Kevin Spacey and the rise of uncancel culture

Does the announcement that Spacey is returning to acting suggest a way back for other Hollywood men who were accused but not convicted of misconduct?

Could this be Hollywood’s hot new thing – uncancel culture? The phenomenon whereby famous men once rendered unemployable in showbusiness due to a #MeToo campaign, but with no actual criminal conviction, sidle back into the limelight, testing the reaction, playing grandmother’s footsteps with social-media outrage? Of course, uncancel culture may not be new exactly. It could be as old as Hollywood itself.

When actor and director Kevin Spacey was accused in 2017 of alleged sexual misconduct by 20 men, he was widely shunned. His scenes in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World were reshot, replacing him with Christopher Plummer. And the last word on Spacey was said to have been delivered by comedian Dave Chappelle, with his devastatingly callous gag to the effect that if only Spacey’s victims had just borne their pain in silence for a month or so longer, we could have all found out how House of Cards ended. (As it is, that Netflix show had to be hastily re-scripted when Spacey was dropped.)

But now, having had no criminal charge and with civil suits pending, and having perhaps gauged the conversation around artistic freedom and the legal presumption of innocence, Spacey has placed a cautious toe in the tepid waters of public opinion. He has taken a small role in L’Uomo Che Disegnò Dio, or The Man Who Drew God, a forthcoming Italian movie from veteran director-star Franco Nero, with Nero playing a blind artistic savant who is wrongly accused of child abuse, and Spacey as the cop investigating his case. Spacey’s fictional role cleverly appears to address aspects of his own situation, the questions of abuse, guilt and innocence quibblingly transposed and absorbed into a story inviting interest and sympathy. And so his rehabilitation has begun. But then, the business has always been soft on alpha male stars.

Spacey’s European comeback tour may not be well-judged. It could end like the spoof heavy metal band Spinal Tap suddenly becoming big in Japan at the very nadir of their fortunes in the United States. It could cement Spacey’s exiled status. And many in LA will be all too aware of the European reputation for worldly and unreconstructed permissiveness, which does not precisely pave the way for renewed acceptance back in nervy Tinseltown.

Roman Polanski notoriously uses his French passport to live in France and avoid extradition to the United States on the still-pending charge of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. This case, from 1978, predates the whole debate so extensively that Polanski is, ironically, the one male film professional whose life is utterly unaffected by the #MeToo debate. Polanski cannot be uncancelled because he was never cancelled, but he is now in a strange limbo: UK distributors opted to avoid his latest movie, An Officer and a Spy, but Robert Harris suffered no obloquy for co-writing the script with Polanski.

Roman Polanski’s most recent film, An Officer and a Spy, which as yet does not have a UK distributor

Mel Gibson did not have to wait all that long to be uncancelled after outbursts of homophobic, racist and antisemitic language. And Woody Allen continues – just about – to work, because whatever the sensational, and to many, damning testimony of his adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow, he is still in the grey area between cancellation and uncancellation, precisely because there is no criminal conviction. (In Allen’s case, the allegations were investigated by the authorities twice and no charges brought.)

As for other possible uncancellees, comedian Aziz Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct in 2018, with an attendant debate about what was and was not consensual, but after what appears to have been a private apology, he has resumed his standup career, and even had a Netflix special, in which he was semi-repentant. The case of Louis CK is tougher: he was accused of repeated patterns of abusive behaviour, but he is trying to restart a standup comedy career below the media radar. Liam Neeson also managed to get away with a bizarre statement in 2019, when he recounted being briefly crazed with rage after a female friend was raped by a man who was black, and going around looking for a revenge attack on any black man looking for a fight. Neeson was tacitly forgiven, on the grounds that his unverifiable anecdote was offered as an illustration of toxic masculinity.

As ever, there is hardly any subject more fraught with hypocrisy and humbug than cancel culture and its conceited elder brother, uncancel culture. Women have for decades raged about the settled climate of entitlement and abuse and sexual assault for which the law seems to offer no effective protection, and so they appeal to the courts of social media. But these courts do not have anything like due process or the assessment of evidence. Where there is no actual verdict from a court of law, then we may all be in for a long goodbye from cancel culture, with tarnished stars settling in for a long haul and rebooting their reputations outside Hollywood. Uncancel culture will bring about a European Super League of the unrepentant uncancelled, with Roman Polanski at the top of the table.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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