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On Sept. 11, 1921, the career of one of America’s best-loved silent stars came crashing to a halt.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a 266-pound giant of a man possessed of exceptional physical grace, which — along with his comedic talents — had helped him win a movie contract worth $1 million a year. After the contract was renewed, he and some friends left Los Angeles for the bright lights of San Francisco, where they planned to celebrate.
The celebration was doomed from the start: Shortly before driving out of L.A., Arbuckle burned his buttocks on an acid-soaked rag at his mechanic’s, forcing him to sit on a rubber ring, squirming, for the entire car trip to San Francisco.
Things got a lot worse in northern California when two unexpected guests showed up at the St. Francis Hotel, where Arbuckle was staying. One was Maude Delmont, a professional madam and known extortionist. The other was a young actress named Virginia Rappe.
On the afternoon of Sept. 5, when they and other guests were partying and drinking, despite Prohibition, Arbuckle entered his bedroom to find Rappe seriously ill, screaming and ripping her clothes. After a long delay, she was taken to a hospital. Four days later, she died of peritonitis.
Arbuckle was arrested for rape and manslaughter, and the case became one of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history. William Randolph Hearst said it helped sell more newspapers than the sinking of the Lusitania.
The fact that the comedian was acquitted seemed almost irrelevant — his career was over. It was the first (though far from the last) instance of a movie career being derailed by a major sex scandal.
Now we may have another.
The current firestorm engulfing Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation’s star and director, who was tried and acquitted for rape in 2001, has left him and the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight scrambling to douse the flames.
Fifteen years since the trial ended, Parker is being forced to defend himself all over again, this time in the court of public opinion. To succeed, he’ll have to walk a tightrope that would intimidate even Roland Petit.
Parker must do so without tarnishing women in general and, in particular, the woman who accused him and his college roommate (and fellow Birth writer) Jean Celestin of rape — a task made even more difficult by her 2012 suicide.
He must do so by linking attacks on him to a long and ugly history in which African-American men have been stereotyped for their sexual behavior, without seeming to dodge charges related to the acknowledged facts of own unsavory actions.
Parker must find a way to diffuse the unpleasant aroma that surrounds the incident that took place when he was a student at Penn State — during which he and Celestin together had sex with the inebriated 18-year-old woman. In doing so, he must present further outrage at the noncriminal aspects of his behavior defined by slang terms many in Hollywood may not even know — like “running the train” and “hitting it.”
Above all, Parker must clarify the difference between being guilty of appalling behavior and guilty of a crime.
The difference is significant. Because whatever one might think of his actions, he was found not guilty. And we do still live in a society where one is innocent until proven guilty. That bedrock principle should guide audiences and Academy voters alike. Other principles, however, will undoubtedly come into play in days and weeks ahead.
Unlike Arbuckle — whose case was very much about him and him alone — Parker finds himself riding two great social waves, one of which will carry him, while the other could drown him.
First is the heightened consciousness of women’s rights and the sexual mistreatment of women over many years, not least in Hollywood. The current Fox News brouhaha has put that issue front and center in people’s minds. It will be difficult for Parker to avoid being painted by a sexist brush or lumped in with the media’s other present-day offenders.
The second wave with equal power is being generated by the Black Lives Matter movement, which turned its attention to Hollywood following last year’s shameful dearth of African-Americans in the Oscar nominations. The idea that a black man, one making a film about the issue most central to the black experience — slavery — is being vilified, his salacious past used to tarnish his important message, will be anathema to many and possibly as incendiary as Parker’s film itself.
Parker’s current situation may turn out to be Hollywood’s version of the Clarence Thomas hearings, in which race and sex were horribly intertwined. How it is resolved will depend on which of these two important social issues — racism and sexism — proves more compelling.
Hollywood has had brushes with rape.
Errol Flynn was put on trial for the rape of two 17-year-old girls, Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hansen. His lawyer, Jerry Geisler, trashed the girls’ reputations and dug up evidence that they had had affairs with married men as well as abortions. Flynn was acquitted following a 1943 trial, but his career was never the same, even though he soon signed a new contract with Warner Bros. (The public’s perception of Flynn also was influenced by his failure to serve in World War II.)
Before fleeing to France in 1978, Roman Polanski and his team assailed the behavior of the underage girl who accused him of statutory rape — despite the fact that the director had drugged her before having sex. Those smear tactics did not help his reputation, and Polanski — who had struck a deal, pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor — was persona non grata in Hollywood for many years. That only changed when he won a best director Oscar for 2002’s The Pianist.
In the mid-1990s, word spread that director Victor Salva had served time for child molestation, involving the alleged rape of an underage boy. The story surfaced shortly before the release of Disney’s 1995 Powder and all but ended his Hollywood career, though he managed a comeback in the indie arena. While Salva turned to several colleagues to speak in his defense, it did not help: The crime was just too grave.
More recently, another director, Bryan Singer, became the subject of controversy when a young man accused him of sexual abuse. Singer was one of the few Hollywood players who escaped relatively unscathed, with the plaintiff dropping the case. While letting his lawyer respond to the charges, Singer chose to keep quiet HIMSELF and that helped limit the spread of the story.
So far, Parker has opted for a different strategy.
None of the artists connected to rape faced quite the same challenge as Parker, who both stars in and helms The Birth of a Nation. The film’s success has been predicated on Searchlight’s ability to tie it to his rags-to-riches story.
So how should Parker and Searchlight proceed now?
First, it’s crucial for the filmmaker to separate his life from the message of his film, about the horrific treatment of slaves — and by extension all African-Americans — in our society. That means Searchlight likely will have to abandon its plans to tie the movie’s marketing to him. The messenger may be flawed; the message isn’t. Now the message must be central to the movie’s campaign.
Second, Parker must demonstrate that he is a changed man. Penitence works far better than protests of innocence. The Birth of a Nation must be presented as his redemption story, a mea culpa rather than a personal triumph.
Third, Parker must deploy the men and women who know him and have worked with him to testify to his decency. That means not only his wife but also such luminaries as Denzel Washington, who gave him a break on The Great Debaters, and Oprah Winfrey, herself the victim of sexual abuse.
So far, Parker has handled the crisis shrewdly.
When word surfaced that a publication was preparing to write about it, he made his case briefly but ably in an interview with Deadline, explaining that the matter was in the distant past and noting that he had been found not guilty. He will have to repeat both those points time and again — his innocence, and his relative youthfulness when the matter took place.
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Parker made two further clever moves: He was careful never to blame the victim (indeed he said he was “devastated” by her 2012 suicide) and gave clear support to other women who have endured violence and sexual assault.
Above all, he accepted responsibility for bad judgment, while remaining emphatic about his own innocence.
“As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom,” he said. “I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name.”
The question now is: Will this be enough?
Hollywood historically has proved itself willing to forgive when an apology is delivered with sincerity and force. Whether the public at large proves equally forgiving is a whole other matter.
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