How a Film Writer Grappled With #MeToo Accusations Against Friend James Toback

ONE TIME USE ONLY - LOVE AND MONEY, director James Toback, on-set, 1982 - H 2019
Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

Movie historian David Thomson examines his relationship with the disgraced writer-director in his new book, 'Sleeping With Strangers,' which explores the problematic dominance of male desire in cinema.

David Thomson had already finished a draft of Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire when Hollywood's #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 with the first reports about Harvey Weinstein. But the film critic and historian (his New Biographical Dictionary of Film is in its sixth edition), 77, soon realized that his latest book — which explores the problematic dominance of male desire in cinema, especially at the hands of revered auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock — would have to respond to the upheaval. Drawing upon "a lifetime's experience watching films and watching the film industry, which told me that women were being treated very badly," Thomson says, he realized his book would also have to address his four-decade friendship with one of the accused, James Toback: Nearly 400 women have alleged harassment and worse by the director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

So Thomson added a chapter that chronicles his relationship with "Jim," 74, and what he knew and didn't about Toback's treatment of women, including episodes that he'd previously written off as posturing — like "matter-of-fact orgies" that Toback reportedly participated in while writing his 1971 book about former NFLer Jim Brown, with other members of Brown's crew and women acting as "pliant instruments."

Talking to Toback about the accusations against him was "disturbing," Thomson writes. "[He] was angry about being charged, and foul-mouthed in his denial." But the L.A. district attorney's decision in April not to prosecute (mostly on statute of limitations grounds), Thomson adds, refocused the filmmaker on a memoir he'd been writing, some pages of which he sent to Thomson. Thomson likewise showed his friend Sleeping With Strangers' chapter on him; Toback wasn't a fan, but the two still talk. "Jim is still a very important friendship in my life, and I have admired some of the things he's done," says Thompson. "Not all of the things he's done."

Days before the publication of Sleeping With Strangers (out Jan. 29), Thomson spoke with The Hollywood Reporter (his interview is edited for length and clarity) about grappling with hundreds of accusations against his friend, what Hollywood can learn from Toback's story and why removing an accused actor from a finished film a la Kevin Spacey's late-stage omission from the 2017 film All the Money in the World, is "hypocritical and indecent." 

How did this book initially get started for you?

My editor at Knopf had a conversation with my agent where they discussed the idea of a history of gay influence in Hollywood. They thought that I might be interested and they came to me and talked about it. I was, although I felt even at the outset that, probably, I could not do the subject without getting into sexuality as a whole beyond just gay sexuality; it turned out that way, although it took some time for me to properly discover that and get a handle on it. But that's how it came to me.

You write that Sleeping With Strangers started out as one idea, and then evolved amid the #MeToo movement. Can you explain how the book changed specifically?

Actually, almost all of the book's first draft was written before the fall of 2017 and everything that broke in that season. So I wrote most of the book without the phrase "#MeToo" really being that prominent. Now obviously, once it happened, it sharpened my awareness of some issues and it led to some rewriting and some new material, even. But the original concept came before that. It came out of a lifetime's experience watching films and the film industry, which told me that women were being treated very badly.

You devote a whole chapter, "Burning Man," to your personal relationship to James Toback, who was of course accused in the #MeToo movement. What was behind your decision to explore that relationship in this book?

Well I had had an earlier chapter about a friend I had had, Kieran Hickey, when I was, like, 20ish and that was a big [chapter]; I felt a need to balance it, in a way. Jim was and has been and is still a very important relationship and friendship in my life, and I have admired some of the things he's done; not all of the things he's done. But I felt that I needed to deal with him, take that subject on, as part of the book. And I felt it fit in with the book in a larger way, so that's why I did that.

Did he know that you were going to write about him?

I sent him the draft of that chapter before it got into proof — well before — and he made some comments and I made some changes. I think he's still not happy with it, and I'm sorry about that and hope that in time we can make a rapprochement. I don’t think the friendship is over. But I think he would prefer that chapter not to be in the book.

You mention in the book that at one point he tells you over the phone that the friendship is over. You don't think it's over?

No, I don't think so; we have continued to talk a bit. You don't know him, do you? He's a very special person and a great talent — enormous humor — and he's been really very important in my life. I think that the issues that separate us a bit are important issues in the whole relationship of film and society, and I tried to address that, but I'm certainly not thinking that our relationship is over.

Is there anything that James' story can tell us about all the Hollywood figures who have become implicated in the #MeToo movement?

Jim is a member of a generation of young men who fell upon film with enormous creative excitement and did some very, very good work that has had a profound impact on cinema. I'm talking about a generation that would include Scorsese and Coppola and many others, all about the same age. But I do think that in that work in general, there is too much ignorance about how women see and feel the world and too little place for women in the work. I think, in other words, that they've made films about male sexual adventure, which had always been a very, very big part of the movies. In a lot of ways, what I'm [doing] in the book is really to question the history and function of the movies and to ask where they are going to go in a much more complicated, enlightened society. So he's an example of a generation — and he's certainly the person of that generation I knew far the best. And really that's why I felt it was necessary for me to write about it.

You write in the book that, beyond producing some powerful creators who behaved badly, "the movies blessed desire and predatoriness, made them beautiful, even," and that the current system we have in place for movies is based on this idea. With that being the case, what comes next for the movies?

These are huge questions, and I've tried to deal with them in the book. First of all, I really think "movies," as such, are over. I don't think America any longer knows how to make movies for everyone, the mainstream movies that I grew up with and that your parents grew up with, which are really the Golden Age of the movies. They were very much about the manifestation of desires that had been rather hidden and smothered before the movies came along. They took wonderful [steps forward]; there's a sensuality, for instance, in Astaire and Rogers dancing together, which millions enjoyed and was enormously important in just waking people up to the pleasure of men and women being together. But I do think overall that the bias and slant was much more toward what men thought and felt and wanted, and we have come to a point where that can't go on any longer. It's sort of like the realization that has come very slowly that we can't really allow racism to be embodied in our films, as they were for decades — that has to change. And I don't know where the future is going. I don't think theatrical moviegoing is going to last very much longer. I think people are going to watch whatever they're going to watch increasingly on their own screens: domestic screens, streaming, whatever you want to call it. I think there are going to be more changes in that direction, and I find it very hard to calculate.
But this is part of a way in which I think the code of desire that was set up in the movies is over. I do think that sex is becoming gradually a less personally intimate, more technological thing. And I think that people are going to watch more and more alone and the sexual satisfaction may even begin to become technological as well as personal and intimate. These are very alarming things to me and to other people. I think they're going to happen, whatever alarm one feels, because technological changes have always driven what we call "film" forward. I don't know how it's going to end. I think that human intelligence is gradually going to succumb to artificial intelligence and what that means is that human emotion is going to become a function of artificial emotion. This is huge stuff, terrifying stuff, I think, and I could only touch on it in the book. But if you ask me where it's going, I think it's going in that direction: I don't know how long it will take, I don't know whether our society will last long enough for it to occur, because we have so many terrifying threats, one of which, I think, is an incipient cultural civil war in this country that in many ways hinges on sexuality.

Are there any particular filmmakers or films that give you hope that Hollywood can create a new paradigm not based on "desire and predatoriness"?

I don't know about a paradigm, because I think you're going to get individual filmmakers, individual works. For instance, Paul Thomas Anderson, for me, is the most interesting American working making feature movies, as such. But I think there are a lot of so-called "foreign" filmmakers who are doing very good work, too. I think amazing work is going on on television. I would say, for instance — I'm just talking about stuff I have seen very recently, so it's fresh in my mind — Homecoming is a really exceptional series, a lot more than it's been given credit for. The way in which Julia Roberts has allowed herself to become a different kind of woman than "Julia Roberts" is very brave and encouraging and exciting. I also think the British show Fleabag — which I've only just caught up with recently — [is another example]: I watched it all in a single evening and I was just bowled over. I think it's beautiful, touching, very funny, very smart, very nasty, very much of our time.

What can a greater understanding of Hollywood's history of exploitation and affinity for the male gaze do for the industry as it moves forward?

I don't know that it can, and I'm very skeptical about talk of or the idea of "the industry" as an ongoing thing. I don't really think "the industry" exists in the way that it once did, and which was the most creative time; and I don't think it's reasonable to think about it improving or reforming. I think it's going to be up to individual filmmakers and to individual people in the audiences as to what happens. The films that sustain theatrical filmgoing at the moment seem to me about as uninteresting as they've ever been, and I don't think I'm alone — I think even the members of the Academy understand this, that films worth seeing twice, worth talking about, are not the films that make a lot of money or fulfill the hopes of the industry; they are almost as unique and original as novels or paintings done by people today, and I think that's a very healthy sign.
I loved the era when you could believe that everybody went to see a certain movie, whether it was Casablanca or Some Like It Hot. I loved that feeling of there being a common experience. But it's just not there anymore, and we're kidding ourselves if we think it is. I think the industry is kidding itself if it believes it has anything like the impact on culture that it once had. That's come and gone. It's as defunct as the Hollywood sign, it's as defunct as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

You point out that many filmmakers that are still considered great, such as Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock, would not pass muster today in terms of how they treated others. As the #MeToo movement continues to change culture, how should we look back on these complicated figures and the movies they made?

