It’s Well Past Time to Rethink ‘Auteur Theory’ and the Way Actresses Are Treated

It’s Well Past Time to Rethink ‘Auteur Theory’ and the Way Actresses Are Treated
Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in The Shining. (Screenshot: Warner Bros.)

This week, the Hollywood Reporter released a new interview with actress Shelley Duvall. To say “a rare interview” is a massive understatement. Duvall largely disappeared from the public eye in the ‘90s and stayed that way until Phil McGraw and his team of charlatans and opportunists subjected her to one of the most exploitative interviews in Dr. Phil history, and that’s saying something.

In THR’s piece, Duvall was asked about her experience with Stanley Kubrick making The Shining. Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall while filming is the stuff of legend; it could be called abject cruelty, but is usually referred to as “art.” When asked by writer Seth Abramovitch if she saw things that way, that he was exceptionally brutal toward her, she replied, “He’s got that streak in him. He definitely has that.”

Ever since Tippi Hedren endured physical injuries and psychological damage at the hands of Alfred Hitchcock while filming The Birds, Hollywood history is replete with stories of male directors torturing their actresses, ostensibly with the goal of pulling the best possible performance out of them like an infected tooth. The way their actions are described get softened with time, as words like “push” are used to describe what the director did, as though he took her hand and gently walked her into the role. But in light of a few recent stories, it’s time to revisit what that “push” really looks like, and why we’ve long accepted that this is just what genius directors do, and their female actors should be thankful. After all, Hedren’s performance was praised. But it is Hitchcock who is most associated with the film. His hands are on every element of his creations — including, without consent or desire, his actresses — and as such, they are his.

This is what’s referred to as “auteur theory” (as we understand it today), when directors have complete control over their projects and, to that end, are seen as the beginning and end of the product. They are seen as wholly and singularly responsible for — and, as a result, the sole artist worthy of celebration — all aspects from script to performance to visual style and beyond. Their films are not a collaborative process, but the work of one man and the many people who helped him realise his vision. With that, many of the women around them are collateral damage, merely in the way of this powerful and passionate artistry.

Viewing Vivian Kubrick’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Making The Shining, has always been uncomfortable. Duvall’s fragility emanates off the screen, her palpable anxiety and trauma all dismissed by the director while also encouraged. To keep her at that level, he warned those on set, “Don’t sympathise with Shelley.” To elicit the best performance as Wendy Torrance, Kubrick seemed to believe she should be treated like Wendy Torrance.

“Going through day after day of excruciating work. Almost unbearable,” she told Roger Ebert in 1980. “Jack Nicholson’s character had to be crazy and angry all the time. And in my character I had to cry 12 hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week. I was there a year and a month, and there must be something to Primal Scream therapy, because after the day was over and I’d cried for my 12 hours, I went home very contented. It had a very calming effect. During the day I would have been absolutely miserable.”

Miserable she was. The doc shows her hair falling out, and she later said she was “in and out of ill health because the stress of the role was so great.”

What Duvall and so many other actresses in history experienced as their normal would be cause for concern these days (we hope). In that interview with Ebert, Duvall paused due to a twinge of pain — which she told Ebert she “only” got twice a week at that point — and relayed a story about shooting Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. “And the scene called for six dwarfs to come crashing through the roof of a medieval carriage, but the dwarfs were a bit afraid of jumping off the scaffold, and so Terry didn’t think, he just jumped, and he weighs 82 kg and landed on my head. I could have been paralysed. As it is, there’s just a pain that comes through my ears to my eye, and then goes away. I’m sure it can be fixed.”

She shares these stories casually, stopping to ask Ebert his thoughts on the tea she’d made, or the trees at her home. But looking back with the knowledge we have now, of what would later become of Duvall, these stories are not casual. They’re horrifying.

This sentiment was echoed by Anjelica Huston, Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time who was present while The Shining was being filmed. “I got the feeling, certainly through what Jack was saying at the time, that Shelley was having a hard time just dealing with the emotional content of the piece,” Huston told THR. “And they didn’t seem to be all that sympathetic. It seemed to be a little bit like the boys were ganging up. That might have been completely my misread on the situation, but I just felt it. And when I saw her during those days, she seemed generally a bit tortured, shook up. I don’t think anyone was being particularly careful of her.”

After all that, Duvall questioned whether or not it was worth it. “After I made The Shining, all that work, hardly anyone even criticised my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like,” she told Ebert. “The reviews were all about Kubrick, like I wasn’t there.” It’s Duvall who suffered, and it’s Kubrick and Nicholson who received the acclaim. Author Stephen King, who famously loathed Kubrick’s interpretation of his novel, described Duvall’s performance as “a screaming dishrag.”

Even now, it’s fairly easy to look back on all this as “just how it was.” To set Hitchcock and Kubrick in this box as eccentric geniuses who were allowed to mistreat actresses while their work remains hailed to this day. But it’s not relegated to the past. If the MeToo and Time’s Up movements have taught us anything, it’s that countless men in power have used that power to hurt women. Just this week, we received a stern reminder that this includes even modern men whose work was hailed as “feminist” countless times over.

After several months of Justice League actor Ray Fisher alleging abuse from director Joss Whedon (and others he says are culpable) while working on that film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Charisma Carpenter voiced her support for the Cyborg actor. You may have already been aware she had her own story to share. Using her social media accounts, she explained the abuse she says she received from Whedon on the sets of Buffy and Angel. In one instance, Carpenter says she was asked to film at 1 a.m. while pregnant, putting her through physically demanding work, and ultimately sending her into Braxton Hicks contractions. Carpenter called this “retaliatory.” Carpenter’s statement was echoed and supported by co-stars Amber Benson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Michelle Trachtenberg, who was only 15 when she started on Buffy, and who wrote on Instagram that Whedon was not allowed to be alone with her, and that she was “subjected. To a lot.”

Of course, Fisher’s experience tells us Whedon’s treatment was not limited to women, and abusers aren’t only men, but very rarely does auteur theory include women, for a number of reasons. Women aren’t given as many opportunities as their male peers, and “difficult women” are Hollywood pariahs whereas difficult men are simply artists.

Whedon’s name and imprint are all over every piece of every project he’s ever done. It’s called the Whedonverse, after all. And his name, his auteurship, has opened up countless doors. He was handed the Avengers movies and given chances at writing scripts for Wonder Woman and Batgirl. He took over Justice League from Zack Snyder, and it wasn’t just Fisher who has said their time with the director wasn’t great. Gal Gadot told the LA Times, “I had my own experience with [Whedon], which wasn’t the best one, but I took care of it there and when it happened. I took it to the higher-ups and they took care of it. But I’m happy for Ray to go up and say his truth.”

But, according to Benson, the “Whedonverse” women are still healing after all these years. Fisher and Carpenter have been telling their stories for a long time, and while it’s great we’re all finally listening, why did it take so long? Well, probably because to admit that this individual is a problem is to admit our favourite shows and movies are tainted. But Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers, and everything else Whedon has done are bigger than him, just like the works of any other harmful individual who happened to be part of art we enjoy, even if it’s a big part.

It’s time to let go of the idea that one iconic creator is responsible for everything we love about a property they’re involved with. Because with that much power comes individuals who will wield it for evil.

You know where I first learned that? Joss Whedon.

Buffy Star Charisma Carpenter Accuses Joss Whedon of Abusive Behaviour

Actress Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, has accused the creator of those shows, Joss Whedon, of abusive behaviour.

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