Art vs. the Artist: Controversial Filmmakers and Their Great Movies

Art vs. the Artist: Controversial Filmmakers and Their Great Movies

Oct 30, 2013

Few major films have caused as much premature outrage as the upcoming adaptation of Ender's Game, which was inspiring boycotts, protests and Internet petitions long before it hit the screens. People aren't angry at the movie itself, which tells the story of young soldiers being trained to repel a future alien invasion, they're angry at the author the source novel, Orson Scott Card. You see, Mr. Card is a bit of a bigot. His outspoken homophobia has been widely reported and he has done little to tone down his rhetoric in the months leading up to the film's release, surely causing more than a fair share of migraines at Summit's publicity office.

Card may be a deplorable man who doesn't deserve any of your hard-earned money, but that doesn't mean the Ender's Game movie will be bad. Hell, the Ender's Game novel is actually excellent (just buy it used or borrow it from your library). Sometimes, you've got to separate the art from the artist. In order to enjoy a great movie, you have to forget that the main voice behind its creation may be, well, someone with a bit or reputation... or an out-and-out bad person.

Before we all prejudge Ender's Game, it's vital to remember that some of your favorite movies were made by filmmakers with shady histories. This list is just a drop in the bucket. Remembering to separate the art from the person who made it is the most important element of being an avid movie watcher. Judging every movie for the actions of its creator is a good way to hate every movie.


Woody Allen

The Films: Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan, Midnight in Paris and more masterpieces (and to be fair, disasters) than can possibly be mentioned here.

The Controversy: Like many auteurs, Woody Allen fell for one his leading ladies and cast her in a bunch of his movies. Like many Hollywood relationships, this one ended badly... but it ended really, really badly. When Mia Farrow split from Allen, she accused him of having a romantic relationship with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, which turned out to true (Allen's cache of nude photographs was all the evidence needed). She also accused him of molesting their jointly adapted daughter Dylan. The ensuing legal battle cleared Allen of any abuse charges, but he was barred from seeing his adopted kids without direct supervision.

The Fallout: The whole scandal hangs over Allen's career like a nasty coat of dust. So much of what's under that dust is wonderful and interesting and always worth talking about, but it's hard to completely forget those accusations, especially since the ever-busy Allen puts out a film every year. It doesn't help that he ended up marrying Soon-Yi, lending the entire situation a creepy, quasi-incestuous feeling. Still, Allen's career never really lost its stride -- in recent years, he's snagged a few Oscar nods and helmed a few genuine box office hits.


James Cameron

The Films: The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Titanic and Avatar. You know, only some of the most successful movies ever made.

The Controversy: You don't make massive blockbusters without being a bit of a hard-ass, but James Cameron has developed a reputation for having the most solid rear end in Hollywood. For every actor who has worked with him before, you'll find a handful who have sworn off ever appearing in one of his films again. The most terrifying stories of Cameron's overbearing work ethic come from the set of The Abyss, where the filmmaker would keep his cast underwater for hours and hours a day, demanding that they urinate in their wetsuits rather than leave the tank to visit the restroom. More than one member of the cast experienced emotional breakdowns. Ed Harris, who admits to weeping in his car after shooting certain days, refuses to publicly discuss the film.

The Fallout: What fallout? Every Cameron set creates stories of delays, technical malfunctions, skyrocketing budgets and deeply unhappy actors, but it's tough to argue with the results. He's made the two highest grossing films of all time and some of the most iconic and popular mainstream films of all time. People have learned to stop doubting him, even if he can strike fear into the heart of any seasoned film crew.


Victor Salva

The Films: Powder, Clownhouse and Jeepers Creepers, and other uneven but generally interesting films.

The Controversy: There's no real pleasant way to put this, but while Victor Salva was making the horror movie Clownhouse, he sexually molested the film's young star Nathan Forrest Winters. Although guilty as sin, Salva was sentenced to only three years and released after only 15 months. The incident remained under wraps until 1995, when the release of the family fantasy film Powder led to Winters speaking out against his former director and abuser. Suddenly Powder was no longer a friendly Disney production, but 'that Disney movie made by a child rapist.' Salva has made films since, but none of the them have been easy productions.

The Fallout: It's tough to watch any of Salva's films without feeling grossed out, but one of the more fascinating and horrible side effects of his past transgressions is the subtext they've created in his films. The year 2001's Jeepers Creepers is a minor gem of a horror movie about an immortal creature who relentlessly stalks a young man played by Justin Long. Someone unfamiliar with Salva may think there's a creepy sexual undercurrent to the monster's desires, but the subtext becomes text once you know more. Salva still rightfully struggles to get movies made, but he's somehow managed to make his existing work feel vaguely autobiographical. Whether that's fascinating, disgusting or somewhere in between is something that'll be left up to you.


Lars von Trier

The Films: Some of the craziest, moving and most challenging films ever made, including Melancholia, Dogville, Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves.

