The story of Kevin Spacey's sexual-advances-to-a-minor debacle has put the lid on Hollywood’s old-fashioned star system for good.
Lawyers and PRs just don’t have the power to offer blanket protection anymore. We live in a goldfish bowl with nowhere to hide. Our world is just one Big Brother house, and everyone’s a critic of how we behave.
The power lies with the people who find safety in numbers, as never before, online. In effect, the masses rallying together on social media are creating a kind of legal immunity.
There’s no way any star is going to sue every #metoo user for libel. The legal system would implode. That show is over. It’s time to fess up and take the rap. Unfortunately, Spacey’s attempts to do so have taken him deeper into the mire.
Rumours about his sexuality have abounded for years. Still, he never felt it appropriate to come out until Anthony Rapp forced his hand by alleging Spacey made sexual advances towards him when he was 14.
Fearless Seth MacFarlane, who famously joked out about Harvey Weinstein at the 2013 Oscars, included a joke at Spacey’s expense in an episode of Family Guy way back in 2005. Stewie, the baby of the show’s family, ran through a room yelling: “Help! I’ve escaped from Kevin Spacey’s basement! Help me!”
Social media had barely taken root then, so it was comparatively easy to contain any impact. Today, it took only six hours for Rapp’s allegation on BuzzFeed to rip around the world and cause a storm.
Spacey obviously wanted to stem the tide of any further potential allegations by immediately falling on his sword. It was a knee-jerk act of survival.
He came out. But what also came through was his vanity.
Although “beyond horrified” by the story, he said he had no recollection of the incident at all and put it all down to being overcome with booze. That doesn’t signal someone who is truly repentant, and it won’t play well.
He has also drawn criticism for seeming to make a connection between being gay and the sexual abuse of minors. Far from damage limitation, Spacey has done himself and our LGBT community a massive disservice.
It looks like handling his own PR might not have been in his best interests. Celebrities are being forced to play catch-up in a fast-changing world where everything is out there; a brave new world of honesty and Pride.
In the past, when homosexuality was mostly criminalised, studio moguls believed any hint that a star might be gay was box office kryptonite. Homosexual Hollywood heartthrobs like Rock Hudson and Dirk Bogarde were made complicit in a web of false conceits and cover-ups to keep their careers on track. The studios guarded their secret as tightly as an FBI file on the assassination of JFK.
Fast forward to today, a more liberal age when stars like Rapp are more the norm. He’s a gay actor and singer who originated the role of Mark Cohen in the Broadway production of Rent in 1996 and currently plays an openly gay character in Netflix’s Star Trek Discovery.
Netflix obviously has no problem with sexual orientation, but it does say it's “deeply troubled” by the Spacey allegations.
It has announced that the upcoming series six of House of Cards will be the last. That decision was said to have been made months ago, but rumour now has it that its film about the acerbic author Gore Vidal, starring Spacey, could also be for the chop.
Social media is scouring out the lives of the rich and famous, leaving no stone unturned as our pack mentality kicks in and we clamour to name and shame our abusers and detractors.
Rapp told BuzzFeed that he had disclosed details of his experience in a 2001 interview with The Advocate, but that he hadn’t gone on the record then to name Spacey. The Advocate’s executive editor at the time, Bruce Steele, confirmed to BuzzFeed that Rapp had been talking about Spacey in his account.
Rapp says he’s gone on the record now by “standing on the shoulders of the many courageous women and men who have been speaking out, to shine a light and hopefully make a difference”.
Facebook says that within 24 hours, 4.7 million people worldwide engaged in the #metoo conversation, with more than 12m posts, comments, and reactions. That’s a lot of weight behind a global movement.
More than 40 women have now accused the disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein alone of sexual harassment or rape, but this surge of openness isn’t confined to the silver screen.
Other powerful men stand accused in a forest fire that’s scorching the corridors of power both at home in Westminster and abroad in Washington DC. Even the financial world is ablaze as hidden bank accounts are brought out into the open for all to see.
The Panama Papers lifted the lid on how the rich and powerful use tax havens to hide their wealth, and the Guardian is set to release files any day now relating to the Bermuda law firm Appleby’s more recent damaging data leak.
It’s the Bonfire of the Vanities all over again. In 15th century Florence, they were burning objects that the church authorities considered sinful, such as cosmetics, mirrors, books and art. Today we’re putting the sinners themselves onto a virtual pyre.
Trailblazers like Wikileaks’ Julian Assange are finding their powers well and truly democratised as the secrets they expose to the public domain are taken up by a media less concerned than they used to be about any legal challenge.
Today, as we power forward into the Open Source Code of everything, publicity is governed by a digital-first strategy. Only once the time is right, and once inroads have been made online, will savvy marketers and PRs bring in traditional methods such as radio, TV and press to improve their results.
If we assume that bad behaviour will always be with us, that people are always going to do things they regret, Hollywood might do well to reassess how they fuel the dream machine.
Can’t trust an actual human? Create a synthetic superstar to order, and you won’t have to contend with any of those pesky human foibles. The 2002 Hollywood satire ‘Simone’, starring Al Pacino, examined just that scenario.
We’ve already seen digital recreations of actors and actresses who have long since left us – Peter Cushing in the Star Wars franchise, for one. Other films like Beowulf and The Polar Express go halfway, using 3D motion capture to create a fantasy world that would otherwise elude them.
How long before technology takes over and the studios ease out their flawed humans altogether?
A fully digital dream world may be closer than we think.
Bang On to Richard on email email@example.com and Twitter @6hillgrove