Down Memory Hole

David Bromwich

On 13 December, the New York Times published an article on the scrubbing of Kevin Spacey’s performance as J. Paul Getty from final prints of the film All the Money in the World. A fast reshoot had slotted Christopher Plummer into every scene that included Spacey; the dazzled reporter, Brooks Barnes, paid homage to the genius and alacrity of the director, Ridley Scott; and they called it in the print edition ‘Daring Act to Save Face’ – a sort of sick pun, and the matter is not so cute when you think about it. Scott was prompted by his recognition that the accusations against Spacey, from unwanted touch to groping to rape – which may turn out to be true, false or exaggerated, in unknown combinations – would damage the box-office take of All the Money in the World. Accordingly, he reworked the film against his original vision, in order to guard against a boycott. The boycott, however, was only speculative; the expunging and substitution were real.

If there was a story in this, it would seem to concern the ethics of altering a work of art to accommodate a sudden change in the political weather. Of course, there is an ambiguity in the case of a big-budget movie, especially when the director sides with the financiers against his own final cut. The soldiers of the culture industry were harming no one in view except Spacey when they felt free to pimp the miracle wrought by Ridley Scott. Art and commerce were marching together to counteract the financial loss that all would suffer if All the Money in the World were released under a hashtag cloud. It might be thought low-minded to serenade Scott and Plummer for a choice dictated by panicky expedience; but as veteran craftsmen they doubtless deserved the praise: a rapid turnover that cost $10 million for nine days of replacement shooting may have saved the project by airbrushing it. And from such old men – how magnificent to see them hop to it at 80! The product, now playing in local cinemas, has borne out the heady optimism of the story. The film was rejiggered in time for a Christmas release.

Scott and Plummer’s versatility has received similar laudatory treatment in Variety and other trade journals. The Hollywood Reporter found a special set of superlatives to fit the circumstances – ‘the paciest, most dynamic film ever made by an 80-year-old director’; ‘the best screen performance ever given by an actor who, a month before the film's debut, hadn't even been cast yet’ – and reviewers in the middlebrow outlets fell into step as if nothing questionable had occurred.

The idea that actors are exchangeable products may come to Ridley Scott more easily than it would to Renoir or Ophuls, Scorsese or P.T. Anderson. The interesting characters in his films have been non-human entities such as the androids played by Ian Holm in Alien and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. All the Money in the World – a human drama about the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson – deploys a ponderous Steadicam in the indoor scenes and picturesque colour outdoors, with contrasts never uncomfortably sharp, the typical shots halfway between medium and close-up and the people always large enough to be noticed when you come to see them on iPhone or Android media players. Something might have been made of the relationship between Getty and his paintings, but Scott walks away from that opportunity; we are never shown one of Getty’s purchases for long enough to wonder what it might be like to love pictures more than you love people.

A difference between the two performances of the tycoon has been pointed out by Scott himself, one of the few people in a position to know. ‘Kevin, who, without question, did a great job, was colder.’ Plummer’s Getty seems almost affectionate; he plays the part with an occasional subdued chuckle, relaxed and easy with himself, as if the iron is only underneath. This makes sense of the man who at last relents and pays the ransom to the kidnappers, but it renders the conduct of the rest of his life a mystery. Spacey left a bitterer taste: we can make the comparison in one place, anyway, because an entertainment channel held onto the original trailer and placed it side by side with the same moment in the released film. ‘How much would you pay,’ a reporter asks Getty, ‘to release your grandson, if not seventeen million dollars?’ And the answer is flat: ‘Nothing.’ Spacey made it a hoarse negative, devoid of feeling; Plummer speaks the line with raised eyebrows, an upward nod and tilt of the head – an unruffled exit from a conversation that holds no interest. Plummer’s is the more theatrical delivery and none the better for it.

In a spate of recent interviews, Scott has been voluble on subjects far from the art of cinema. A Denver Post reporter asked him about All the Money in the World as a ‘commentary’ on ‘the value of human life, class struggles, and the role of wealth in society’, and this led Scott to say a good word for Trump’s tax bill: ‘If you get a clever, unselfish business person – I don’t care if it’s a corner store or a big business – who’s suddenly saving 15 per cent, they’ll put it back in this business.’ That is pretty much the quality of the social observation derivable from All the Money in the World, notwithstanding the Denver reporter’s interest in human values and the class struggle. The main feeling of its audience seems to be that the film is watchable and probably worth the ticket, but could easily have dropped 25 minutes of dead air around the sordid milieu of the Italian kidnappers and the tepid trust between Getty’s daughter-in-law (Michelle Williams) and the family fixer (Mark Wahlberg). We are asked to believe that a momentous change of heart was prompted in Getty by a short speech of trite condemnation by the fixer.

