From The Royal Hotel to Woman of the Hour to Sorry/Not Sorry, what the movies are doing with bad men.
Six years ago, almost to the day, I sat in a Toronto movie theater and watched Louis C.K.’s directorial debut, a winking Woody Allen tribute entitled I Love You, Daddy. The black-and-white film (an homage presumably to Allen’s Manhattan) starred John Malkovich as Leslie Goodwin, who starts wooing the barely legal teen daughter of Glen (played by C.K.). (Manhattan features a 40-something writer, played by Allen, dating a 17-year-old.)
This movie had it all, from impassioned speeches about who gets to decide if teens having sex with adults is consensual to men miming masturbation at their female colleagues. It was funny sometimes. It was uncomfortable. In my writeup, I wondered what exactly I Love You, Daddy was supposed to be doing, because it obviously was trying to do something.
If you didn’t see it, it’s probably because I Love You, Daddy’s buzzy release was summarily canceled mere weeks later when the long-rumored worst-kept secret on the comedy circuit — that C.K. had, for decades, been indeed masturbating in front of shell-shocked female colleagues — became public knowledge via a New York Times investigation. A day later, C.K. confirmed that the allegations were true. The rest is history.
I’m not sure I ever could have predicted that six years after squirming through I Love You, Daddy, I’d be back in that Toronto theater, watching a documentary about C.K.’s rise, demise, and comeback. Sorry/Not Sorry, directed by Caroline Suh and Cara Mones, was produced by the New York Times; it had been set to premiere on Showtime, but the network dropped the project this June. Its great strength is its many interviews — with several of C.K.’s accusers (including comedians Jen Kirkman, Megan Koester, and Abby Schachner), with a number of New York Times journalists who worked on the story, and with Michael Ian Black (who expresses regret about defending C.K.’s recent comeback on Twitter) and Michael Schur (who hired C.K. on Parks and Recreation). That last set of interviewees raises the most pertinent question the documentary asks, which is why nobody did anything when everyone knew about C.K.’s behavior, and whether it’s that very inaction — “I thought, it’s not my problem,” says Schur — that is the problem.
The I Love You, Daddy premiere comes up in the film, of course, which implicitly raises a related question. If, as several in the film insist, everyone must have known about C.K.’s behavior — looking back at my writeup, I see that I mention it, which suggests it was mainstream knowledge — then what does it mean that this very festival showed the film and celebrated its filmmaker?
What it means, I suppose, is that the world changes slowly, if at all, and people who gatekeep culture make some very sticky decisions when it comes to art. (Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, after all, just premiered new films at the Venice Film Festival.) Sorry/Not Sorry doesn’t even try to answer the question of whether the movie should have been shown — or, perhaps to its detriment, whether all of the people excusing C.K.’s behavior are guilty not just of enabling his behavior but actively encouraging what seems like some mental health issues.
What it does do, though, is remind us that bad men get away with bad things in part because we’re conditioned, over and over, to see them as normal and funny, permutations of “locker room talk” and “just making a joke.” Several women in Sorry/Not Sorry talk about how they were discouraged from calling C.K.’s behavior out because people said, in essence, that that’s just what Louis does, and it’s weird and funny and come on, stop being so uptight, this is comedy after all.
It was an eerie echo to hear a day after I saw Woman of the Hour, Anna Kendrick’s capable and engrossing directorial debut. The film tells the true tale of Rodney Alcala (Daniel Zovatto), who was in the middle of a lengthy murder spree when he appeared on the game show The Dating Game in 1978. Kendrick plays Cheryl Bradshaw, the female contestant on that episode, who grows increasingly frustrated with the show’s real reason for existing: an excuse for the audience to howl at leering comments the male contestants would level at the women.
It’s startling to hear; there are obvious ways in which the TV of 1978 is not the TV of 2023. But what Kendrick’s film smartly weaves into the narrative is the many ways in which women are conditioned to put up with men because, as the saying goes, they’re afraid of being killed. (One of C.K.’s more famous bits has to do with his surprise that women keep dating men, since statistically and historically, men are the biggest danger women face.) The women who are attacked by Alcala are shown, with a queasy believability, trying to placate him, stroke his ego, smile to please him, and laugh off discomfort — all learned survival tactics.
A lot of us, though, are simply imitating what we’ve seen on a screen, whether it’s the plethora of movies in which women are chiefly the mollifying or pliant presence, or tales in which exploitative male behavior is chalked up to bravery, swagger, or genius. It’s still a little jarring to see films in which female protagonists simply refuse to play along, and refuse to be “likable,” either.
It’s not shocking that The Royal Hotel, which also played at TIFF, is one such film — no surprise coming from Kitty Green, whose previous film The Assistant was a devastating masterpiece about a new assistant to a Harvey Weinstein-like boss. Green re-teams with Julia Garner for this film, in which Hanna (Garner) and her best friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) are traveling through Australia and run out of money. They take temporary jobs at a pub in a remote mining town, laughing off the suggestion that they’ll have to be okay with some “male attention,” only to find themselves hemmed in at every turn by every variety of male attention.
What makes The Royal Hotel brilliant, besides its heart-pounding performances, is how it illuminates the many ways in which men acting in socially acceptable, ordinary ways — playful catcalling, persistent passes, flexing power to be impressive — forms its own kind of horror house of mirrors in which it’s impossible to tell what’s truly sinister and what’s just someone acting like a guy they saw once in a Western. Hanna, far less amused by all the antics than Liv, is still sucked in by them. (“Men can be babies,” Cheryl is told in Women of the Hour, a refrain that fits here too.)
Can any of this be fixed? Could anything have been done about Louis C.K., a man who’d built an empire on the perception that he was trying to be a good guy? Can a culture willing to let men pretend machismo and a lack of empathy makes them men — an obvious falsehood, but one that people prefer — ever really fix itself? When we put these stories on screen, what are we even doing?
These are big questions that seem to be alive in this year’s movies, dealing with the ways that even “good” men are taught to be entitled and then allowed to be violently angry when they don’t get what they want. Yet that’s a hard story to tell, and an even harder one to live. Perhaps the only answer is to keep loudly insisting that these questions matter and that they deserve their own space on screen, too.
The only real alternative is to burn it all down.
Greenwich Entertainment acquired Sorry/Not Sorry after its TIFF premiere. Netflix acquired Woman of the Hour for distribution after its TIFF premiere. Neon will release The Royal Hotel in theaters on October 6.