The Complicated Legacy of Talented, Terrible Men

Content warning: this post contains references to sexual, physical and verbal abuse, and substance abuse.

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William Hurt’s death brought with it a reminder of Marlee Matlin’s allegations of abuse against him. They’re not for the faint of heart. In her 2009 memoir, I’ll Scream Later, Matlin accused Hurt of verbal abuse and rape. On the night of the 59th Academy Awards, where their movie Children of a Lesser God was up for five awards, Matlin became the youngest Best Actress winner ever – and the only deaf person in history to win an acting Oscar (that could change this year, as Matlin’s CODA co-star Troy Kutsor has a good shot at the Best Supporting Actor prize). After her win, Hurt supposedly asked her, “What makes you think you deserve it?” On another occasion, Matlin alleges that Hurt violently raped her, stating that he “…finally came home around 4:30 A.M. drunk and woke me up. The next thing I knew he’d pulled me out of the bed, screaming at me, shaking me. I was scared, I was sobbing. Then he threw me on the bed, started ripping off his clothes and mine. I was crying. ‘No, no, no. Please Bill, no.’ The next thing I remember is Bill ramming himself inside me as I sobbed.”

In a 2009 interview with E! News, Hurt responded to the allegations by saying “My own recollection is we both apologized and both did a great deal to heal our lives. Of course, I did and do apologize for any pain I caused.” Sunday evening, on the red carpet at the Critics Choice Awards, Matlin was asked about Hurt’s death. She responded like the absolute pro she is: “We’ve lost a really great actor and working with him on-set in Children of a Lesser God will always be something I remember very fondly. He taught me a great deal as an actor and he was one of a kind.”

Matlin’s win should have been the happiest moment of her life; her Best Actress win was especially poignant because Hurt, the previous year’s Best Actor winner, presented her with the award. Now when I watch this, I can hear Hurt asking her later, “What makes you think you deserve it?”

Matlin was not Hurt’s only victim, just his most high-profile one. Hurt’s former partner Sandra Jennings also accused him of physical and verbal abuse; on one occasion, five days after Jennings gave birth to their son, Hurt allegedly “smashed me across the face”. And in a recent essay for Variety, author Donna Kaz recalled that “Bill would snap, physically shove, punch and beat me, followed by tears, apologies and him offering me expensive gifts. When the battering began I sloughed it off. He said he was sorry. Perhaps I instigated it. I only had to visit the ER once. It was only after many, many years I admitted to myself that I was the victim of domestic violence.”

It’s worth noting that substance abuse appears to have been a factor in at least one of these stories, but if I had to guess, it was a factor in all of them. And in Matlin’s case, at least, there was a pretty sizable power differential; not only was Hurt an established, Oscar-winning actor to Matlin’s film novice but he was also fifteen years her senior.

So how do we mourn a brilliant artist who was also a shitty human being? How do we reconcile their public image with their private behavior (especially in the #MeToo era and during Women’s History Month, no less)? Can I say that I loved Hurt in The Big Chill while also acknowledging that he may have been a domestic abuser and a rapist? There aren’t any easy answers, but I’d argue that holding these men to account while they’re still alive would be a great start. Then, we should give every abuse victim a voice, say their names, listen to their stories, and believe them.

[For the record, I acknowledge that false rape accusations do occur, but they are exceedingly rare. According to FBI statistics, as many as 8% of reported rapes end up being false but only about 35% of actual rapes are reported and 0% of unreported rapes are false allegations. In other words, false accusations are difficult to calculate, but they make up no more than 8% of the 35%. Sorry for the little foray into math.]

Finally, when these men die, we need to remind people of the loathsome things they did and not just their brilliant work, so we can get a full picture of their lives and the pain and trauma they may have caused. We simply cannot separate their private lives from their art.

Here are a few beloved artists who have died in the last five or so years and the details their official obituaries might have left out:

  • Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci, director of such films as The Last Emperor and Stealing Beauty, created a scandal in 1972 with the release of Last Tango in Paris. The story of a fifty-something man coping with his wife’s suicide by dominating a nineteen-year-old, Last Tango in Paris contained explicit nudity and gratuitous sex. In one particularly harrowing scene, Paul (Marlon Brando) anally rapes Jeanne (played by Maria Schneider) using butter as a lubricant. Schneider was obviously aware that her character would be raped in the scene, but she was not told in advance about the butter. Why? Well, it wasn’t in the script; Bertolucci and Brando came up with the idea together and conspired to withhold that information from Schneider. In 2013, two years after Schneider’s death, Bertolucci admitted in an interview that they improvised the butter “bit” on the set and intentionally kept that detail hidden from Schneider until the scene was filmed. The goal was to humiliate Schneider in order to get a better performance out of her. In 2013, Bertolucci appeared on a Dutch television show called College Tour and said about Schneider, “I feel guilty, but I don’t regret it.” Bertolucci died of lung cancer on November 26, 2018.

  • Kirk Douglas

In her 2001 biography of Natalie Wood, Suzanne Finstad alleged that Wood was violently raped by a major movie star when she was sixteen (though Finstad didn’t name the star). Physically injured and terrified of crossing a beloved, award-winning actor, Wood chose to keep the rape a secret. In a 2021 memoir, Wood’s sister Lana named Natalie’s A-list rapist: Kirk Douglas. It turns out, this story was one of Hollywood’s worst-kept secrets, but Kirk continued to be a beloved actor and patriarch of the Douglas dynasty long after the secret was out. Natalie Wood died in a mysterious, possibly murderous (though it’s never been proven) drowning on November 29, 1981 (more on Wood’s death later). Kirk Douglas died on February 5, 2020, at the age of 103, having never been held to account for his brutal assault on a sixteen-year-old girl.

