Years ago, when I was a film critic, I was asked out for coffee by a guy who’d just been hired at the review-aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t remember the purpose of the meeting. I just recall the sense — as he ventilated about the site’s “Tomatometer” rating, which would soon crush all my elitist insights into hard data — that I’d been summoned to witness the digging of my own grave.
This was actually fine with me. I was already demoralized by the whole enterprise. I’d always seen the role of the critic as a conduit, someone who has an aesthetic experience and then reports on what it was like; I never cared to tell others what to see or avoid, imposing a hegemony of tastes and interests that I didn’t believe in. At work, though, I was feeling the pressure to serve readers with ratings and recommendations — and, increasingly, sites like Rotten Tomatoes seemed to push a binary of “good” and “bad,” all based on consensus. It was depressing, all this holding up of fingers to the wind. Consensus is a snowball with a hard, mineral center, barreling down a slope, and few people want to be on the wrong side.
Sometimes consensus accretes around the story of a movie, even before people see the film itself. A couple of weeks ago, I attended a screening of “Don’t Worry Darling,” which I’d been looking forward to since first getting a glimpse of its poster. I had been vaguely aware of some noise emanating from the film’s press rollout, I suppose, but it wasn’t until the now-infamous spit video that I realized just how much flak the movie was catching. The video showed Harry Styles, one of the film’s stars, approaching his audience seat at the Venice Film Festival, suavely buttoning his jacket, leaning down and then — according to nothing but gleeful online supposition — purportedly hocking a loogie on another of the film’s stars, Chris Pine, who stops clapping and, with his eyes, traces a trajectory from Styles’ lips to his own lap. No actual spit is discernible in the video, and no motive was ascribed. But none were needed. Those few frames of video were scrutinized, analyzed, slowed, zoomed, dissected and compared to the Zapruder film so often that the joke begged for mercy.
To me, though, the Cold War artifact it recalled was Kremlinology — the practice of scrying every available scrap of information to discern the hidden motivations and power struggles of distant, unknowable figures. The events that drew such close attention to “Don’t Worry Darling” were not huge ones, in the scheme of things: They included a supposed feud between the director, Olivia Wilde, and the lead actress, Florence Pugh, possibly involving a pay gap between leads; the actor Shia LaBeouf’s being replaced, under disputed circumstances, with Styles; LaBeouf’s leaking messages from Wilde about Pugh; Wilde’s being served with custody papers from her ex-fiancé, Jason Sudeikis, while onstage at CinemaCon; and, above all, Wilde’s becoming romantically involved with Styles, 10 years her junior. Where the theoretical animosity between Styles and Pine was supposed to fit in was unclear. But by then people were happy to believe anything — even the baseless-rumor equivalent of jumping the shark — as long as it kept building the story of a woman who fostered a work environment so fraught that one star would spit on another, in public and on camera, for no apparent reason.
“Don’t Worry Darling” is just the most recent example of a film maudit, or “cursed film.” That was the term coined for Jean Cocteau’s Festival du Film Maudit in 1949, describing works that had been wrongfully neglected, or deemed too outrageous to merit serious attention — “movies rendered marginal by disrepute,” as J. Hoberman would later write in The Village Voice. Films made by women are not the only ones stuck in this defensive position, but they seem disproportionately prone to it, often with criticism centering on the director herself. (Elaine May’s experience on “Ishtar” was such that Hoberman classed her as a cineaste maudit; she wouldn’t direct again for decades.) Hints of a production’s chaos or excess are less likely to be taken as signs of unruly genius, and more often framed as messiness or lack of authority. The more that talk swirled around “Don’t Worry Darling,” the more its quality — and then, specifically, Wilde’s competence — were called into question.
Cinema has a century’s worth of lore about films troubled by budget overages, clashing personalities and on-set affairs: Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s wanting to kill each other while making “Fitzcarraldo,” mental breakdowns on the set of “Apocalypse Now,” Peter Bogdanovich’s leaving his actual genius of a wife after an affair with a young Cybill Shepherd on “The Last Picture Show.” These productions were plagued by bad press and rumors, but they never faced the wrath of stan Twitter. These days, fans spread rumors and memes, which are picked up by media outlets, which disguise their prurience with speculation about box-office prospects or reviews. Then out comes the Tomatometer, and the party’s over.
But of course the idea that this consensus opinion emerges from some pure, objective place is disingenuous. Press always colors reviews — and now some vocal portion of the public seems oddly invested in Wilde’s comeuppance, a fact we may see reflected in ratings. (Given statements Wilde has made about some of the film’s real-world inspirations, it’s not hard to imagine the online response including the kind of organized backlash that has greeted other disfavored films.) And while critics’ responses won’t be actively malicious, they won’t be magically free of their own biases, either. “More or less the definition of the history of cinema,” Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker in 2012, “is: the stuff that most of the best-known critics didn’t like, or damned with faint praise — it isn’t that they didn’t care for it, but that they didn’t care about it.” Male film critics outnumber female ones 2 to 1, and tend to award “slightly higher average quantitative ratings to films with male protagonists,” according to studies conducted by Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
It’s odd that this could be the fate of “Don’t Worry Darling,” a film about men trapping women in a regressive, suffocating place where dissent means repudiation and exile — a film whose big plot developments must be hard for Wilde to resist talking about, given how much the narrative surrounding the film echoes their point. But it’s impossible to discuss without spoiling the story, so I’ll just share an anecdote. My 14-year-old daughter came with me to the screening, unencumbered by external baggage. When the credits began to roll, she announced, “That was the best movie I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Seeing Wilde’s name among the cast, she asked which character the director had played. When I told her, she was impressed. She said: “I want to be her. I want to do what she does.” It made me happy to hear this. And then I started to worry.
Source photographs: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images; Screen grab from Warner Bros.
Carina Chocano is the author of the essay collection “You Play the Girl” and a contributing writer for the magazine. She frequently writes for the magazine’s Screenland column.