I have worked in the entertainment industry for six years. As a production assistant, the lowest rung on the Hollywood ladder, I silently watched all kinds of abuse. I once saw a woman of color, with nearly a decade of experience, being asked to take a test to prove she understood the requirements of a promotion she wasn’t being offered. I’ve watched as an executive yelled at two assistants she didn’t like for smiling too much. I have seen coffee thrown in faces of frightened assistants. Sexual harassment, physical assault, and subtle degradation are commonplace in my field.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take working in Hollywood to understand the abuses that take place in the industry of America’s largest export. Hell, they’ve been bragging about these abuses for years and calling it genius. Stanley Kubrick verbally assaulted Shelley DuVall until she was a quivering, frightened mess on The Shining. The infamous I Heart Huckabees behind-the-scenes tape saw Director David O. Russell throwing trash cans around set and swearing at his crew. During the filming of Last Tango in Paris, Marlon Brando and Director Bernardo Bertolucci planned and filmed the assault of nineteen-year-old Maria Schneider because they felt it would look better on film if she were surprised. All four men went on to carry the moniker of genius, make more films, and be heaped with awards.
Not familiar with these behind the scenes stories? That’s OK. Hollywood is incredibly eager to show its paying audiences how it treats the female population. Look no further than the cult classic film Almost Famous. The fictional story is a patchwork of the real-life abuses director Cameron Crowe witnessed during his time as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Underage groupies during the era of classic rock and roll were passed around like trading cards by musicians in their thirties and forties. In one of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes, a groupie is lost in a card game bet and essentially sold to another band. In L.A. Confidential a film set in 1940s Hollywood, women fresh off the bus are coerced into getting plastic surgery so that they will look more like the famous starlets of the day. They are then turned into prostitutes and sold to the highest bidder.
And of course, we arrive at the ultimate Hollywood horror story, Swimming with Sharks. The film stars Kevin Spacey (the irony) as a tyrannical writer. As Buddy Ackerman, Spacey bullies, belittles, and humiliates his assistant to the point of breakdown. The assistant kidnaps his boss and holds him for ransom, before murdering him and pinning it on the first woman he can find.
All of this being stated, it should come as no surprise that Jessica Walter, queen of the stage and screen has also experienced harassment on set. The incident was first reported in a single sentence in The Hollywood Reporter. It read: Tambor acknowledges the occasional outburst on previous shows —- he references one “blow-up” with actress Jessica Walter on Arrested Development for which he later “profusely apologized” (a rep for Walter says, “Jessica does not wish to talk about Jeffrey Tambor.)”
However, when Walter was being interviewed by The New York Times with the rest of the cast of Arrested Development she opened up about the experience. During the interview, Sopan Deb asked the performers about continuing to work with Jeffrey Tambor. Tambor was recently booted from Amazon’s Transparent for sexual and verbal harassment on set. Things quickly became more awkward from there as the men of Arrested Development showcased their biases and left their matriarch on an island to defend herself.
Jessica Walter is a living legend. Her regal air, her ability to piercingly deliver a punch line, and most importantly her ability to morph and survive in an industry that doesn’t want women post-wrinkles, has made her a legend. As a white woman, producing some of the best work of her career, Walter is high on the industry ladder of importance. And even she isn’t guaranteed a safe working environment in Hollywood.
Details of what Tambor said have not been made clear at this point in time. What did become clear during the conversation with the Times is that none of her male co-stars were concerned with how Walter was affected by the interaction. When Deb asks Walter a direct question, “If someone approached you and said, ‘O.K., here’s an actor that admits he routinely yells at directors, at assistant directors, at co-workers, assistants,’ would you hire that person?” Walter doesn’t get an opportunity to answer. Instead, Tambor leaps in responding, “I would hire that person if that person said, you know, ‘I’ve reckoned with this.’”
Tambor insinuates that because he is over his behavior everyone else should be, too. It doesn’t matter that Walter is sitting right there. It doesn’t even matter that at this point in the conversation she had not publicly forgiven him for the attack. Tambor said his bad behavior is in the past and everyone is expected to take him at his word.
In a disappointing and disheartening move Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and David Cross rushed to defend Tambor. Arnett jokingly admitted to keying Bateman’s car. Somehow, his childishness makes Tambor’s behavior excusable? I’m really not sure what point he was trying to make here. Cross believed it important for everyone to remember that most people in power would not bother to apologize. An apology is something done for the self. It doesn’t take away what happened to Ms. Walter nor does it protect the cast and crew from further attack. Bateman said the cast and crew was a family.
Here is where I must call bullshit. Entertainment can be fun and glitzy, but make no mistake, creating any kind of content is work. There is a hierarchical system. Money exchanges hands. People live and die by the work they get.
Having worked on film and television sets, I understand the sentiment of what Bateman is saying. A cast and crew will frequently spend a minimum of twelve and up to eighteen hours a day working together. Six-day weeks for months at a time will quickly bond a team together. They eat together, sleep together, and naturally fight together. Sets are extremely stressful. Large expensive equipment, combined with long days, and expectation of perfection and you get an environment rampant with stress.
It is easy to lose one’s temper under that kind of constant pressure and exhaustion. But, to actress Alia Shawkat’s point, “That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.” It is completely unacceptable to make a habit of yelling at the crew, apologize for it, and then do it again. Everyone on that set is just as tired as the person they are standing next to. No one is exempt from the hard work and long hours.
The most heartbreaking part of the interview was that Walter bore the responsibility to fix the emotional damage done to her. In “almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set and it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now,” she said. The truth is, she has to be the one to move on from it, otherwise, she would become the problem. It’s clear that Tambor is more valued by the folks in the interview than Walter. Bateman called Tambor, “…one of my favorite, most valued people in my life.”
Deb made sure to give Walter room to express her feelings on the subject. He clarified, “It seems like Jason (Bateman) is saying that this (abuse) is part of the process. But that’s not what you’re saying, Jessica.” Walter simply said, “That’s correct.”
Later in the interview, Walter expresses the joy she as an artist receives from playing Lucille Bluth. She stated, “15 years ago, writers weren’t writing juicy Lucille Bluth roles.” She went on to say, “It really put me back sort of on the shorter list. It really, for a lot of us, upped our careers.”
Walter is the pinnacle of refined in this interview. A tightrope I’m sure she’s had to walk her entire career, she never throws her co-worker under the bus, but she makes her experience and feelings clear. Lucille Bluth is a rare opportunity. She is an actor. She won’t let one man’s abuse remove her from a deserved win. Walter shouldn’t have to walk this tightrope. It is the responsibility of the producer to establish a safe working environment for everyone on set.
It is my sincere hope that Walter is given a role as satisfying as Bluth on a new Netflix show. Despite her willingness to continue working both on Arrested Development and with Tambor, she shouldn’t have to face her abuser every single day at work. The worst experience in her 60-year career should not be the first person to greet her on set. I believe strongly if the tables were reversed, Tambor wouldn’t have to face his abuser daily. She would simply have been recast.
Despite the efforts of #MeToo, the communities on social media, and the general venom held for rapists, Hollywood has a long way to go before it can consider itself an equal work opportunity for its female and non-binary employees.
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