The Failed Rehabilitation of Jeffrey Tambor
If we lived in the same world we did a year ago, Netflix premiering the 5th season of Arrested Development would be a much simpler task than it has become. Why wouldn’t the long-awaited new season of a cult comedy classic be an easy sell to subscribers, especially since the show’s switch to the streaming service was one of its biggest hooks in the days before it dominated the entertainment landscape. Reviews haven’t been stellar, but that’s the least of the show’s problems.
The past month has seen the publication of two interviews that feature Jeffrey Tambor, the Emmy winning actor who was accused of sexual harassment on the set of Amazon’s Transparent. Tambor denies the claims and his Arrested Development co-stars have, for the most part, stood by him. They had already finished filming the new season when the news broke, and while Netflix had no issues in removing a major star from an original property if the circumstances called for it - see Kevin Spacey with House of Cards - nobody really believed it would happen with Tambor. Instead, we are playing a more familiar game: The rehabilitation cycle.
The problem is that it’s not working for Tambor. Well, that’s a problem for him, not us.
It started with The Hollywood Reporter, in an extensive and quizzical profile written by Seth Abramovitch. The piece is long, detailed and elusive. It refers to the accusations against Tambor as ‘one of the most complex cases of the #MeToo era’, a phrase that takes on a more insidious meaning when you remember this is the most prominent case of sexual harassment in Hollywood involving trans women. Tambor remains steadfast in his denials of wrong-doing, and the piece is far more sympathetic towards his plight than that of his accusers: Van Barnes, his former assistant, and Trace Lysette, an actress who appeared on Transparent. Lysette is described as ‘a striking brunette with fair skin and aquamarine eyes’, one who refuses to disclose her age to the interviewer, before Abramovitch lingers on her time as a sex worker as well as a suicide attempt and time spent in a psychiatric ward. It’s in stark contrast to the pensive photographs of Tambor that accompany the piece. One image includes Tambor and his wife, who rests with her feet atop his legs. This follows a paragraph where his accusers allege an incident where he ‘waddled over’ to Lysette and ‘put his feet on top of mine’.
One way the piece tries to exonerate Tambor is through having him confess to other professional misdemeanours, as if to show his raw honesty while he denies more serious allegations. His agent, Leslie Siebert, admits to him being ‘an asshole at times, and being, you know, temperamental and moody.’ He then admits to other ‘outbursts’ including one involving co-star Jessica Walter. This is the incident which formed the most discomfiting part of the New York Times’ group interview of the Arrested Development cast.
The New York Times piece is hard to read. Jessica Walter’s teary confession rings painfully true to many of us. As she talks about being verbally harassed by Tambor and how hard it was for her to deal with, her male co-stars interject needlessly to explain the situation in a way that makes them seem less culpable, all while excusing the magnitude of what Tambor did to her. Jason Bateman, who has since sort of apologized for his pig-headed remarks, justifies verbal harassment in the workplace as a side-effect of showbiz, while Tony Hale and David Cross veer between spinelessness and callousness. Even as Walter talks about how nobody had ever treated her like Tambor did on the set of a project, the men in the room work overtime to euphemize the situation. Playing that in tandem with the Hollywood Reporter piece, where that incident was Tambor’s minor sacrifice to show his supposed penance, and you see an industry at play. You see how media and PR collaborate to create the narratives they want. You see how those in the industry are conditioned to accept the unacceptable in the name of art and ‘great men’. You see how ‘great men’ become ‘difficult men’ and how those concepts are interchangeable in the grand scheme of things.
What stung so much about the New York Times piece was how mundane its gaslighting of Jessica Walter was. There was no malice behind her male co-stars doing what they did because they genuinely seemed to believe their status as peacekeepers. To keep up the happy family illusion, Walter must be contained, even as she cries and admits she’s ready to move on.
Overall, these are people on Tambor’s side (except for Alia Shawkat, whose candidness in the face of a difficult situation is commendable). Part of the role of a promotional tour this extensive, involving this many people and the fate of a beloved property, is that excuses have to and will be made. Jeffrey Tambor isn’t just trying to save his career: He’s trying to save George Bluth and the family. Netflix is trying to save Jeffrey Tambor as much as his agent is. As we’ve always dishearteningly admitted, men like Tambor will be fine. If Johnny Depp gets out of his bullshit unscathed, what’s to stop anyone else who is seen as a ‘minor’ problem in the eyes of the industry that made them?
The backlash to the New York Times piece was swift, with both Tony Hale and Jason Bateman issuing apologies. The Hollywood Reporter piece, however, stands as a prime example of how the industry and its crowded ecosystem works when it goes into crisis mode. The chances are that this mode of rehabilitation will appear sometime in the future, and probably in relation to another man who faced accusations amid the #MeToo era. The rehab may even work. I don’t think the stain will stick to Tambor, but it’s clear that this particular apology tour has not been as successful as he or his team would have wished. PR like this requires not only a willing participant but a receptive audience, and right now, there’s nothing the general public want less than, to call it by its proper name, male bullshit. You can share as many photographs of a sad difficult man as you like, but their foundations remain on female pain, and that’s no longer as easy to conceal or dismiss as it once was. A rehabilitation of a difficult man relies on the assumption that women’s anger is temporary.
(Header photograph from Getty Images.)
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