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Scott Rudin’s bad behavior was just another Hollywood cliche until a new generation said time’s up

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/18/2021 Ann Hornaday
Ethan Coen, Scott Rudin, Joel Coen standing next to a glass of wine: From left, writer-director Ethan Coen, producer Scott Rudin and writer-director Joel Coen pose with their Oscars after “No Country for Old Men” won best picture at the 80th Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2008. © Kevork Djansezian/AP From left, writer-director Ethan Coen, producer Scott Rudin and writer-director Joel Coen pose with their Oscars after “No Country for Old Men” won best picture at the 80th Academy Awards in Los Angeles in 2008.

There’s another shark gone belly-up.

Earlier this month, the Hollywood Reporter published an exposé of producer Scott Rudin, the force behind such Broadway hits as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Book of Mormon” and such Oscar-worthy movies as “No Country for Old Men,” “The Social Network” and “Lady Bird.” The most outrageous misdeeds alleged in the article — which quoted several of Rudin’s former employees — included slamming a computer monitor on an assistant’s hand and throwing a stapler and a baked potato at two others. Those were merely the most extravagant examples of an office reportedly steeped in irrationality, intimidation and humiliation.

On Saturday, Rudin contacted Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks to issue a statement announcing that he would “step back” from the Broadway plays he is producing to take “steps I should have taken years ago to address this behavior.” Rudin didn’t mention how his hiatus would affect his film projects: In addition to such highly anticipated upcoming movies as Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and the Coen brothers’ “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” he is attached to the film adaptation of “The Book of Mormon” and a biopic of Frank Sinatra, among many others.

But the movie many film fans were thinking of when they heard the news about Rudin wasn’t one of his productions but a 1994 cult classic that seemed to have sprung directly from his own most ungovernable id. In the caustic satire “Swimming With Sharks,” Kevin Spacey played Buddy Ackerman, a perversely ruthless mogul who personified Hollywood’s most legendary belligerent jerks.

The lore of “Swimming With Sharks” was always that real-life movie executives inspired George Huang to write the film’s script, whether it was modeled after the mercurial action impresario Joel Silver or Rudin, the latter of whom’s taste for high-toned literary adaptations and Oscar-worthy dramas existed alongside a notoriously explosive temper.

Kevin Spacey standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: In the 1994 film “Swimming With Sharks,” Kevin Spacey starred as a Buddy Ackerman, a movie mogul with an explosive temper, causing more than a few Hollywood insiders to think of Scott Rudin. © Cineville/Neofight Film/Kobal/Shutterstock In the 1994 film “Swimming With Sharks,” Kevin Spacey starred as a Buddy Ackerman, a movie mogul with an explosive temper, causing more than a few Hollywood insiders to think of Scott Rudin.

“Life is not a movie. Good guys lose, everybody lies and love . . . does not conquer all,” Buddy says at crucial point in the movie, delivering his cynical gospel to a new assistant named Guy, played by Frank Whaley. Huang might have intended “Swimming With Sharks” as a cautionary tale, but for years after it was used as a kind of samizdat training manual for young people entering show business. Newly minted assistants and junior executives would be encouraged to watch the film to prepare themselves for the indignities, mental torture and emotional abuse they would inevitably need to accept and endure if they had any shot at getting ahead in the business of show.

At least that’s how “Swimming With Sharks” played for 25 years. Today, as Rudin’s recent reckoning suggests, the new Guys aren’t taking it anymore.

Rudin’s misbehavior has been an open secret in the entertainment industry for years, usually couched in terms of temperament, creative genius and can-you-believe-this urban legend. The long column of alleged misdeeds on one side of the ledger were balanced by the outstanding work he nurtured and championed. The anecdotes and occasional gossip item hewed to the same contours with the same takeaway: Wow, what a nasty guy. But in service to such great art! After all, some would say, you need to break a few eggs to make a masterpiece — even if they break in the course of being thrown at an underling’s head.

It’s a familiar story, anchored by antiheroes whose behavior ranges from unscrupulous and manipulative to downright homicidal, that has been mythologized at least as far back as 1952’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” (1998) and, more recently, “Mank.” But, in the wake of #MeToo, Time’s Up and Rudin’s defenestration, those narratives are looking increasingly insupportable as generational attitudes shift regarding power, accountability and workplace culture.

[The ‘difficult genius’ trope was always problematic. Now it’s obsolete.]

It’s become commonplace to hear baby boomers complain about their millennial, Gen Z and, occasionally, Gen X colleagues, with the word “entitled” being mentioned early and often. I freely admit to snarking that “kids today” can often seem oversensitive, unwilling to submerge their own egos and uninterested in institutional memory and norms. Too many seem personally affronted by the kinds of scutwork and drudgery that were just called “life” when I was coming up. There’s a fine but bright line between a boss you disagree with but need to accommodate, and a sadistic one who should be reported to HR (or even charged with assault).

But as irritated as I can be when people half my age seem to think work should be organized solely for their comfort and personal expression, I’m impressed by how that cohort — especially women — simply will not tolerate bad behavior that was once considered part of a day’s work. And those standards apply not just to obvious abuse but to the “harmless” but grindingly demoralizing jokes, physical compliments, shoulder-rubs and patronizing put-downs that countless women (and quite a few men) have had to manage on top of getting our work done.

Increasingly, that form of entitlement is being questioned — if not entirely dismantled — thanks to a generational ethos that centers on human dignity and mutual respect and refuses to recognize unspoken rules of protecting the boss at all costs. If anything, when the boss steps out of line, they’re more apt to drag him or her on Twitter or go straight to the press. This is a generation who might watch “Swimming With Sharks” and wonder why any of their forebears tolerated and tacitly sanctioned such inhumane treatment — just as they watch “Gone With the Wind” and ask how a movie can be considered a classic when it perpetuates racist, reactionary tropes.

It’s telling that Rudin did not take action in response to the Hollywood Reporter piece until the actress Karen Olivo announced on Instagram that she would leave the Broadway production of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” in protest of the theater industry turning a blind eye to Rudin’s behavior for so many years. (Rudin was not involved with “Moulin Rouge.”) Privately, observers are speculating whether Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, who will star in Rudin’s production of “The Music Man” when it opens next year on Broadway, drew a similar line in the sand. Whether Rudin will get away with “stepping back” until he can quietly return to the foreground will depend on Hollywood talent and financiers making future collaborations with him contingent on genuine, measurable rehabilitation and reparation.

Of course, even the most welcome evolution has its drawbacks: swift, all-or-nothing judgments can be inimical to nuance and proportionality. And when deployed as a cudgel rather than a scalpel, public shaming is woefully imperfect as a means of justice and transparency. With luck, we will discover ways to hold malefactors responsible for their past deeds while making it possible for them to pursue meaningful and productive careers in the future.

In the meantime, there’s no denying the satisfaction of seeing a bully finally being brought to account. Life may not be a movie. But sometimes the bad guys lose, often thanks to people who refuse to keep lying. That’s a happy ending we should all be entitled to.

Jessica Walter and George Segal personified a time when movies grew up Actors in documentaries used to be taboo. Now they’re the stars.

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