The Controversy: Most controversial directors have one or two incidents that taint their careers forever. But Lars von Trier? He's a victim of his own absurd personality. The same things that make him a fascinating artist make him, well, a lightning rod for outrage. Where do you begin? How about that time John C. Reilly stormed off the set of Manderlay because a donkey was going to be killed for food on set? Of his frequent clashing with Dancer in the Dark star Bjork, who accused him of being a misogynist? Remember when one of the Cannes Film Festival juries gave Antichrist a special "antiprize"? If you don't remember any of that, you surely remember his controversial remarks while promoting Melancholia, where he joked about "sympathizing with Hitler" and proceeded to dig himself into a deeper hole by bringing up Israel.

The Fallout: To his credit, von Trier has done a fairly phenomenal job of owning his crazed, misogynistic, mad-genius image. Rather than let all of the controversy (including him being banned from Cannes) get him down, he's simply continued to cultivate the cult of von Trier, making bigger, riskier and weirder projects and attracting more and more big name actors. His latest project, Nymphomaniac, promises to be a massively long sex odyssey starring some of the best actors in the world. Now that's how you spin a bunch of rough situations to your advantage.


Alfred Hitchcock

The Films: Where to start? Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, North by Northwest, Notorious and Vertigo, which was recently named the greatest movie of all time in Sight and Sound's influential poll.

The Controversy: Director Alfred Hitchcock was always a bit of weirdo, but it wasn't until the 1960s that he reportedly started acting like a villain straight out of one of his films. After being cast as the lead role in The Birds, actress Tippi Hendren claims Hitchcock began coming on to her, demanding sexual favors and isolating her from the rest of the cast and crew. Convinced that he and he alone should "possess" her, Hitchcock used his exclusive contract with Hendren to prevent her from doing additional work, casting her as the lead in Marnie and continuing to physically and emotionally torment her. Other actors and other collaborators have come to Hitchcock's defense over the years, but Hendren has remained adamant. Her side of the ordeal was put on-screen in the TV movie The Girl, which cast Toby Jones as Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Hendren.

The Fallout: Like with Woody Allen, audience and film buffs are willing to be a bit forgiving when someone at the center of a controversy is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Hitchcock's reputation as the "master of suspense" looms larger than any single event in his life, which has relegated his relationship to Hendren to footnote in a lengthy, storied and massively influential career. The fact that Hendren's veracity has been called into question by many sources only muddies the picture. However, Hitchcock has been dead for decades and his reputation has only gotten more powerful with time. The years have defeated anything that could have ruined his legacy.


Roman Polanksi

The Films: Terrifying horror movies like Rosemary's Baby, classic film noirs like Chinatown and Oscar-winning historical epics like The Pianist.

The Controversy: When it comes to great filmmakers whose careers have been marred by scandal, nothing comes close to the story of Roman Polanski. In 1977, the acclaimed director drugged and had sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. In court, he plead not guilty with the understanding that five of the six charges leveled against him would be dropped and he'd get off with probation. However, he learned that the judge was planning to withdraw the deal at the last moment, prompting Polanksi to flee the United States for France, where he has lived ever since. As the enthralling documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired showcases, this is one of the most morally complicated and grotesque cases in Hollywood, with the awful man at the center of it being transformed into a victim due to the sneaky actions of an unethical judge. What should have been an easy, over-and-done case has become the kind of thing movie buffs quietly and sadly argue about after one too many drinks.

The Fallout: Polanski's European exile never stopped him from making movies and it certainly didn't stop him from winning an Academy Award for Best Director at the 2003 Academy Awards. He continues to make movies, but unlike others, his crimes never seem to get swept under the rug. Do to the fact that he pled guilty and became a fugitive from justice, Polanksi's past will never be forgotten or forgiven and each and every one of his movies made since then has been tainted. Few directors have challenged critics and audiences with separating art from the artist quite like him.


Mel Gibson

The Films: Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, an admittedly strange and eclectic collection for a former action star.

The Controversy: Where do we even start with Mel Gibson? First, there were the homophobic comments made in 1991. Then there were the accusations of anti-Semitism surrounding The Passion of the Christ. After that came the leaked phone calls that showcased him screaming obscenities and threats at his girlfriend. However, it all really came to a head when Gibson was pulled over for drunk driving and proceeded to address a female police officer as "sugar tits" and blame the Jews for all of the wars in the world.

The Fallout: It's astonishing how far Gibson has fallen since his heyday. Once a massive movie star with an Oscar on his shelf, now the villain in Machete Kills and The Expendables 3. To use professional wrestling parlance, Gibson has turned heel. No longer the loveable leading man in the real world, he's taken to playing over-the-top villains in B action movies. People don't talk about Braveheart, which has greatly diminished in popular opinion. No one mentions The Passion of the Christ, which was a box office sensation. No one remember Apocalypto, the risky (and actually totally crazy and entertaining) ancient Mayan action movie. They just remember a drunken, raving, angry lunatic. A punchline. This is how hard and fast a star can fall.




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