Sarah Polley and Hollywood Rape Culture

Fans of the Armenian Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan will recognize Sarah Polley from Exotica, where she played a victim of emotional abuse, and The Sweet Hereafter, where she played a victim of sexual abuse. You might also remember her as Abigail Adams Smith, an intelligent and sensitive young woman unable to come out from under the shadow of her domineering father, in the TV miniseries John Adams. Although Polley is well-known in Canada as a left-wing activist and socialist member of the New Democratic Party (NDP), most people will probably agree that she never quite made the transition from successful child-star to adults roles.

When Polley was 20, she had the lead role in Doug Limon’s film Go. Go, which also featured Katie Holmes, and Timothy Olyphant, could have been a good film. Polley’s character, a supermarket cashier who gets in over her head when she attempts to get the money for her back rent by drugs, is just the kind of part an already experienced, socially progressive actress might want. Sadly, however, Liman lost control of the script. Go –except for a hilarious scene involving a talking (or to be more accurate subtitled) cat — is to be perfectly honest an exploitative piece of shit. Liman seems more worried about getting Katie Holmes out of her clothes than he does with telling what could have been a great story about economic desperation that would have resonated with the millennial generation.

I thought about Go when I read Polley’s editorial about Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood rape culture in the New York Times. Like just about every young actress in Hollywood, Polley had a run in with the Miramax founder where he first propositioned her, then threatened to destroy her career. But it’s not necessarily the monstrous Weinstein she’s most interested in. It is rather the “men you meet making movies.”

Most directors are insensitive men. And while I’ve met quite a few humane, kind, sensitive male directors and producers in my life, sadly they are the exception and not the rule. This industry doesn’t tend to attract the most gentle and principled among us. I had two experiences in the same year in which I went into a film as an actor with an open heart and was humiliated, violated, dismissed and then, in one instance, called overly sensitive when I complained. One producer, when I mentioned I didn’t feel a rape scene was being handled sensitively, barked that Dakota Fanning had done a rape scene when she was 12 — “And she’s fine!” A debatable conjecture, surely.

Is Doug Liman one of those “humane, kind, sensitive male directors” or is he more like the asshole who tried to mansplain the idea of playing a rape victim to Polley by reminding her that well, after all, a 12-year-old can do it? I suspect that while not a serial kidnapper and rapist like Weinstein, Liman is closer to the typical “insensitive man” you meet in Hollywood than to Polley’s ideal of a good male director. One scene from Go in particular stands out. Polley’s character Ronna has come to the apartment of Todd, a sleazy drug dealer played by Timothy Olyphant, to get “20 hits of ecstasy” to resell to a couple of soap opera actors who had approached her earlier. Since 20 hits, as Todd reminds Ronna, is the amount of ecstasy where “possession” becomes “trafficking” he accuses her of being a police spy and demands that she remove her top to prove she’s not wearing a wire.

The scene itself it quite good. Olyphant and Polley are excellent. You can see his sadistic pleasure in the power he has over her and you can feel her discomfort at being topless. Theoretically it’s not extraneous to the story. It’s not gratuitous nudity. It’s just the kind of thing a desperate young woman might have to endure is she needed to sell drugs to keep herself from being homeless. Nevertheless, not only does Liman drop Polley’s character before the film is over — he seems to get sick of her and arranges a car accident that takes her out of the script so he can concentrate on Go’s other characters — it’s difficult to tell just how much Polley is acting, and just how much real discomfort she’s feeling. Did Liman browbeat her into doing a scene she objected to? Or is it simply good acting that expresses the discomfort Ronna feels about entering into an exploitative relationship with such a disreputable and sadistic young man. It’s hard to tell — and Polley doesn’t name names in her NY Times editorial — but it’s an intriguing question nonetheless.

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4 comments

  1. Sarah Polley is also a director – “Away From Her” a good film. I wonder if Sarah is a humane, kind, sensitive director? Perhaps ask Gordon Pinsent who starred in Sarah’s film with **Julie Christie**. and Olympia Dukakis.

    1. “People went to Hollywood,” Pinsent says. “They rarely left. I wanted to work where I wanted to live.” So he wrote The Rowdyman and other screenplays, which in turn inspired others to stay — including Sarah Polley, who gave Pinsent one of his greatest roles in her debut feature, Away From Her.

      https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2017/06/29/gordon-pinsents-story-is-the-story-of-canadian-entertainment-schneller.html

  2. 18 minutes for a reply…way to go, stan. The Nobel Prize-winning Alice Munro wrote the short story, originally titled, “The Bear Came Over The Mountain” (from a collection of short stories called “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”). It was a coup to have Julie Christie play a woman with Alzheimers.

    1. The French version would be Amour

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amour_(2012_film)

      I’ve always thought Julie Christie somewhat overrated. Emmanuelle Riva on the other hand is one of my favorite actresses.

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