I think we should remember that people are very complicated and that, generally speaking, good artists are extra complicated. I raised the case of Bergman because there is a man who died not much more than 10 years ago and when he died was considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. I still place him in that category. It's clear that if you look into his life, he behaved very badly. But you know — you're close enough to Hollywood; I've been close to it for the best part of 40 years — that there have been so many very bad people running the business, and they are still running it, to some extent. And a lot of the people we value as artists in other fields behaved very badly, and I think we have to come to terms with that. I don't think we can impose a character behavior test and say "You can't make a movie unless you can prove you have a clean bill of health" — I hate that kind of thing.
I talk in the book about the case of Kevin Spacey. Now, I've never met Kevin Spacey, I think he's an extraordinary actor, and I think I always felt — and I can't explain this — that he was probably not the nicest guy around. He's clearly done some bad things, some of which he's owned up to, some of which he hasn't, and I disapprove of that, but he's still, in my book, an extraordinary actor. And, for me, when he was suddenly completely stripped out of the film in which he played J. Paul Getty, I thought that was tactless and distasteful and bad for us all. I think that that film should have lived with him and said, "Well, OK, we cast him, we thought he was good, we still think he actually did a pretty good job acting in the film," and it's sort of hypocritical and indecent to take him out of the film. For me, that was quite an important test moment: Hitchcock, many other directors, almost maybe all the directors from a certain era, behaved in ways that would not pass muster today. Now, I think it's very good if people in the film business, filmmakers, behave better, but I do not feel one can go through the history and blacklist people because that's what it amounts to — there's a kind of posthumous blacklisting of people. I don't like that one bit.

As a former film professor, do you think film studies curricula today should be changing to reflect the revelations starting in 2017?

[Here's] one big thing that I've thought for a long time: By the time I was in my early 20s, I looked at my education and I thought, "Why was I taught to read and write — I'm glad I was, of course — and not taught to look at film imagery and understand its grammar, the ways in which it could be tricked and that kind of thing?" I still think we have made a terrible mistake in not educating ourselves about the way film works. But if I were running a film program now, I would put much less emphasis on "great" directors, I would put much more on questions like, what was a "women's picture"? Why did that term come into being? What was the code of a women's picture? What did it really say about women? Was that helpful? Was that constructive? Or has it been damaging and demeaning? The ways in which films treat our desires and sometimes tell us lies about them seems to me much more important than, was Alfred Hitchcock a great director, was Ernst Lubitsch very funny? I value those questions, but they would not be the main point of my teaching anymore. I think that film needs to be taken up as as rich a part of our culture as writing and listening to music.

You write that "gay cinema" has attempted "to enlarge the possibilities of human experience and to encourage diversity." In a post-#MeToo world, do you think that those titles could enter the canon?

It’s a great question, and I don't know the answer. One of the things that struck me in the book was that, in a funny way, films of the '30s and the '40s were more naturally and freely gay than films can almost be today. I think that the idea of a famous actor coming out as gay now is almost tougher to conceive than in the '20s, '30s and '40s. So I think it's a failing of the mainstream that this can't happen. I do think we now look at films in a way that sees the underground texture: I talk in the book about how in the 1950s, virtually nobody thought or felt Rock Hudson was gay. Now, you could say they were demented, but we were demented at that time. I don't think you could make a film now without at least that question being raised about virtually anyone in a film. In other words, people have been taught — and film played a very big part of this — to see the complexity in gender in a new way, and it's enormously important for society. Not that that battle has been won: I talk in the book about how if you live in San Francisco, you can believe this battle's over, but if you go to the hinterland of America, you know it isn't, that there are still people who would kill homosexuals. And maybe our culture is perilously close to a moment like that. But I do think that the audience understands that individuals have got a lot of different sexual elements in them and a lot of different possibilities in them, and I think that's been one of the great achievements of film altogether.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.