entertainment

The showdown between Oliver and Hoffman could change how accused sexual harassers are presented

Steven Zeitchik, The Washington Post

Updated: Wednesday, December 6, 2017, 10:38 AM

John Oliver on "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" on HBO.

NEW YORK – When the former film-production intern heard that TV personality John Oliver had grilled Dustin Hoffman about sexual harassment on a New York stage Monday night, she had a distinct reaction.

“I felt cheerful – almost giddy,” she said.

That intern wasn’t just an anonymous ex-Hollywood grunt – she was Anna Graham Hunter, the Hoffman accuser whose allegations prompted the showdown.

In an interview with the Post on Tuesday, Hunter described her feelings about the Oliver-Hoffman incident, joining a chorus of people across entertainment who saw in it a potential new phase in the delicate tango between media, celebrity and the public.

“I love the idea that you now don’t just get to step out of the news cycle if you’re someone famous, that there’s no ‘safe space’ from an uncomfortable conversation,” said Hunter, a Los Angeles-based writer who had accused Hoffman of groping her and making inappropriate comments on the set of 1985’s “Death of a Salesman” when she interned there at 17.

The unusual faceoff – in which an HBO host repeatedly challenged a prickly Oscar winner at an anniversary screening of the movie “Wag the Dog” – has spurred talk of a changed culture as a normally well choreographed affair saw the removal of both veil and gloves.

Could entertainers now become journalists? Could a screening turn into an unexpected debate forum? Will victims now have many famous people confronting accusers on their behalf in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which exposed the extent of sexual harassment in Hollywood?

Representatives for Oliver, Hoffman and Tribeca Film Institute, which hosted the panel, did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The event between Oliver and Hoffman had begun unremarkably. A panel gathered to mark the 20th anniversary for “Wag The Dog” – one of many such events that take place across New York and Los Angeles every week.

The screening was hosted by Jane Rosenthal and Robert De Niro, Tribeca’s co-founders, who were among the producers of the political satire film. They agreed to join Hoffman and director Barry Levinson on the stage. Predictable moments would surely follow – funny anecdotes from the set; genial platitudes about its relevance to the modern political era. Then the lights would go down and the audience would watch the movie.

Even Hoffman’s appearance was unremarkable. Despite the allegations made by Hunter and another woman, the actor had recently taken the podium at two Oscar-season events, the Governors Awards in Los Angeles and Gotham Awards in New York, with barely a ripple.

But Oliver had another idea. In the green room before the panel he pored over notes, preparing questions that would zero in on what he saw as Hollywood hypocrisy.

“I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” the host said after stepping on the stage. “The easy way is not to bring anything up. Unfortunately that leaves me at home later at night hating myself. ‘Why . . . didn’t I say something?'”

As Hoffman squirmed and protested that Oliver was “putting me on display,” the audience began reacting too. “Thank you for believing women,” one yelled to Oliver.

By the end of the panel a number of attendees stood up in applause; many appeared to be cheering for Oliver, though it was not clearly a unanimous reaction. As the news spread over social media, with video from the event, it became a phenomenon.

“It’s fascinating because of the dynamic,” said Mara Reinstein, a former Us Weekly editor who specializes in media and celebrity. “Under those circumstances, maybe 99 percent of moderators would have played it safe. But not only did Oliver go there, he refused to back down even when Hoffman grew testy. He’s not exactly Mike Wallace, you know?” And, she added, “he didn’t douse flames with a joke either.”

Reinstein said she believed the event would embolden other celebrity moderators to ask tough questions at future panels, not dissimilar to how the Weinstein scandal motivated a wide range of media outlets to chase stories about other alleged abusers.

But, she said, the long-term influence might also be limited. “The interesting question is if the typical [panel-moderating] journalist will go there now,” she said, alluding to the access questions some entertainment reporters worry about. “Oliver wields more power.”

Even among boldfaced interviewers Oliver remains an exception. Ira Madison III, a writer at the Daily Beast and popular social-media pundit, said that the fact that Oliver’s HBO show doesn’t rely on guests – most of the segments are long-form issue-based monologues – keeps him uniquely free of restraints.

“John Oliver isn’t beholden to many of the things that other late-night hosts have to deal with,” Madison III said in an interview. “I appreciate the fact that he’s taking advantage of it. But a lot of people can’t do that.”

Not all were convinced Oliver was in the right. One woman in the audience yelled he needed to move on; some on social media called him out for ego and “sanctimony”; a number of others said he was convicting Hoffman with an absence of proof; and one high-profile entertainment player said privately that they thought Oliver was walking too convenient a line between comedian and journalist, choreography that sometimes tripped up Oliver’s mentor, Jon Stewart.

(Whether the attention it brought the host could also spur producers to add more interview segments to Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO remains to be seen. An HBO representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The show ended its season last month and is set to pick up again at some point in 2018.)

But despite a small chorus of Oliver criticism, Hoffman’s responses were widely pilloried, certainly on tactical grounds, as he alternately squirmed and sought to cite a history of treating women respectfully.

Madison III wondered if celebrity packaging will change because of the Hoffman responses, whether with the star himself, who like others in Hollywood could yet face more accusers, or other actors who watched Hoffman go viral and want to learn from his mistakes.

“I think it was instructive insofar as it showed a lot of men in Hollywood have no language to discuss this culture [of harassment], no concept for breaking it down,” Madison III noted. “And others will have to educate themselves so they don’t end up coming across like Hoffman.”

But the long-term effect of the incident, he noted, could either be radical transparency or the opposite. “It’s going to be very interesting – you’re either going to see more honesty or more [male] celebrities withdrawing and not doing press at all,” he said.

The event could change the often sleepy culture of film screenings into something more dynamic and accountability-minded, both during award season and upcoming film festivals – such as the United States’ most prominent gathering, the Sundance Film Festival, which begins next month in Utah.

And for activists and alleged victims, that could mean a way of preventing instances of abuse in the future.

“The fact that this incident introduced the conversation to screenings and panel discussions may do more to improve things than people losing their jobs,” said Hunter, Hoffman’s accuser. “Obviously I think many people should lose their jobs. But men losing their jobs makes other men scared. I don’t know if it makes them thoughtful.

“I don’t think we can fire our way out of this mess,” she added. “We have to think our way out of it.”

Steven Zeitchik, The Washington Post

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