How Auteur Theory Protects Abusers

In the midst of the current purge of sexual harassers from Hollywood, a few people have noticed a glaring exception: Why has Woody Allen escaped unscathed? He’s a known abuser and this has been common knowledge for years. Yet, far from a cry for him to leave the industry, everyone who works with him has stepped forward to defend him.

Nor is he alone. Roman Polanski had to flee the country to avoid being brought to justice for rape, yet he’s treated not as a pariah, but as a respected genius. Looking at the film industry as a whole, a pattern emerges: Actors get taken down. Producers get taken down. Executives get taken down. Directors are untouchable.

The reason directors, specifically, are not held accountable can be traced back to the entire reason directors hold such a hallowed place in Hollywood: Auteur theory.

Auteur theory, for those who don’t know, is the idea that the director is the sole creative mastermind behind a film. It was coined by a couple of French guys in the 40s, but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that auteur theory is accepted as unquestioned truth by the film industry, critics, and audiences. It’s the reason why you can probably instantly name the director of your favorite movie, but not the screenwriters–and why you probably didn’t think there was anything odd about that fact until I pointed it out.

The damage caused by auteur theory is incalculable. Most obviously, it creates bad movies. George Lucas could make The Phantom Menace and M. Night Shyamalan could make The Last Airbender, for instance, because they were powerful auteurs and no one had the ability to curtail their vision, even when that vision desperately needed it. Michael Bay gets to make an endless string of Transformers movies because his name is synonymous with the franchise and no one seriously considers just replacing him with someone more competent.

And then there are the hegemonic factors. The image of the auteur is a middle-aged white man in sunglasses, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, standing behind a giant film camera and framing the shot with his hands. When we deify directors as genius creators, we instinctively place that role in the hands of the people our society values most: white men. Women make up just 4% of directors and minorities also have a disproportionately tiny share, and while the numbers are slightly better for screenwriters, editors, and producers, auteur theory doesn’t give them any credit as creators. Furthermore, female and minority directors rarely, if ever, rise to the vaunted auteur status of Spielberg or Kubrick (Spike Lee and the Wachowskis being perhaps the only true examples).

The outsize importance auteur theory ascribes to directors gives them an incredible amount of power and influence and shields them from the effects of their own bad behavior. Since an auteur provides a unique artistic vision, he is impossible to replace. Any conversation about whether an abusive director should be allowed to continue working in Hollywood immediately turns into a discussion of his oeuvre and his personal style and what we would lose in his absence. The assumption that the director deserves total credit for his films and that their style could never be recreated in his absence goes completely unquestioned.

If we’re talking about existing movies, then there’s some degree of truth to this binary viewpoint; if we swear off Woody Allen, then we do indeed need to give up Annie Hall, since we can’t watch an alternate Woody Allen-free version*. But too often we see this logic applied to new projects where the director could simply be replaced: Because he is an auteur, it’s assumed that losing him necessitates an irreplaceable loss of genius and that we’ll just never see films of that caliber again. But in reality, the director contributed only one part to a project involving hundreds of people who all had a hand in crafting the final vision. And that’s before we even get into directors like Tim Burton, whose signature styles are completely plagiarized anyway.

Of course, in Hollywood’s toxic environment, genius is being lost. Actresses and subordinates, mostly female, are constantly run out of the industry due to harassment and abuse, much of which comes from directors. But the narrative does not see them as an artistic loss. They are not auteurs.

So thanks to auteur theory, Hollywood bends over backward to protect and accommodate abusive directors while treating their victims as expendable. But auteur theory also has a hand in making directors abusive in the first place.

It would be difficult for anyone to remain humble while being told that they deserve all the artistic credit for a multimillion-dollar project that’s a household name the world across. Encouraged not to share credit or think of themselves as part of a team, directors almost inevitably have overinflated egos and a sense of entitlement, and it’s easy for them to see the rest of the crew as disposable tools to be used as they like.

Worse still, our conception of the dark, tortured artist means that Hollywood often rewards bad behavior from directors, especially when it happens openly on set. Slurs, tantrums, and sexual advances (often aimed at actresses who are teenagers or very young adults) are written off as the cost of doing business with a genius. Hitchcock’s abuse of Tippi Hedren in The Birds, for instance, has been common knowledge for many years, but has never meaningfully tarnished his legacy.

Sometimes the abuse is even treated as part of the director’s brilliance. After all, films themselves regularly romanticize abuse and bad behavior as the dark side of genius, and inevitably that attitude seeps into real life. This is so pervasive that we often don’t even think of behavior as abusive if it happened in the context of filming. Fritz Lang pushing Peter Lorre down the stairs without warning him in M is treated as an interesting bit of filmmaking trivia that created a memorable onscreen moment, rather than a sign that Fritz Lang might be kind of a bad person, which is how you’d usually think of a guy who pushed someone down a flight of stairs.

Auteur theory is just one of many factors contributing to Hollywood’s toxic culture of abuse. It would take concerted effort along many fronts to transform this attitude into a culture of respect. But abandoning auteur theory and returning to the view that a film is a collaborative effort by a team of equals would be an important step. Misbehavior would be harder to excuse, and famous directors would no longer have the untouchable status that prevents them from suffering consequences.

And we’d get better movies, too.


*Whether to swear off the work of abusive directors is a complex question, especially in cases like Hitchcock where the director is dead. This post is not about what ethical decisions individual viewers should make, but rather about why Hollywood keeps creating this situation at all.

3 Comments


  1. Sometimes I wonder if it might be better for all of us if we didn’t see anyone’s artistic vision as indispensable… unless we saw ALL artistic visions that way!

    It’s also funny, because you sometimes see similar ideas at work when it comes to artists who are mentally ill–that if they could get healthcare they needed and wanted, we’d be losing something priceless. (Even though proper healthcare might’ve prolonged and enhanced the artist’s life, both personally and creatively!) The idea of “our vision” becomes separate from our own happiness or ability to survive! (Or, in the case of what you’re talking about, the creator’s decency towards others!)

    So it seems to me that our focus on a single artistic vision is more harmful to people as a whole. I know Rogan sometimes only manages to do the work he does because he sees himself as replaceable; it means he can give himself permission both to do the work, and to stop doing it if he needs to.

    And it also means there’s less pressure to be perfectly original and visionary! For instance, I’m working on a tarot zine right now, and it’s not really about mental health, nor am I saying anything that hasn’t been compiled in other resources, but never all in the same book. Is it wrong to just want to make my own thing, even if it’s not original at all? I don’t think so! If nothing else, it will please me to make it! 😀

    –Sneak


  2. Oh man, the “mentally ill genius” narrative is awful. Even if it were true that mentally ill artists could only create art while suffering, which it totally isn’t, your health and well-being are more important than what you create!


  3. Yeah, but I think both narratives play into this idea of art being more important than the well-being of people who create it!

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