Let me save you some time and say that what you are about to read is me being a major killjoy and I make zero apologies. But consider this a heads-up, because I am about to concern myself with stuff that is actually not my concern. I’m addressing it because it’s driving me potty. I’m talking about the spitting, spinning rumour-mill concerning the only person it actually does concern, the Don’t Worry Darling director Olivia Wilde. And the discourse, which some would like to dismiss as just fun, idle gossip – idle harmless gossip – is anything but. Any woman who has been the subject of such gossip will know exactly the harm that is done.
In my six years as editor-in-chief of Empire magazine I saw hundreds, thousands, of films (and TV shows) launch. I saw the press conferences, the junkets, the premieres, read the headlines and columns and interviews; I went on set visits, did some of those interviews myself, walked the red carpet before the talent had even left their hotel and studied the reviews. And out of those hundreds, thousands, I struggle to recall one that has come close to the circus of toxicity and triviality that Don’t Worry Darling has turned out to be. And more specifically, a director who was as rinsed and wrung out as Wilde. Most strikingly, this isn’t just the stuff of tabloids. It’s seeped through into film culture, with critics and journalists and readers swept up in speculation and giddy fascination at a woman having her work barely taken seriously while her character and privacy are cracked open.
It all began when Wilde and Harry Styles, who has a major role in Don’t Worry Darling, were papped attending a friend’s wedding. The hysteria around the news they were dating was just that: hysteria. The timing was endlessly speculated on (Wilde was separated from her former fiancé, Jason Sudeikis). Then came reports and counter-reports on whether the originally-cast Shia LaBeouf had been fired or chosen to leave; private videos, emails and texts were leaked. We were at a gallop now as the scrutiny began of the film’s lead, Florence Pugh: she was posting too little, not liking Wilde’s posts enough. But thank god we had unnamed sources to fill in the gaps! To anonymously claim that Pugh was unhappy about Styles and Wilde’s relationship, that she “sided” with Sudeikis, that she even had to direct herself sometimes. And of course, her appearance in Venice, for the film’s premiere, where not just her skipping the press conference was scrutinised, but every outfit, glance and word was twisted and turned until it all reflected back the ugly house of mirrors Olivia Wilde had apparently built.
“Can you just clear the air and address whether there has been a falling out there and if so why, because it’s something that people are discussing,” asked a journalist, serving up today’s gossip like a cat choking up a fur ball at Wilde’s feet. “Falling out”? The language most often levelled at squabbling teenage girls (who are also done a disservice by it), used about one of the best actors and most promising new directors working today? It’s language, and a focus, that trivialises. It specifically trivialises Wilde’s film and her filmmaking. Why talk about the work when you can talk about feelings and spats and social media slights? One newspaper even ran an entire story on Styles being asked to stand next to Wilde on the red carpet and saying no.
So yes, I struggle to recall a male director and cast and crew so swamped in such silly conjecture before anyone had even seen their film; where it was so painfully clear that the work was the last thing some people cared about. Let me say that while not everything is gendered, this is. There are often rumours and open secrets in Hollywood; you hear about arguments and relationships gone wrong. It’s rare that it’s officially reported on, even rarer that private correspondence is leaked. And yes, rarer still that it’s asked about at a press conference. Do you think anyone would ask Christopher Nolan or Wes Anderson or Todd Phillips about on-set drama? Ask if they’ve “fallen out” with an actor. Nope. Because they’re shown respect. They’re asked about their cinematic influences, collaboration with a director of photography, about the world they created, about their craft.
[See also: Harry Styles and the paradox of male sexuality]
This is Wilde’s second film. Every female filmmaker I’ve spoken to has emphasised the struggle in getting their second feature greenlit, no matter how successful their first. It’s simply much easier for men – and untested men, or even men with a flop behind them – to get a second film financed and greenlit. They’re innately seen as a safer bet. Women are still considered less bankable and only able to make films for other women (because the female experience is singular and the male universal, right?).
Why does this matter? Because reducing women and their films to gossip fodder – especially women who are still building their filmmaking careers – only perpetuates the sense that they’re a risk. That they can’t be taken seriously. It adds more question marks to the ones that already exists. Would you sink seven figures in a woman who can’t keep her stars in check? Who is known first and foremost for “falling out” or dating their actors?
And this isn’t about the rights and wrongs of Wilde’s behaviour. Her dealings with LaBeouf and Pugh are their private, professional business, like with any director and actor. (And it’s worth noting the heat on Wilde versus LaBeouf, who faces a lawsuit from FKA Twigs for emotional distress and assault and, though he has denied causing her “any injury or loss”, he did accept that “my failings with Twigs are fundamental and real, but they are not the narrative that has been presented”.) If I had a pound for every actor and filmmaker who couldn’t agree on the manner in which they departed a project, or had bust-ups on set, I’d have enough money to pay my energy bill. Yet you’d be forgiven for thinking this is the first time it’s ever happened (there is also the insane hashtag #TimesUpOlivia, a twisted take on a movement to support women). Differences are common, but they’re not usually the stuff of headlines and if they are reported, they’re described as creative tensions between artists. Not – as in the case of Pugh and Wilde – reported on breathlessly and reduced to a cat-fight. Ultimately it’s none of our business. There’s no abuse, no public interest that justifies examining their relationship in such excruciating detail.
What about Wilde’s relationship with Styles? Also her private, personal business, as are her dealings with her ex-partner. This is a woman who was humiliated at CinemaCon (the key event for filmmakers to present their movies to the industry) by being served with legal papers live on stage, in the middle of her presentation. Never mind what that did to her mentally, it was a huge breach of security. I’ve attended CinemaCon and the checks and security are incredibly stringent. The very fact that someone could get that close to her means something went very, very wrong. And yet we’re not furious, scared, on her behalf, we’re gossiping about what she did to “deserve it”. It’s none of our business.
[See also: From Diana to Meghan – why do the British problematise displays of emotion?]
You see, the double standards are glaring and everywhere. Many male filmmakers don’t get on with their actors, as may be the case here. Many male filmmakers have had relationships with their actors, as may be the case here. But there are also those who go much further: who are rumoured to bully, harass, intimidate and abuse actors and crews on their sets. Where’s their scandal-soaked press tours? Where are the journalists asking them about the gossip because it’s what people are discussing? Where are the articles promoting the new trailer that simply cannot help but mention the context (and by context I mean gossip). Where are the reviews that simply cannot help but mention the context (and by context I mean gossip, though shout-out to Helen O’Hara, who produced a brilliant review just on the film). Why are they asked about their work? When anything has become public historically, it’s been as a result of truly atrocious accusations (for example the allegations of misconduct and abuse against Joss Whedon, which he denied). That’s what it takes. For a woman to be “held accountable” it takes a new relationship and not enough Instagram likes.
Sexism and outright misogyny come in different forms in the film industry: from the questions about kids every female actor and filmmaker has to field, to the fascination with youth and appearance and the assumptions about the stories a woman can tell. And a toxic trainwreck of a publicity and festival tour gleefully played out across the press and social media is just the latest. Female filmmakers, still statistically underrepresented, face enough barriers, enough assumptions, enough bullshit. We should really fucking worry, darling.
Terri White is the former editor-in-chief of Empire magazine. This piece originally ran on her Substack newsletter, “White Noise”.