If the movie is a thriller that makes few demands on feeling, the chance of ‘saving’ it has evoked from Spacey’s former collaborators a profound sense of emotional reclamation. Williams has said of the scenes that she reworked:

If I had been in the movie as it had stood and we hadn't been allowed to reshoot, it would have felt tainted and something to be shy of – something to just forget about entirely. Because it's upsetting to watch someone who has done these things, it's upsetting to watch them glorified. It's upsetting to watch them huge.

The success of the scrubbing, on the other hand, affords a warmth akin to the embrace of family and friends in the recovery room after a medical operation: ‘It's kind of beautiful. It can be done, rewriting the ending to something. We had the resources to do it and not everyone is lucky enough to be able to rewrite endings.’ Her relief is plain. By co-operating with the erasure, Williams has been shriven of guilt by association with Spacey, a burden the movie as originally shot would have forced her to bear. An anthropologist looking at the mood exhibited here – and Williams is not alone – might take it to represent a culture a few months from descending into shamanism and sorcery.

The tidal strength of the mood is apparent whenever a person stands forward and attempts to mitigate its fury. Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Marilyn Manson, Lindsay Lohan and Matt Damon have spoken words of caution, but it was seldom much more than a word and most of them have stepped back.

On 31 December, Forbes projected that All the Money in the World would earn $14.4 million at the box office in its first eight days – a sum that will more than cover the cost of the nine-day erasure. The success may have consequences. Netflix mimicked the policy of Scott and Sony by scrapping the biopic Gore, with Spacey as Gore Vidal, which was already in post-production. A finished film in the dumpster was preferable to a rash of online denunciations and a new outbreak of speculative charges. But perhaps a revenant Gore can now be safely re-animated, with Mark Wahlberg slotted for Spacey in the title role.

The long history of abusive artists in leading parts, too, may invite a more imaginative extension of the cleansing. Take a bankable male who has not yet been accused – Leonardo DiCaprio (star of the Ridley Scott film Body of Lies) or Daniel Day Lewis (if he can be coaxed out of retirement) – and digitally insert him in, say, all the Marlon Brando scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire. A scrubbed Streetcar might claim the prestige at once of aesthetic experiment and moral reform. With a more relaxed schedule than the nine days that All the Money in the World was allowed, the product could be previewed and revised again at pleasure by a contemporary audience. And as Scott has remarked, their opinion should matter: ‘The fans, in a funny kind of way – they’re not the final word – but they are the reflection of your doubts about something, and then you realise “I was wrong” or “I was right.”’


  • 4 January 2018 at 11:10am
    stuartf says:
    Ridley Scott has said that he originally wanted Plummer for the role but was forced by the studio to cast Spacey, because the money men wanted a bigger star. So this shouldn't be seen as a change that was forced on Scott, but as an example of an artist using changing circumstances to reclaim his vision.

    It's also perhaps an example of Scott's mania for reworking that has produced so many different cuts of Blade Runner. He was forced to modify that film at the studio's insistence before it was released, and has spent decades since trying to restore it.

    • 4 January 2018 at 1:02pm
      koalaxie says: @ stuartf
      If you read the direct quote below carefully, would you insist that Ridley Scott definitely preferred Plummer from the beginning? Or as much as purists want to believe, Ridley Scott does not shy away from his business mind set-"putting bums in seat"

      In hindsight, does Scott regret succumbing to the studio’s demands of casting Spacey? “There were no regrets about casting until I finished the film and got this information,” he laughed. “In all honesty, I always seesawed between Chris Plummer and Kevin Spacey, but part of my job is what I call ‘putting bums in seats.’ And at that particular point, Kevin Spacey was inordinately well known for his role in five seasons of House of Cards. He was a valuable asset.”

    • 4 January 2018 at 1:16pm
      koalaxie says: @ stuartf
      This interview again shows Ridley Scott's stand- don't give a shit about what kind person the actor is as long as the actor doesn't bomb the box office.

      Would Ridley Scott give a damn if the movie, say, completed its run before the scandal? I am afraid not.

      Nothing wrong with it. I am just saying whatever he did was about business and workmanship. Smart move rather than a noble move.

    • 8 January 2018 at 2:33am
      iago says: @ stuartf
      and brutus is an honest man.

  • 4 January 2018 at 11:50am
    koalaxie says:
    Beautifully written.