  • Sean Connery

Yes, Sean Connery was James Bond and Henry Jones Sr. and Robin Hood and William of Baskerville. But he was also (probably) a wife-beater. In 2006, Connery’s ex-wife Diane Cilento accused Connery of mentally and physically abusing her. It might have been difficult to believe had it not been for a 1965 interview with Playboy magazine in which Connery said, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong in hitting a woman, though I don’t recommend you do it in the same way you hit a man”. And a 1993 interview with Vanity Fair, where Connery said, “There are women who take it to the wire. That’s what they are looking for, the ultimate confrontation. They want a smack”. Of course, Connery denied Cilento’s claims but he had already shown us who he really was. Sir Sean Connery died in his sleep on October 31, 2020.

  • Chuck Berry

When Chuck Berry died on March 18, 2017, he was (appropriately) hailed for his pioneering contributions to the art of rock and roll. But there are a few more things you might not have read in those rapturous eulogies. For instance, did you know that in 1959, Berry was arrested on charges of transporting a fourteen-year-old girl across state lines for alleged “immoral purposes”? And did you know that in 1987, Berry was charged with assaulting a woman, who had mouth lacerations requiring stitches, two loose teeth and facial contusions? And did you also know that in 1990, Berry (who eventually settled out of court) was sued by a group of women who claimed that Berry had installed a camera in the bathroom of his restaurant?

So in the future, when the following men die, my blog posts may look something like this:

  • Roman Polanski

“Roman Polanski, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old girl in 1977 and then fled the country to avoid imprisonment and spent decades as a fugitive from justice, has died. Polanski also made movies.”

  • Bill Cosby

“Bill Cosby, who admitted to giving out Quaaludes and Benadryl to ‘facilitate sexual encounters’, and definitely (allegedly) raped dozens of women, has died. Cosby co-created and starred in a couple of television shows we used to like. He also used to wear really stupid sweaters.”

  • Woody Allen

“Woody Allen, who may or may not have molested his seven-year-old daughter Dylan and definitely had sex with and took nude photos of his twenty-one-year-old sort-of stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn, has died. Allen wrote and directed a bunch of movies about neurotic Manhattanites.”

  • Tom Cruise

“Tom Cruise, who may have helped cover up a series of rapes perpetrated by a fellow actor/Scientologist [That ’70s Show‘s Danny Masterson] and probably allowed the ‘church’ to wiretap his wife’s phone and who definitely spoke out against people receiving necessary mental health services, has died. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to punch Cruise in his smug face. He loved to run in his movies.”

As an aside, I HIGHLY recommend the Alex Gibney documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which you can stream on HBO Max.

  • Sean Penn

“Sean Penn, who loved to beat people up and who was a homophobe and a transphobe and an all-around asshole, has died. Penn played the iconic Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and made some other movies.”

  • Kevin Spacey

“Kevin Spacey, who has denied the allegations*** made by several men that they were sexually harassed or molested by Spacey when they were as young as fourteen, has died. Spacey made a couple of stone-cold classics and a bunch of films I’ll never watch again.”

***Technically, Spacey denied all of the allegations but one: in 2017, when actor Anthony Rapp accused Spacey of an attempted sexual assault in 1986 when Rapp was fourteen, Spacey said he didn’t remember the encounter but that he was “beyond horrified to hear [Rapp’s] story” and he offered Rapp his “sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior”. After the BuzzFeed article in which Rapp made the allegations was published, fourteen more people came forward with accusations against Spacey, all of which he denied (presumably after his publicist got ahold of him).

  • Gary Oldman

“Gary Oldman, who was a homophobe and an anti-semite and probably a wife-beater, has died. Oldman overacted in some movies.”

  • Plácido Domingo

“Plácido Domingo, who was accused of sexual harassment by at least fifteen women, has died. He was a pretty good singer.”

  • Marilyn Manson

“Marilyn Manson, who was accused by his former fiancee Evan Rachel Wood (and at least fifteen other women) of emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse, has died. He made some pretty decent music when he wasn’t being an absolute fucking monster.”

  • Robert Wagner

“Robert Wagner, who was very likely responsible for wife Natalie Wood’s death, has died [author’s note: Wagner is ninety-two years old]. I literally can’t tell you anything he’s been in besides Hart to Hart and the Austin Powers movies, which you can definitely keep.”

4 thoughts on “The Complicated Legacy of Talented, Terrible Men

  1. So many of these are “men” I would not seek out in movies anyway, except maybe young Tom, before he went all Scientology. That pic of Nicole really says everything, doesn’t it? “I AM FREE”

    So many of the instances described here had a power differential-age and status are the overriding notes, and often it’s both. People discount the importance of both of those, but it’s so so important to recognize. Even looking at some of the pics here, there is often an imbalance, a look of distrust, that in hindsight screams for help.

    This one line says it all about abuse perpetrated by someone you have a relationship with- “When the battering began I sloughed it off. He said he was sorry. Perhaps I instigated it. I only had to visit the ER once.”

    Liked by 1 person

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