If Olivia Wilde Were a Man

·6 min read
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ITALY-CINEMA-VENICE-FILM-FESTIVAL-MOSTRA

Olivia Wilde arrives on Sept. 5, 2022 for the screening of 'Don't Worry Darling' as part of the 79th Venice International Film Festival Credit - TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

Even before anyone had seen the final trailer for Olivia Wilde’s second feature as director, the retro fantasy Don’t Worry Darling, rumors swirled that one of its stars, Florence Pugh, had come to despise Wilde. Pugh has done minimal press for the film, so even if her silence can be read as an attempt to distance herself from the project, we don’t know what she truly thinks. The speculation is that she’s angry with Wilde for initially forcing her to work with the controversial actor Shia LaBeouf, who has admitted to a pattern of abuse in his personal life. (LaBeouf was subsequently fired from the film or left voluntarily, depending on which story you believe.) Then, reportedly—though who can cite a solid source?—Pugh felt that the romance between Wilde and the actor she cast to replace LaBeouf, Harry Styles, had poisoned the on-set atmosphere. After the full Don’t Worry Darling trailer dropped, in July, the world of social media lit up like a fire at a munitions factory, with movie pundits and even critics—who should know better—claiming that the film, now deemed a “troubled production,” looked terrible. The phrase “Worry, Darling,” not even that funny the first time, quickly wore out its welcome as a meme. When the film premiered in Venice, on Sep. 5, the reviews were mixed to negative.

Gossip can dog any film in the runup to its release, but no movie in recent memory has attracted so much speculative venom. Hanging above the whole mess is a radioactive cloud of a question: Would it have played out this way if Wilde were a man?

Men helm “troubled productions” all the time: see Marc Forster’s World War Z, James Cameron’s Titanic, and everything by Terry Gilliam. And plenty of male directors—like Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick—have become romantically involved with their stars. Chaos, discord or disorganization on the set? Women didn’t invent that. It’s true that Wilde isn’t always diplomatic: she claimed, in Interview magazine, that being in a lot of “really bad” movies had taught her what not to do as a director. But so what? Subconsciously or otherwise, we have a lot invested in the idea of the woman director as a “nice” person, even as we cling to our reverence for old-school tyrants, like Otto Preminger or John Ford, who ran roughshod over their actors to get the job done. No filmmaker has the right to be a jerk, but Wilde has spoken enough about her desire to foster an egalitarian environment on set to suggest she’s at least somewhat self-aware.

Wilde does come off as a little slick. Her responses and deflections feel polished to the extreme, and there’s a catty quality to the way, in a video leaked by LaBeouf, we see her referring to Pugh as “Miss Flo,” with a subtly mocking lilt in her voice. But even though no one beyond those involved really know what happened on the set of her movie, she already has more than a few strikes against her in the kangaroo court of social media. Her aspirations alone seem to rankle people. Late in August, Wilde spoke to AP about the bidding war that swirled around Don’t Worry Darling in 2019, and why she chose New Line and Warner Bros. “We had several studios and streamers who wanted to make this film and I sat down with all of them and I said, ‘The path that I see leads us to Venice. Which one of you understands what kind of movie we’re making based on that dream?’” The “path to Venice” remark sure sounds lofty. But then, shake any Hollywood palm tree and hundreds of overconfident male filmmakers will tumble out. Ambition is admirable in a man. So why, when a woman director speaks of bringing a film to a major festival, do we think she’s overreaching?

Though not every public relations challenge faced by Don’t Worry Darling can be traced directly to sexism, the charade does raise questions about how we think women should behave in the public sphere. A possible feud, even a silent one, between a movie star and a rising director (especially one who also appears in and produced the film)? None of us is above having at least a little curiosity about that. And even if some have too much invested in every possible Don’t Worry Darling scandal—particularly those obsessed with footage of Styles allegedly, but absolutely not, spitting at costar Chris Pine at the Venice premiere—the movie’s backstory offers some novelty at least. A high-profile romance between an intelligent, successful woman of 38 and a puckish, captivating pop star 10 years her junior? How often does that happen?

Moviegoers who have been gunning for Don’t Worry Darling to be terrible might walk away disappointed. The movie is neither a disaster nor a masterpiece. The performances are good, particularly Pugh’s—if she was unhappy on the set, it doesn’t show in the film.

There’s also a simmering sex scene that focuses squarely on female pleasure, rather than the standard groping and thrusting that, bizarrely, has characterized most mainstream-movie sex scenes since the heyday of the erotic thriller in the 80s and ’90s. (Sensual sex scenes are exceedingly rare in Hollywood movies these days.) And that, too, may count against Wilde. We claim to respect sexually confident women. But Wilde is a mom! One whose child-custody issues, over the children she shares with former partner Jason Sudeikis, had become highly public. There’s chatter that she and Styles may have begun their affair before she and Sudeikis had officially split. Modern women are supposed to be sexy and hot and self-determined, the Instagram way. The real-life way, with its unavoidable messiness, is another story.

That kind of moralism is as ugly now as it was 75 years ago. The extramarital affair between Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman was one of the great scandals of its day, not least because the two had a baby out of wedlock, Renato Roberto Rossellini. The relationship hurt Bergman’s career far more than it affected Rossellini. “The best thing for you to do would be to take an overdose of sleeping pills. That would please Robby and everyone,” wrote one fan in 1950, feeling betrayed that the real-life Bergman didn’t meet his standards of what a woman should be. We often say the internet has made us nastier, but the seeds have been there all along.

As for Wilde, she’s finding out what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood who knows what she wants and carves a path to get it. She’s also finding out how many people believe they have some say over what goes on in her bedroom. Wilde is either a conniving shrew or a canny orchestrator of the kind of publicity money can’t buy. Or maybe, possibly, she’s just a director who wanted to make a movie.

Correction, Sept. 12

The original version of this story mischaracterized Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis’ child-custody case. It is not ongoing; the case has been resolved.