    I feel disgusted by the marketing of the "herotic act", which in reality is all about money from the director's and producer's point of views. It is an understandable business decision, as simple as that. Savvy?- Yes. Herotic?- Are you kidding?

    As for Michelle Williams. Again it is understandable and she was more sincere in a way that she was more emotionally affected compared to Scott. Still, it is not too hard to take a moral high ground when the person who suffers from the conseqence (Spacey in this case) is not someone she/he personally cares about.

    Stop preteding to be herotic when one has nothing on the line.

  • 5 January 2018 at 1:44am
    Laurie Strachan says:
    Koalaxie has got that to a T.

    • 8 January 2018 at 5:19pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Yeah, I've been wondering about that extra t myself - is it just a typo or some heroic effort to invent a portmanteau word that combines "heroic" and "erotic"? Good word for an actor or actress who combines those qualities in a performance, but I hope it never catches on.

    • 13 January 2018 at 2:24am
      koalaxie says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I just saw this.
      In reply, it was a typo. I would check my typo more carefully as I felt a bit embarrassed.
      Glad that I was called out as illiterate. Thanks for giving me the benefit of doubts :-)

    • 13 January 2018 at 2:27am
      koalaxie says: @ koalaxie
      Sorry. It should be "I was NOT called out as illiterate".

  • 5 January 2018 at 11:28am
    RobotBoy says:
    The age-old sophomoric showdown between ethics and art has gained new life in the uproar over the sleazy crimes of Hollywood fat cats. A few days ago, a popular liberal website ran a headline: 'We Have to Reconsider Their Movies' (something along those lines).
    Identity politics has always promulgated the checklist approach to art (Correct Gender? Check. Appropriate Casting? Check. Evil Patriarchs? Check? Uplifting Message? Check) but the scandals have extended the focus to the purity of the creators.
    The moment we add an artist's personal morality to evaluations of his or her work is the moment that art loses most of what makes it interesting (and we lose most interesting art) and we're back to the accomplishments of Socialist Realism. The list of loathsome artists stretches from long before Chaucer (sexual assault) to well after Ezra Pound (Fascist Anti-Semite) and Roman Polanski. I tend to think that great art serves as a rebuke to the sins of its creators, even if that rebuke is simple indifference. Which is not to say that the artist's failings can't inform one's estimation of the work - who can look at Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' now and not shudder over the romance with an underage girl? That is to say, the information does best as a way of complicating the work, not as a dismissal.

    • 6 January 2018 at 9:41am
      koalaxie says: @ RobotBoy
      "the information does best as a way of complicating the work, not as a dismissal."
      Really makes sense

  • 5 January 2018 at 6:08pm
    ksh93 says:
    Also sad that the same-sex nature of Spacey's sexual assaults usually goes unmentioned given that "United States [may be] the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women."

  • 6 January 2018 at 6:16pm
    Graucho says:
    No such thing as bad publicity as long as they get your name right. Following the exploits of that other alleged predator and the new book I can only conclude that either ...
    a) Mr Fake University really is the nut job as portrayed
    b) He is getting a share of the royalties.

    • 7 January 2018 at 7:15am
      koalaxie says: @ Graucho
      Which book are you talking about?

    • 7 January 2018 at 1:10pm
      Graucho says: @ koalaxie
      Fire and Fury

  • 7 January 2018 at 9:57pm
    Eamonn Shanahan says:
    The point is good, the queasy interface between aesthetic and social criteria, art and life, what have you. And that the one interferes with the other is always significant. But two things: one, men have been sexually abusing women for ever; two, this is film, an elastic form where money has always played a central role. Yes, character is crucial, and greats like Spacey deliver. But is it surprising that there is an 'over-reaction' in an industry obsessed with sex and dominated by men? The disproportions are equivalent. This has to happen. Get over it. Some good art may be damaged. So what? And to extrapolate along the lines of 'scrubbing' all the past is a touch, ahem, hysterical.

    • 9 January 2018 at 5:35pm
      apologues says: @ Eamonn Shanahan
      To adopt your own peremptory style ("Get over it"), you're wrong. Bromwich's proposal to scrub Brando out of "Streetcar" is what is known among the literate as a reductio ad absurdum. Your "two things" are irrelevant to Bromwich's point. The damage to good art is not a "so what" to those who value it. That many people value it for meretricious reasons, or sometimes seem to over-value it by sacralizing it, does not render this fact nugatory. "This had to happen." Well, no, it didn't. If a handful of people in the arts would refuse to be stampeded by a handful of people sanctimoniously calling them out, it wouldn't happen. Spacey is perfect to play Gore Vidal -- another dark character who couldn't possibly be portrayed as well by the talented Mr Plummer. My life does not revolve around seeing that movie, but Netflix denying me the opportunity is cowardly and frivolous.

