Illustration: Maria Jesus Contreras
It is easy to forget, now that all meaning has been ripped from the term, that cancelation is a TV joke — a reference to removing someone from your life the way a network might remove a failing sitcom from its schedule. And it’s television, ever more nimble at reacting to real-world developments, that has been the primary source of stories about canceled characters as the term has become a refrain in the culture war fodder. Procedures like The good fight and Law and order have centered cases on fap-happy comedians and insulting teachers, while sci-fi shows like black mirror and The Orville presented tortured allegories about people killed by hashtags or lobotomized at the request of an audience that votes against it. And that’s just at the episode level. Series like hacks and Alaska Daily have built legends on their very premises, citing them as the impetus forcing their disgraced heroines to start over in humiliating new gigs. When Apple entered the streaming game in 2019, its flagship offering was the star-drive The morning show, a stylish drama set in the wake of the firing of a famous news anchor who was reminiscent of Matt Lauer.
Movies move slower and take longer, and it really wasn’t until the last year that cancellation leaked to the big screen in any meaningful way. In the scary hit Barbaric, Justin Long plays AJ Gilbride, a smiley sitcom actor whose career implodes after a co-star comes forward with sexual assault allegations. He soon had nerd company in the form of Lydia Tár, the brilliant, self-absorbed bandleader played by Cate Blanchett in Warehouse, who experiences a similar disgrace after the suicide of a mentee sheds light on his story of using his power to obtain sexual favors from young women. Joining them is Kate Hudson Glass Onion character, Birdie Jay, a media influencer who lost her job at a magazine after an incident involving a blackface, reinvented herself as a leisurewear mogul and is now on the verge of another disgrace due to the company’s use of a notorious sweatshop. These aren’t re-enactments of real people from the headlines, and they’re not just excuses to hold referendums on cancel culture — which is perhaps why they’re so delicious. Freed from the burdens of current events, the characters in the process of being canceled constitute a beautiful material.
Part of the appeal of the cancellation, not as a social media phenomenon or a sign of generational divide, but as a show in itself, is that it offers a different angle on stardom. Over decades of filmmaking, we’ve had reviews of what it’s like when fame slowly fades (sunset boulevard or, more recently, Babylon); of fame as a trap (Hollywoodland or The Rose); of glory tested by scandal (Notting Hill, beyond the lights). But to be ejected from the ranks of notables like Lucifer expelled from paradise, to collapse so quickly that your ears are blocked? This brusqueness is an effect of the digital age, and while we’ve had plenty of opportunities to witness this process from the outside in recent years, seeing it explored in fiction is surprisingly fascinating. These characters don’t change or grow in a way we’ve been taught to expect – in fact, while these films all tease the potential for a moment of redemption, they also all hold it in. It’s the world that has changed, leaving them in a panic over actions that might once have gone unnoticed by the public.
The rise of recently ousted stardom as a guy should come as no surprise at a time when everyone is delighted with brilliant satires on the wealthy like The White Lotus, Succession, The menu, and triangle of sadness. While these comedies of wealth and horror provide opportunities to bask in luxury while mocking its recipients, there is a defeatism that runs through them, a recognition that, barring acts of God or violence apocalyptic, there’s no way to touch these people or topple the structures they’re perched on top of. The characters in Barbarian, Glass Onion, and Warehouse may appear to enjoy a similar degree of privilege, but they are not untouchable. Watching AJ sing a tune in his convertible on the Pacific Coast Highway, or Birdie Jay swan poolside in an Andrea Iyamah bikini, or Lydia Tár arriving home in her brutalist Berlin apartment offers some of the same have-your-own. -caviar-and-eat it also pleasures knowing that a comeuppance is on the way. And that while that doesn’t mean much in terms of systemic change, they’ve earned it. For AJ, it comes almost immediately: his introductory song is interrupted by a call from his representation informing him that he is accused of rape. Two scenes later, he rushes to Detroit in an attempt to avoid financial ruin by selling an investment property and unknowingly inserts himself into a horror storyline – more bouncing music.
Differentiate between truly rich people and simply famous people: money doesn’t care to be despised. These characters may be well off by normal standards, but they’re still only wealthy, which proves to be a precarious position once things start to go wrong. Birdie, having already suffered a fall, is ready to trade the remnants of her reputation and take the bullet for her company’s labor violations in exchange for payment from her biggest investor. AJ wanders around the basement of his Brightmoor murder house with a measuring tape, seeing dollar signs instead of how hilarious and unnerving it is, and Lydia has a surreal escape into her murder house. childhood in Staten Island. You could accuse these movies of demonstrating some wish-fulfillment by having their made-up celebrities face graver consequences than most of the real ones accused of similar misdeeds. (Lauer, for his part, retired to the Hamptons estate which he would eventually sell for over $33 million.) Still, Lydia Tár remains employable in the end, even if it’s as a chef. orchestra of video game scores, and the explosive events in the finale of Glass Onion seem likely to distract from Birdie’s latest misdeeds. AJ meets a dark fate, but it’s thanks to an inbred mutant rather than studio executives or public boycotts – even in fiction, there’s a limit to what we can or want to imagine of what go follow. What’s captivating is the fall itself and, alongside it, the borderline sociopathic behavior of these characters who all managed to convince themselves that they weren’t responsible for the wrongs they quite clearly seemed to have done. committed.
In each case, their crimes mostly take place off-screen, which helps these movies treat their characters like dark comedy. But the guilt seeps in around the edges. Lydia has restless dreams about the young bandleader she took under her wing and into her bed, then cut and blacklisted, leading to his death by suicide, while AJ tells his version of what happened. happened to a friend in a bar – ‘She just took some convincing, that’s all’ – the camera holding his increasingly uncertain expression as he tries to push his way through in self-defense. He There is something melancholic about these bursts of self-awareness. It is an impulse that has been deceived by some, especially with shop, for empathy for its protagonist’s predicament, though what the film really does is humanize him. She runs outside to vomit when confronted with a mirror of her own behavior, but there’s no reason to believe she wouldn’t do everything possible to escape blame the next day.
It is natural to want to understand the everyday monsters that many of us encounter in a less glamorous form, to turn them into fiction. But the stickiness of films like Barbarian Warehouse, and glass onion, that have persisted in the cultural conversation, also serves as a reminder of how much easier it can be to tell stories about offenders than about their victims. She says, a drama posed on the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story, languished in theaters last fall, somehow feeling both too soon and too late. A much better Me Too movie was Sarah Polley’s women talking, although it took place in an island Mennonite colony whose inhabitants were so far removed from Hollywood that they might as well have been on the moon. Even so, the harrowing debates it portrays about what to do in the face of systematized abuse are likely to be seen by a fraction of the audience of previous titles – even the most box office-unfriendly ones. Warehouse. These movies also left the abuse off-screen, though in their case it was to allow the characters who endured it a place in the center. We are so early to understand how to tell these stories, how to deal with the cover-up of wrongdoing and the flawed crowdsourcing of justice to address it. Schadenfreude’s promise is a more direct proposition.