Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, the teen lesbian comedy Booksmart, is the Hillary Clinton of raunchy movies: We are supposed to both feel sorry for its failure and revile the masses who didn’t deliver the correct verdict, probably for nefarious reasons. What we mustn’t do is assign any blame to either the movie or Madame Pantsuit.
Wilde seemed to suggest it would be deplorable not to see her movie. In a bizarrely counterproductive tweet, Wilde positioned the film as more political talisman than goofball comedy. This capped an exhaustive all-in campaign by the media to try to make an event movie out of a low-budget, no-star indie. The New York Times alone published a review, a profile of the director, a lengthy interview with the two lead actresses, an interview with a third actress from the movie, a think piece on lesbian films, and a piece on a musical sequence that was functionally a video advertisement for the movie. The subtext of all these pieces was: At last, a film by, for, and about women! Go see it or you’re a misogynist!
As has been proved true with many other pictures, the audience declined to march to the beat of the publicity drum. On opening weekend the film grossed a subpar $8.7 million. Nor, despite the film’s 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was word of mouth strong: The box office dropped 52 percent in its second weekend. That figure isn’t terrible, but it isn’t reassuring, either. The American moviegoing public is simply not interested in Booksmart. Superbad, the film to which it is often compared, grossed $121 million in North America. Booksmart, though cheap, looks like a money loser.
The media are now engaged in a fit of angst about the failure of Booksmart, whose financier Megan Ellison specializes in making films (Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk, Vice) that generate more column inches than they do paying customers. Yet another piece on (the poor performance of) the movie in the Times posed this question in the headline: “The ‘Booksmart’ Conundrum: Are Women Not Allowed to Fail?” A subhead asked, “Is it being held to an unfair standard?” We’re meant to answer the second question with a hearty affirmative. The implied reasoning is: Don’t hold this movie to an impossible standard of being a hit. That would be sexist. The Times noted that Twitter users were suffering various levels of conniption because a movie about, written by, and directed by women tanked. Some opined that it was unfair of the multiplex masters to pit a movie about people of color (Aladdin, which opened on the same weekend) against a movie about women.
Wilde, who spent much of her Times profile her whining that she was exploited for being pretty, by which she means “exceptionally well-paid for being pretty,” and her friends in the media have still not absorbed the lesson of Lady Ghostbusters, which is: The audience is not going to do you any favors. Ticket buyers don’t care whether millionaire Hollywood women feel empowered. People who want a laugh get very suspicious when you tell them a movie is imbued with (as the Times review put it) “an exuberant, generous, matter-of-factly feminist sensibility.” When people hear “feminist” and “generous” in the same sentence, their circuits begin to malfunction in the same way they did as when Wilde, an outspoken liberal, described Hillary Clinton as “exciting.”
“If you have a message, call Western Union,” Moss Hart’s famous dictum, commonly attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, remains as true today as ever. Yet when Wilde told her 1.8 million Twitter followers, “We are getting creamed . . . need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse,” yadda yadda, she was asking the audience to do something even more irritating than receive a message — she asked it to send one, to spend their dollars ensuring that people like Olivia Wilde remain employable. Wilde was framing herself as a marginalized figure in need of the multiplex equivalent of affirmative action. Is she?
Olivia Wilde — actually Olivia Cockburn — is the daughter of plutocratic leftist celebrity journalists Leslie and Andrew Cockburn. She has led a life of such prodigious cosseting that it is barely imaginable to the average American. As a child she knew Mick Jagger. Christopher Hitchens was one of her babysitters. She went to one of the most exclusive prep schools in the country, Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then became a TV star before she was old enough to drink. This is all beyond “privileged.” It’s more in the category of princess-y. Whether any individual project of hers does well, Princess Cockburn will be fine.
Moreover, the box-office failure of Booksmart won’t hurt Wilde; it is the type of stylish indie calling card that attracts notice from the decision-makers in Hollywood. These days, if you direct one film, no matter how small, that establishes you as a filmmaker with a distinctive voice, the studios will rush to hire you to do a big project people actually want to see. Just ask Colin Trevorrow, whose 2012 Sundance offering Safety Not Guaranteed grossed $750,000 but who was then hired to make Jurassic World, or Jon Watts, whose 2015 film Cop Car grossed $135,000 but was then hired to make Spider-Man: Homecoming. So, Wilde fans, save your tears: Soon she’ll be directing a big-budget property. She has earned the right to make something every bit as mediocre as the remake of Aladdin.