fair? Maybe not, but no matter how much certain displays of sleaziness may shock the pundits of social media, the public is surprisingly forgiving. Bush isn’t the first celebrity to make a very high-profile gaffe, and he won’t be the last to rise from the ashes of his own self-immolated reputation.
Public forgiveness is a complicated matrix that hinges on many factors, from the number and magnitude of the offense to the perceived authenticity of a celebrity’s ceremonial apology. How it works, exactly, is a mystery — although here are some lessons we’ve learned from Bill Cosby, Johnny Depp, Mel Gibson, Nate Parker and so many other celebrities who have ventured into infamy.
1. The number of transgressions matters
A single misdeed can be explained away, especially when the person responsible has built up years of good will. Amber Heard accused Johnny Depp of physical abuse, but his previous partners haven’t reported the same treatment, so some fans have rationalized that she made it all up. Despite troubling photos of her bruised face, Depp doesn’t seem to have lost any jobs.
Compare that to Cosby. It was no secret that Cosby had been accused of sexual assault in the past, but who wanted to believe that Dr. Huxtable was a predator? So the news media and the public chalked up one or two accusers to aberrations. But when 60 women stepped forward with strikingly similar stories, it became much harder to ignore. Regardless of what happens with Cosby’s legal woes, his career is over.
2. The justice system doesn’t dictate public sentiment
Long before he was famous, Nate Parker was tried for rape in 1999 and found not guilty. But that wasn’t enough to stop the backlash when allegations against him resurfaced earlier this year, casting a major cloud over the opening of his “Birth of a Nation.” Until then, he had seemed poised to conquer Hollywood as the latest actor-turned-auteur. Now the prospects for his film, and his future as a filmmaker, are looking less rosy.
It turns out that circumstances matter. Parker was an athlete at Penn State at the time he avoided charges — the very place where Jerry Sandusky abused kids with impunity for so many years — which placed the old allegations against him into a troubling narrative. Then there was the bombshell that his accuser committed suicide in 2012. In the end, “Birth of a Nation” bombed at the box office. Now the once-surefire Oscar nominee isn’t looking like such a lock anymore.
Meanwhile, Roman Polanski was accused of raping a 13-year-0ld girl in 1977. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a lighter sentence. But when it seemed like the judge was going to renege on the plea deal, Polanski fled the country. He has been living in France for the most part since then.
Polanski has released nearly a dozen movies while in exile. His biggest hit was “The Pianist,” in 2002, a movie that also won him the best director Oscar. He was also nominated for an Academy Award just a few years after the scandal, for “Tess” in 1981.
It’s hard to square the public’s reaction to Parker and Polanski — in part because they were at different stages of their careers, and their scandals broke in very different eras. It’s also too soon to know whether or how Parker will weather his storm. But it’s also worth noting that . . .
3. The celebrity’s public persona plays a role, but not necessarily in the way you’d think
Celebrities on high horses have a longer way to fall. Parker had some lofty goals with his mission to bring the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising to the screen: He wanted his movie to prompt national conversations and heal century-old wounds. A noble and worthy goal for a young actor, no?
But once people learned of his past, his quest started to look a little grandiose. It didn’t help that his movie portrayed two rape scenes as a way to justify the motivations of the main character — a little tasteless for someone who had once been accused of the same crime.
Whereas Woody Allen — well, didn’t people always think he was a little creepy? He can be tasteless and crass. Does that mean we hold him to a different standard? Possibly. Whether or not you believe the claims of Mia Farrow’s daughter Dylan, who says Allen sexually abused her when she was a child, he still emerged from the scandal of marrying Farrow’s other daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, with his career intact. As he told the Hollywood Reporter, “You can see I worked right through that, undiminished. Made films all through those years and at the same rate I was making them. I’m good that way. I am very disciplined and very monomaniacal and compartmentalized.”
4. Time heals (most) wounds
If there was one person who seemed like he would never be forgiven, it was Mel Gibson, who offended just about everyone at one point or another. First it was the gay community, with homophobic comments during an interview. Then there was his anti-Semitic tirade (“F—ing Jews. . . . The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”) after getting pulled over for drunken driving in 2006. (He also called a female officer by a vulgar, sexist nickname.) Then in 2010, he was also caught on tape threatening his estranged wife and spewing racist gibberish. His talent agency dropped him — and so, it seemed, did most of Hollywood.
But what do you know: He’s back after serving time in Hollywood’s version of solitary confinement (i.e., taking a role in “The Expendables 3”). This year, he will unveil “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort since “Apocalypto” premiered just after his DUI arrest, and it’s getting major Oscar buzz. Perhaps smartly, he stayed behind the camera, letting Andrew Garfield be the face of the military drama.
It seems as though Winona Ryder — one of the few women on this list — is forging a similar path to redemption. She took time off after getting caught shoplifting but has slowly reemerged with buzzy roles in films such as “Black Swan” and, this year, Netflix’s summer hit “Stranger Things.”
5. The type of transgression matters
Clearly, some crimes are more serious than others. Hugh Grant had a dalliance with a prostitute, but did that really hurt anyone? Arguably only his girlfriend at the time, Elizabeth Hurley. One cheeky interview on “The Tonight Show” was more or less enough to absolve him and salvage his career.
“I did a bad thing, and there you have it,” he said, while the audience cheered and clapped. That was easy.
The same goes for Tom Cruise’s wild-eyed antics and couch-jumping. It wasn’t criminal behavior but it certainly startled people, forever saddling him with the label of loony cultist. Even so, it didn’t slow his box office success.
It’s obviously harder to forgive something like sexual assault — at least these days, as Parker’s flailing, failed apology circuit shows us.
What does all this mean for Billy Bush? In that leaked video clip, he came off as unctuous and pathetic, but he didn’t break any laws. And the things he said in private with Donald Trump weren’t all that shocking to anyone familiar with Bush’s smug on-air personality. Would anyone miss his obnoxious red carpet interviews if he disappeared? Maybe not, but people who refuse to fade from view are often rewarded. (Just look at Anthony Weiner.)
Bush may not be long for the “Today” show. But he’s quite possibly one reality show away from being back in the good graces of an ever-forgiving public.