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Olivia Wilde speaks out on "Richard Jewell" controversy

CBS News logo CBS News 12/13/2019 Victoria Albert
Olivia Wilde with red hair looking at the camera: The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Hosts An Official Academy Screening Of Booksmart © Lars Niki The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Hosts An Official Academy Screening Of Booksmart

Actress Olivia Wilde on Thursday defended her portrayal of female journalist Kathy Scruggs in Clint Eastwood's controversial new film "Richard Jewell." The film, which reportedly shows Scruggs offering to trade sexual favors for a tip, has been criticized for offering a "false," "malicious," and "damaging" portrayal of both Scruggs and female journalists as a whole.

On the eve of the film's release, Wilde wrote on Twitter that she considers Scruggs, who worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and who died in 2001, a "bold, smart, and fearlessly undeterred" reporter. "I cannot even contemplate the amount of sexism she may have faced in the way of duty," she said.

"Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy 'traded sex for tips,'" Wilde wrote. "Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did." 

"The perspective of the fictional dramatization of the story, as I understood it, was that Kathy, and the FBI agent who leaked false information to her, were in a pre-existing romantic relationship, not a transactional exchange of sex for information," Wilde added. "I cannot speak for the creative decisions made by the filmmakers, as I did not have a say in how the film was ultimately crafted, but it's important to me that I share my personal take on the matter." 

The film is based on the story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who found a pipe bomb hidden in a bag at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Jewell reported the bomb to police, which eventually exploded and killed one person.

But while Jewell was initially hailed as a hero for finding the bomb, the FBI began investigating him soon after because he was believed to fit a personality profile of a lone bomber. Scruggs broke the story that the FBI was investigating Jewell, whose reputation was then tarnished by negative press coverage. Jewell was later exonerated, and sued a number of outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for libel. 

Wilde's comments come days after lawyers for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its parent company sent a letter to the film's creators claiming Scruggs was reduced to a "sex-trading object in the film."

"Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging," the letter said.

Other reporters have weighed in on social media. Los Angeles Times political reporter Melissa Gomez tweeted that the portrayal is "deeply wrong."

Wilde originally spoke out in defense of the film on Monday. She told Deadline that "minimizing" Scruggs to the scene where she appears to offer sex for information to an FBI agent is a "double standard." 

"She had a very close relationship with the cops and the FBI helping to tell their story, and yes, by all accounts she had relationships with different people in that field," Wilde told Deadline. "But what I resented was this character being boiled down to one inferred scene and I don't hear anyone complaining about Jon Hamm's character as being inferred that he also had a relationship with a reporter."

"If there's anything slightly questionable about a female character, we often use that in relation to condemn that character or to condemn the project for allowing for a woman to be impure in a way," she said. "It's a misunderstanding of feminism to assume that all women have to be sexless. I resent the character being minimized to that point."

In her Thursday thread, Wilde said that her previous comments on the film had been "lost in translation." 

"Let me be clear: I do not believe sex-positivity and professionalism are mutually exclusive," she wrote. "Kathy Scruggs was a modern, independent woman whose personal life should not detract from her accomplishments." 

"She unfortunately became a piece of the massive puzzle that was responsible for the brutal and unjust vilification of an innocent man, Richard Jewell, and that tragedy is what this film attempts to shed light on," Wilde added. 

The film premieres on December 13. 

Related video: Watch the trailer for "Richard Jewell" (via Screenplay)

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