So I won’t have to embed 20 million tweets, I’m just going to do my best to summarize what went down at a 20th anniversary panel discussion and screening of Wag the Dog. Wag the Dog came out in 1997 and it starred Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche, Denis Leary, William H. Macy and more. I don’t remember the film being the best thing ever, or even that worthy of commemoration after twenty years, but whatever. The panel and screening took place at the Tribeca Film Institute. For some reason, they thought it would be a good idea to get Dustin Hoffman on the panel, even though the last time we spoke about Hoffman, it was because multiple women came forward with their stories of his serial sexual harassment, abuse and assault. They also thought it would be a good idea to get John Oliver to HOST the panel discussion. Sh-t got messy in a hurry.
First, John Oliver didn’t shy away from asking Hoffman directly about the accusations of sexual harassment and assault. According to eyewitnesses – there were assorted film critics and entertainment journalists in attendance – Hoffman “grew visibly uncomfortable” with Oliver’s questions and Hoffman snapped, “You weren’t there,” and Oliver said back, “I’m happy I wasn’t.” The beef seemed to settle down for a few minutes, then Hoffman brought it up again, accusing Oliver of “not keeping an open mind” and “unquestionably believing accusers.” Oh, here’s some good coverage from Deadline (they must have had a reporter in the room):
Then, about 20 minutes in, Oliver brought up the current climate around sexual harassment in show business, saying he was going to go “around the room” to gauge all panelists’ sentiments. (Later, when Hoffman would complain about having been ambushed, Oliver said it was “on the organizers” for not conveying his stated intention to bring up the ultra-hot-button topic.)
…Warning it was “likely to be the tensest part of the evening,” Oliver started in with Hoffman. The tension would linger for 30 agonizing minutes as the two engaged in an anguished back and forth centering on the actor’s deeds and the response to his response to the allegations. “You’ve made one statement in print,” Oliver said. “Does that feel like enough to you?” Hoffman replied, “First of all, it didn’t happen, the way she reported.” He said his apology over the incident, offered, he said, at the insistence of his reps, was widely misconstrued “at the click of a button.” But the Last Week Tonight host seized on the portion of the actor’s public apology, in which Hoffman said the events that happened on set didn’t reflect who he is as a person.
“It’s that part of the response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said. “It is reflective of who you were. You’ve given no evidence to show that it didn’t happen. There was a period of time when you were creeping around women. It feels like a cop-out to say, ‘Well, this isn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?” Hoffman shot back, “You weren’t there.” Oliver responded, “I’m glad,” drawing gasps from the well-heeled audience, many of whom had paid hefty ticket prices.
“You’ve put me on display here,” Hoffman told Oliver, seething but never raising his voice or leaving his seat. “You have indicted me. … That’s not innocent until proven guilty.” Hoffman tried to put it in historical context, saying sometimes the atmosphere on set decades ago involved sexually charged banter, which he said was not meant in an offensive way. ‘I don’t love that answer either,” Oliver said, cringing. “What response do you want?” Hoffman demanded. “It doesn’t feel self-reflective in the way it seems the incident demands,” Oliver explained, adding, “I get no pleasure from this conversation. But you and I are not the victims here.”
When Oliver quoted from an account Hoffman’s accuser wrote, the actor asked Oliver, incredulous, “Do you believe this stuff you’re reading?” Oliver said he did “because she would have no reason to lie.”
As this went on, the other panelists largely stayed mum. The audience seemed divided — some in the well-heeled crowd, who had forked over hundreds of dollars to spend the night re-living a Clintonian satire, took offense at Oliver staying on the issue. “Move on!” one person shouted. “He thinks it’s funny,” sputtered one man as he escorted his wife out of the theatre. Others applauded when Oliver expressed his view. “Thank you for believing women!” one woman called out. The spasms of conflict and accusation were followed by long stretched of silence, during which no one in the theatre knew quite what to do…After about 15 minutes, Hoffman appeared to have persuaded some in the crowd, but he voluntarily returned to the topic and re-engaged with Oliver. When Levinson and Oliver agreed that social media has distorted politics and culture, Hoffman interjected, “Well, it’s affected you in terms of your feelings about me.” While the audience applauded, the line opened up a gut-wrenching 15-minute sequence that closed the night.
“The so-called, alleged comments that are made are truth now,” Hoffman fumed. “And if you try to defend it, you’re guilty.” Oliver granted, “I see where you’re coming from,” but insisted, “it’s a little more complicated than that.” Several times, he expressed anxiety over ruining the audience’s night and the experience of watching the film again. And yet, “I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” Oliver conceded. “That leads to me at home later tonight hating myself, asking, ‘Why the f–k didn’t I say something? No one stands up to powerful men.’” Hoffman asked Levinson, incredulously, “Am I the powerful man?” Levinson said, “I wasn’t sure what the reference was, which powerful men.”
Go and read the entire Deadline piece if you want to feel dead inside. Towards the end of the conversation, Hoffman claimed he had respect for women because he did Tootsie, which… no. There were accusations about his harassment and abuse of women post-Tootsie, and saying he played an actor who pretended to be a woman and therefore he has respect for women is absolute bullsh-t. Hoffman’s responses here were absolutely awful, and the responses were a classic example of a serial predator doing everything to justify his abuse, gaslight his victims and act like he is the “real victim” in the situation.
You can debate whether John Oliver should have gone head-to-head with Hoffman at this particular event, but I say Oliver had every right. I’m glad he made everyone so uncomfortable. At one point, apparently Jane Rosenthal (DeNiro’s longtime producing partner) claimed that the sexual harassment discussion had no place on this particular panel because “It wasn’t produced by Weinstein Co. or Miramax, so you don’t have a really big conversation. Kevin Spacey wasn’t starring in it. Let’s look at real sexual criminal predators.” Dear Jane: you’re part of the problem. Just because Dustin Hoffman wasn’t a serial rapist or child molester doesn’t mean that he didn’t systematically abuse his power and hurt women for YEARS.
Photos courtesy of Getty.