Unexamined Premises

'Publish and Be Damned'

Keep telling yourself, 'It's only a movie'

Keep telling yourself, ‘It’s only a movie’

That was the famous reaction of the Duke of Wellington in 1824 to a blackmailer named Stockdale, who was about to publish the memoirs of one of Wellington’s mistresses, Harriette Wilson, a London courtesan who had more or less slept with everybody who was anybody in Regency London. Stockdale was fishing around the Iron Duke, hoping to snag a little cash settlement to keep the Wellington name out of what turned out to be Wilson’s laundry list of Famous Men I Have Slept With. As The Independent put it:

London society was thrilled and scandalised. Half the aristocracy was named in the book, and painted in a most unflattering light. The memoirs went through 31 editions in one year; excerpts were pirated and sold as illustrated broadsheets and French and German editions quickly appeared to delight the gossips of the Continent.

Stockdale, the impresario, and Wilson, the scarlet woman, were said to have made pounds 10,000 from the enterprise, but their good fortune did not last. Stockdale was soon ruined by libel suits, while Harriette was down on her luck again within a few years, and died in obscurity.

Meanwhile, of course, the Wellington name has lived on.

Although Wellington’s answer to Stockdale’s blackmail letter does not survive in his own hand, there is no reason to doubt he used those famous words. But his stance was less bold than they suggest, for he also threatened to sue ‘if such trash is published’.

The threat was ignored but the Duke did not issue a writ, perhaps because others got there before him, or perhaps because there was too much truth in what Wilson wrote. Either way, his reputation did not suffer and he was not forced to resign for reasons of security or hypocrisy or anything else. On the contrary, he remained the nation’s hero and went on to become prime minister.

Sony Pictures and its embattled leader, Amy Pascal, should have stolen a march on the hero of Waterloo and done exactly the same thing to the (apparently) North Korean hackers who stole the studio’s emails and financial secrets and threatened violence against any theater showing the ill-fated comedy, The Interview, which was scheduled to open on Christmas Day (ha ha) and has now been shelved indefinitely. The only way to deal with a blackmailer is to tell him to go to hell; otherwise, the threats will never end. But, in order to avoid some temporary embarrassment, accede to his demands and a lifetime of misery will follow. There is, shocking to say, no honor among thieves.

Screw you, lady

Screw you, lady

It’s still open whether Pascal will lose her job over the mildly embarrassing private emails she exchanged with producer Scott Rudin about President Obama and others. In private conversations about a rip-roaring, unfetteredly capitalist business, they’re nothing. So Obama, who’s made no secret of his racial sympathies, may have liked Django,  12 Years a Slave, or The Butler. So what if he did? So did a lot of people, black and white. How is this is “racially charged”?

Further, Pascal was correct when she told the Hollywood Reporter, “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. You’re being judged on things that you said in a 10-second frame that were stupid. And that’s not my whole career and everything I’ve done. I’m concerned about that, but I’m also concerned about employees here who are being violated, and they’re scared. They didn’t do anything to deserve this. It’s very unfair.”

The glee with which some on the Right have seized upon this mess is unseemly. True, it plays into the yahoo fantasy that Hollywood is a vast plot against conservative Christian or even Judeo-Christian values, when in fact — as I will argue in my forthcoming book, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace — all storytelling is, at heart, profoundly conservative, and the Hollywood template conforms to conservative values rather rigorously. Conservatives ought not to be quite so gleeful over Sony’s and Pascal’s misfortunes, because there really is no bitch like karma.

So it’s too bad Sony capitulated so shamelessly, and it will be too bad if Pascal loses her her job over what is, in fact, a crime committed against her and the studio she leads. (Full disclosure: I have never had any business dealings with Sony.) I’ve seen the trailersfor the movie and it looked fairly stupid. I did think a film, even a comedy, about the assassination of a living person was fairly tasteless, although that didn’t bother anybody when that person was George W. Bush — that was speaking truth to power, and knowing that the power wouldn’t hit back.

But a dirty little secret in Hollywood has been — whoops! up to now! — that the only two ethnic groups right-thinking people were allowed to mildly disparage were Koreans and Iranians, mostly on the grounds of their taste in home decorations, as Koreans and Iranians shouldered their way into tony neighborhoods like Hancock Park and Beverly Hills. But you can bet nobody’s going to be pitching screenplays or trying to sell specs with Koreans as the villains in them anymore. Good thing for Antoine Fuqua that Olympus Has Fallen came out when it did:

Finally, did it not occur to anyone that the crazy half of the Korean peninsula might react badly to a Japanese-owned company’s fictive attack on their leader? Japanese and Koreans still hate each other over what Japan did to Korea during World War II, including rape, torture, murder and medical experiments that would put Dr. Mengele to shame. But no: it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a studio.

NOTE: Sony has just sent around a note to all screenwriters via our union, the Writers Guild of America, with a few remarks about the hack, and has contracted with a identity-protection company to help those potentially affected:

Sony Pictures Entertainment (“SPE”) experienced a significant systems disruption on Monday, November 24, 2014. SPE has determined that the cause of the disruption was a brazen cyber attack. After identifying the disruption, SPE took prompt action to contain the cyber attack, engaged recognized security consultants and contacted law enforcement. SPE learned on December 1, 2014, that the security of certain personally identifiable information about its current and former employees may have been compromised. SPE has made arrangements with a third-party service provider…

Good luck to all. In the meantime, I ask again: does anybody in the U.S. government care? Or did the Obama administration just throw Hollywood under the bus?