    • 12 January 2018 at 7:46pm
      koalaxie says: @ apologues
      The moral high horse vs the arts.

      Hope arts return sooner than later.

    • 12 January 2018 at 8:04pm
      Eamonn Shanahan says: @ koalaxie
      Dear apologues. Men have been sexually abusing women forever.

    • 12 January 2018 at 10:54pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Eamonn Shanahan
      Yes indeed, we could even create an "evolutionary psychology" story about why this is so(many have done just that). But we live in a society that constantly emphasizes individual responsibility for one's actions as the basis for moral or ethical judgment of those actions. "Male psychology (or primate politics) made me do it" won't stand up in a court of law, nor should it. So, when you're caught out by the society that claims to live by such standards, you have to pay the piper.

  • 8 January 2018 at 5:30pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Just a brief comment on the lead sentence of the fourth paragraph. "The idea that actors are exchangeable products . . ." may not have appealed to the directors cited, but it was certainly in Stanley Kubrick's mind when he chose leads for several of his films (2001, Barry Lyndon, Eyes Wide Shut). For some reason or other he wanted actors not known for the range of their expressiveness in these movies.

    • 8 January 2018 at 11:10pm
      koalaxie says: @ Timothy Rogers
      I agree. Stanley Kubrick is an intellectual type of directors.
      If we go by cold logic, we are all commodities and no one is irreplaceable.

  • 9 January 2018 at 11:02am
    koalaxie says:
    Anthony Rapp wrote a book called "without you" after his biggest hit RENT. The book was far more about his intimate personal accounts than his work as actors. People who are more interested in RENT or want to know more about acting are very likely to get disappointed with Rapp wrapped in his own mind.
    I wonder if Rapp is a kind of person who is less self-referenced, he might have let go of the incident (no intercourse involved)over thirty years ago.
    He happens to be intense and sensitive and dewell on his inner world, which he has every right to be.
    I am just curious about what makes people choose their course of actions, I guess.
    On the same token, if Spacey had been able to accept his own darkness he might have been able to develop intimate relationships to ground him a bit.
    I simply do not believe Kevin Spacey is an evil person as people make him out to be.
    It is just me. I like him very much as an actor and that doesn't change.
    Hope to see him again on screen...after a long while when everything is settled...If it happens.
    If his career never recovers, then wish him be a happier person who come to accept it.
    Don't waste the pain you suffer- paraphrased from Frank underwood.
    So long.

  • 11 January 2018 at 7:48am
    BrianBruise says:
    This just in. Williams was paid $1,000 for shooting the replacement footage while Wahlberg received $1,500,000. It appears some women, finally, are not putting up with perpetrators of harassment, but they are still getting screwed.

    I wish the Hollywood, New York and Washington elite would spend more time and energy combating the more mundane, I suppose, activity of domestic violence which can range from physical, mental and sexual abuse to disfigurement and murder.

    Does all of this tell us perhaps that second wave feminism in which I participated since the sixties, has been an utter failure and life for women today is closer to that lived by their sisters in the 1950s than that envisioned by contemporary feminist academics?

    • 12 January 2018 at 8:13pm
      koalaxie says: @ BrianBruise
      1) How can this kind of thinks even leak and become part of a public duscussion? Is there professional confidentiality here? Wow!
      2) Whoever leaked the information should be fired.
      3) Michelle a clause in her contract to do reshoot without extra pay, as I heard. But this is besides the point. Even if she voluntarily did it, it was not Mark Wahlberg's obligation to do the same.
      3) Some people clearly have political agenda and drove it from behind and tagged into public fanaticism.

      Hmmmm. Ridiculous. It is really healthier to stop paying attention to all this dramatized news with questionable sources.

  • 12 January 2018 at 10:59pm
    koalaxie says:

    The above is the interview with Ridley Scott. You can see how hard the interviewer tried to lead Ridley Scott to make his decision "moral" , make him show personal distain towards Kevin Spacey and make the process "emotional".

    It was such a agenda driven interview. The interviewer was emotionally manipulative.

    Ridley Scott never budged. He doesn't give a shit!

  • 16 January 2018 at 7:47pm
    Eamonn Shanahan says:
    Well, he should give a shit Mr koalaxie. Yes there is a witch hunt. Not surprising. It's been a long time coming. This is explosive. And eggs will get broken, dear.

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