Yesterday, Adele Haenel walked out of the Cesars due to convicted sexual predator Roman Polanski winning Best Director. Reactions were mixed – with most applauding Haenel for what is seen as taking a heroic stand in the era of the #MeToo movement, while others claim she was using it for a few minutes of fame. This got me thinking about a rather problematic Frenchwoman…
Few will deny Brigitte Bardot was France’s prime export of the 1950s. Even though she never made a film in the United States, Bardot it well-known on the American film scene with her kohl-lined eyes, sky-high beehive, and Angelina-Jolie-Before- Angelina-Jolie-Was-Born pout. I’m a huge Bardot fan, but there is a definite push back due to Bardot’s personal feelings and her seemingly nonstop court appearances for inciting racial hatred (1, 2, 3, 4).
So what’s a girl to do who enjoys Bardot’s work but doesn’t necessarily agree with everything Bardot says? Enjoy Bardot’s work. Let’s get one thing straight – Bardot has said a lot of things I find offensive – even if I agree with some of her sentiments behind it (I don’t support Kosher or Halal slaughtering methods but I also don’t feel I can tell a religious group what they can or cannot do when it comes to how they choose to slaughter their meat being factory farming is just as brutal (Personally, I get all my meat from grass-fed, humanely-slaughtered animals and try to use tail-to-snout)). This isn’t me getting on my political soapbox – I just see where she comes from on one issue she talks about; I don’t agree with the derogatory insults she chooses to use when asking for reform.
There is, however, a bigger issue I see in the Old Hollywood community and what I have struggled with as a Bardot fan – cancel culture. Everyday I seem to find a new person with an asterisk in their name because someone has found an obscure interview, fact, or story that needs to be shared to show what a horrible person a celebrity was. From Clark Gable’s alleged push for the firing of George Cukor on Gone with the Wind for being gay (BTW, absolutely not true. David Selznick’s memos show he was heavily considering firing Cukor before Gable was even signed on and was annoyed with Cukor already pushing the film’s budget) to John Wayne’s troublesome Playboy interview.
Here’s the thing – nearly every star is going to have an issue when looking at them through the lenses of the 21st Century. Jayne Mansfield didn’t believe interracial marriages could work, Lillian Gish was unrepentant for working with D.W. Griffith on Birth of a Nation, and Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, and Jerry Lee Lewis had a penchant for underage girls. This is not to say there weren’t progressives in these eras – there certainly were – but the reason we remember them is because they were outside the norm.
Quick intermission to bring in some of the knowledge gained from completing my history degree – I hate to break it to you but in 1925, the Ku Klux Klan had a low-estimate of 4 million members out of a population of 115 million in the U.s.. When you figure how many people were actually eligible to join (WASP men), it roughly translates to at least 15% of the eligible population being members of the Klan, and that figure does not take into account those who never joined but did support the fraternal movement. Statistically, Hollywood likely did house Klansmen and their supporters within its ranks – but we will never know exactly who.
So where does this leave the viewer of classic films? It depends on what you are okay with supporting (and yes, there is a form of support, even if you are watching on ok.ru) and your ability to separate a creator’s work from their personal lives. Personally, I don’t watch Polanski’s films, but I will watch Bardot’s pictures. Bardot’s personal feelings may be troublesome to me, but I support her right to say how she feels – and the consequences she faces for what she says. Polanski, on the other hand, has continually evaded justice for his actions and that doesn’t sit well with me (although it must be noted he is on amicable terms with the girl he assaulted).
As far as the need to cancel those who are long dead for their actions? Again, it’s up to you. I try to avoid Chaplin and Flynn, but won’t have a coronary if someone I know wants to watch their films. The same mindset (hopefully) holds true for you in regards to Gish, Griffith, Gable, and nearly every other celebrity who has faced “cancel culture” long after their deaths. Don’t let Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram users deter your viewing choices – make your own decisions based on what (and who) you like, and don’t be ashamed to defend this work, even if you can’t defend the star’s actions.