Auteur theory is debatable, but it’s a prominent feature of film theory with a cache of connotations. In the opening scenes of The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s endearing tribute to infamous director Tommy Wiseau and his film The Room, none other than J.J. Abrams refers to Wiseau as an “auteur.” The word conjures guffaws from audiences who know that Wiseau is regarded as making one of the worst movies of all time. But if you look at the history of the auteurs through their relationships with their leading ladies, you see Wiseau earns the moniker for the worst reasons.
Defined in the 1940s by Andre Bazin, only a handful of female directors have claimed the “auteur” distinction during their career, so it’s fair to say the auteur landscape is a boys’ club. It’s unsurprising that this male-dominated power dynamic often leads to abuse or, more commonly, aggression toward actresses. Too often audiences are treated to stories of power-mad directors whose arrogance is touted as brilliance. In the case of the auteur, whose meaning literally derives from the word “author,” the entirety of the film’s success or failure lies at their feet. But how is it that male performers are often recognized for thriving under an auteur, while women aren’t?
Gene Kelly, co-director of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, was known to run roughshod on actress Debbie Reynolds. At one point Reynolds, unable to do a move to Kelly’s precise specifications, was left sobbing after Kelly verbally berated her. Many would say now that it was Kelly’s constant badgering and need for perfection that pushed Reynolds into giving the performance that made her career. But did anyone see that at the time? Reynolds’ performance draws universal praise, but it’s not for her powerhouse dancing. In a 1952 review by The Hollywood Reporter, Reynolds was cited only for how “appealingly and capably” she handles her “first romantic lead.”
The auteur’s blind drive for perfection fuels interest in the concept, regardless of how it leaves the women they work with. None of the 16 films directed by Stanley Kubrick in his lifetime boast a female lead, and as with many directors then and now, the stories of his chaotic filmmaking process and mistreatment of his female performers are well-documented. During the 13-week shoot of 1980’s The Shining, Kubrick was known to belittle actress Shelley Duvall under the guise of provoking a better performance. But just as with Debbie Reynolds, the praise for Duvall’s performance wasn’t heaped on her but on Kubrick. As Duvall said in an interview with Roger Ebert, “Hardly anyone even criticized my performance in it, even to mention it, it seemed like. The reviews were all about Kubrick like I wasn’t there.” Jack Nicholson’s performance in the same film is commonly cited as a testament to his acting, not Kubrick’s handling, whereas Duvall’s performance is strictly attributable to her director.
The extreme auteurs are often content to put their actresses in harm’s way. It was alleged during the making of American Hustle that director David O. Russell had to be physically separated from actress Amy Adams during a heated argument between them. And this year’s release of mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky, saw a litany of press commending Jennifer Lawrence for breaking a rib during filming, proof of how she suffered for her art and flourished under an auteur like Aronofsky.
This leads us to The Disaster Artist, a film that wants us to smile at the meaninglessness of the “A” word, while simultaneously reiterating that Wiseau’s passion for his material should be commended. In a scene laid out in Greg Sestero’s book of the same name, witnessed by him during the making of The Room and presented in the Franco film, director Wiseau refuses to close the set for a nude scene involving actress Juliette Danielle (played in the biopic by Ari Graynor). The emphasis is on Wiseau’s refusal to accommodate the request made by the presumably righteous male members of the production to close the set to preserve Danielle’s integrity while she reiterates she can handle it.
What isn’t included, possibly to keep Wiseau as sympathetic as possible within this moment of tyranny, is how many times he needlessly filmed the sex scene. By the end, according to Sestero, Danielle was left so uncomfortable by the process that she refused to film any additional love scenes. As it stands in the film the moment is played up for comedy, as opposed to the awkward moment of “horror” it was described as in Sestero’s tome. When Danielle in the film watches the sex scene at The Room’s premiere she’s horrified that the scene “is still going.” But her comment isn’t derived from feelings of violation; it’s how poorly shot and terrible the finished product is. She’s upset because she’s starred in a bad film, not by what the director put her through to make it. By the end she’s laughing and chanting at Wiseau’s character to kill himself along with the rest of the audience. The script only sees an ocean of sycophants, where everyone praises this terrible Kubrick and even the film’s Shelley Duvall doesn’t feel bad about being berated.
Wiseau isn’t meant to be seen on the same level as other auteurs, yet he still lords his power over his female cast. Wiseau shapes his narrative as a director of vision no different from Kubrick or Wiseau’s hero Alfred Hitchcock. Only he is praised for the performances that arise from his aggressive filmmaking. The audience may be laughing at Wiseau, but they’re meant to nod their heads in agreement at the “joy” of what his vision has wrought, even if it left his leading ladies regretting their time.
Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento.