The actor Frank Langella tells a story about filming a sex scene on the set of Roger Vadim’s 1988 remake of “And God Created Woman.” Sex scenes are usually “exhausting and a bore to perform,” he explains in his candid and often hilarious 2012 memoir, “Dropped Names.” The sets are crowded, the action slow.
Not this time. The set was cleared. Wine was served and consumed, clothes removed. “Yes, Frank, yes, that’s it,” Vadim prodded Langella, close enough so the actor could feel his breath. “Caress, caress, soft kisses. Now tease it! Tease it! Take your time. Yes, it’s good — you like it, don’t you?” What he wanted, Langella says, was “transcendence.”
This is not the way most sex scenes are filmed, especially nowadays. The shifting of limbs is now as carefully blocked out as a high-speed car chase. There are intimacy coordinators, tasked with ensuring the physical and emotional well-being of the actors. There is legal liability to be considered, always. This is Hollywood in the post-#MeToo era: doubtlessly safer, certainly more restrained and cautious to the point of inhibiting improvisation.
But despite efforts to protect against misbehavior, less caution often prevails in other regards when navigating the post-#MeToo workplace.
According to media reports, Langella was fired last month from “The Fall of the House of Usher,” a forthcoming Netflix series based on works by Edgar Allan Poe. In the series, he portrayed Roderick, who lives with his twin sister, Madeleine. Though there is no wife in Poe’s story, in the screen interpretation Roderick has a younger wife, and while filming a love scene with the actress playing that part, Langella allegedly touched her on the leg.
In a blistering guest column that Langella wrote for Deadline, the actor said he had improvised; the touch was apparently not in the script and had not been sanctioned by the set’s intimacy coordinator. He also pointed out that both actors were fully clothed.
Netflix conducted an investigation. The resulting accusations, in Langella’s account, included his telling of an off-color joke, giving an actress a hug and touching her shoulder and using endearments like “baby” and “honey.” (According to an initial Deadline report, Langella was accused of “sexual harassment, including making inappropriate comments” to her.) Langella, who is 84 years old and has around 100 screen credits, said he was given neither a hearing nor a chance to discuss the situation with the actress.
Netflix, Langella wrote, didn’t seem to want to risk legal retaliation for his conduct, no matter how things appeared to him. “Intention is not our concern,” he said he was told. “Netflix deals only with impact.” Neither Netflix nor Langella would comment to me on the situation. But in a Deadline report on Friday, further details emerged. Unnamed sources from the set claimed that Langella’s bad behavior was more extensive, including crude jokes, racially insensitive remarks and other instances of nonsexual but unwanted physical contact.
I have no idea what really happened here. I was not on set. It is entirely possible that Langella is guilty of unacceptable workplace conduct. It could be that he was following the playbook of a bygone era. It could be that he was difficult to work with or made colleagues uncomfortable.
The reckoning brought on by the #MeToo movement, reported on by my Pulitzer Prize-winning colleagues at The Times, was long overdue and a huge net positive. It took years of dogged reporting on odious cases like those of Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein to fuel the #MeToo movement, bringing necessary attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The behavior here was clearly egregious; the results were clear-cut and necessary. But then there are the more muddled cases.
Around the time that Langella was fired, allegations of misconduct concerning the actor Bill Murray on the set of “Being Mortal,” resulting in his suspension, and the firing of Fred Savage, the director of a reboot of “The Wonder Years,” also made headlines. It’s hard to know what to make of the near-constant stream of accusations of “inappropriate behavior” coming primarily out of Hollywood and the media world when smaller infractions seem to be treated much the same as appalling transgressions.
Part of the complicated fallout from #MeToo seems to be a lack of due process in responding to accusations. We’ve all heard stories of #MeToo overreach and backlash. Many people who work in the media or academia or entertainment, like me, have witnessed at least one person who has gone through some version of this. There are cases in which, whatever the accusers’ motivations, their claims are not found to be true or the punishment is out of proportion to the offense. Often the accused are convicted in the court of Twitter or ushered out by human resources and left to suffer the material and psychic losses. Public condemnation, even in the absence of evidence, can be enough to damage a life.
One high-profile example involves the novelist Junot Díaz, who was accused in 2018 of sexual misconduct by one writer and more generally of misogynistic behavior by several writers on Twitter. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches writing, found no evidence of misconduct toward students or staff members. The Pulitzer Prize Board, for which he served as chair, found no reason to remove him after a five-month review by an independent law firm. But not before his reputation was sullied.
There is no court of appeals if the offending party believes he was wrongly or unfairly accused. Langella said he was told by lawyers and advisers to follow the now standard cycle of abject public apology: “Do the talk shows, show contrition, feign humility. Say you’ve learned a lot.” This seems to be the preferred route, but it’s by no means assured, nor does it always sit well with those who believe their actions don’t warrant the punishment.
To raise these issues is not to betray or mistrust women. This is not a battle between the sexes. True, women are overwhelmingly the victims of sexual harassment and misconduct. But nearly every woman has a father, brother, husband or son. Any one of the men in our lives could wind up on the wrong end of an accusation, perhaps for good reason but perhaps for no good reason at all.
Nobody wants to knee-jerkingly take down another Al Franken, who was effectively forced to resign from the Senate over iffy allegations of inappropriate behavior during photo ops and comic sketches. Yet how to account for the fact that not all complaints of impropriety are alike?
Just as Hollywood and other industries long blinded themselves to their wrongdoers, they now risk refusing to consider anything other than abject guilt. Employers have an obligation to protect and respect all employees, which means both parties to an accusation.
We’ve thought a lot, as a country, about what to do with the men who are guilty of sexual violence and harassment. We’ve thought about how seriously to take such accusations and what to do with the monsters. But we still haven’t thought enough about how to handle all accusations with proportion and fairness. And we haven’t thought much at all about what to do when we’re wrong.
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