When make-believe becomes all too real, what are movie audiences to make of those scenes?

At the Oscar nominees luncheon earlier this week, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President John Bailey noted that “the fossilized bedrock of many of Hollywood’s worst abuses are being jackhammered into oblivion.”

Are they?

I was pondering this after reading about Uma Thurman’s experiences working on the “Kill Bill” films with director Quentin Tarantino. The New York Times story (“Why is Uma Thurman Angry?”) detailed, among other things, the director putting her in dangerous situations including a scene in which she’s choked with a chain (by the director himself) and a later driving sequence that ended in a crash, leaving Thurman with lasting injuries.

The details should give any fan of “Kill Bill” pause. But it’s not just Tarantino who has employed dicey tactics to get a shot. He’s part of a long tradition of directors — Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lars Von Trier — who have emotionally and/or physically played with an actor’s safety to generate a specific reaction on camera.

There are so many examples that Imran Siddiquee, who analyzes race and gender in pop culture, wrote a story for Buzzfeed last fall (“Why Do We Let ‘Genius’ Directors Get Away With Abusive Behavior?”) compiling some of the more notorious stories — stories that have been around for years. Kubrick psychologically tormenting Shelley Duvall on the set of “The Shining”; Aronofsky pushing “Mother!” star Jennifer Lawrence to emote so intensely that she hyperventilated, tearing her diaphragm and requiring medical attention; Bertolucci staging a rape scene in “Last Tango in Paris” without star Maria Schneider’s consent.

Women are often on the receiving end, but it happens to male actors as well.

And it makes you wonder, what about asking actors to just act? Anybody can react to something that’s really happening, but acting is about generating that reaction within the realm of make believe. That’s the skill. That’s the talent. So why do so many directors resort to drama and manipulation to get the shot? And why aren’t we more concerned about it when this happens?

“We go into a theater and we kind of stare in awe at what was made,” Siddiquee said when I reached him by phone. “And that’s why it’s so easy to be like, the director is king. There’s a whole system built to maintain this way of filmmaking and that’s the thing that has to change, otherwise it’s a structure prone to abuse.”

What do we as a movie audience now do with this information? The men remain lauded as auteurs; their films still considered serious works of cinema. Collectively as a culture we have given these directors a pass because … why? Is this what we think real commitment to art looks like?

Transgressions in the pursuit of authenticity happen in theater as well. Two years ago the Chicago Reader published a story (“At Profiles Theatre the drama — and abuse — is real”) describing accusations of not only sexual harassment but also physically injurious contact at the hands of company co-artistic director Darrell W. Cox. Here’s what the Reader reported about a (widely praised) production of “Killer Joe,” in which Cox also starred: The reason it “felt so vicious and so real was because it was. All of it: the choking, the bruises … the body slam into the refrigerator.”

In a subsequent story for the Tribune reported by Chris Jones and me, Cox provided a written statement noting: “We have always gone to great lengths to protect everyone physically while performing combat, intimate and other risky scenes.” Shortly thereafter, the company shut down for good.

These kinds of revelations are concerning for another, perhaps more philosophical reason.

One of the things that’s so vital about fiction is that it can be a safe way to explore dangerous parts of the human experience that are dark, unpleasant and disturbing. Ruth McClelland-Nugent is an associate professor at Augusta University and her focus is pop culture history. “Fiction can be a safety net,” she said. “That this is really just pretend, it’s make believe. And we’re ripping that safety net away when we realize, no, that person was really strangled or emotionally manipulated.”

This is precisely what I keep going back to: When we give ourselves over to a movie, it’s with the knowledge that no one was harmed in real life. So when you find out an actor was injured or traumatized or berated — just to get a performance — it breaks the very pact we as audiences have with the movie itself.

“There’s a power dynamic on movie sets,” McClelland-Nugent said, “so how is that actually being negotiated? Does the actor really want to do this? Is there another way to simulate this? I mean, yes, the actor can quit — and then you might never work again because you’ll be labeled as difficult and there’s a line of actors ready to take your spot. So do you swallow this? Do you go along with it?”

Do you risk getting sued if you refuse or walk off the job? Actors sign contracts and legal action is a real possibility.

“On movie sets, you have this very intense experience and people are working together as a team,” she added, “so in that environment, there’s a lot of peer pressure to say OK to something and be a good team member. The very high reputation of these directors gives them a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card in a sense — ‘This might be odd, but it’s Tarantino or Kubrick, so it must be OK.’ A lot of nasty things can happen, so how much agency does an actor really have?”

Are we thinking about this when we watch movies? Should we be? I say yes. But it gets even more complicated. Sometimes actors themselves buy into these extreme methods, whether devised on their own or instigated by the director.

Diane Kruger, who is another Tarantino alum, has talked about the director using his own hands to choke her for her death scene in “Inglourious Basterds.” That sounds bad. But this week on Instagram she said otherwise: “My work experience with Quentin Tarantino was pure joy. He treated me with utter respect and never abused his power or forced me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with.”

OK. We have to respect her point of view. But as an audience member, my feelings are radically different, especially after hearing Tarantino himself describe that scene in a recent interview with Deadline:

“I said, look, I’ve got to strangle you. If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck, not putting any kind of pressure and you’re just doing this wiggling death rattle, it looks like a normal movie strangulation. It looks movie-ish. But you’re not going to get the blood vessels bulging, or the eyes filling it with tears, and you’re not going to get the sense of panic that happens when your air is cut off. What I would like to do, with your permission, is just … commit to choking you, with my hands, in a closeup.”

Here’s McClelland-Nugent: “Acting is a craft where people are trained to think about, ‘What can I do to get the best performance?’ And I think there’s so much emphasis on that sometimes that you can easily start to ignore your own safety, your own rights, your own comfort. There are a lot of professions where that happens.

“But what’s unique to acting is the psychological pressure to get this thing right — and what that can result in is an actor ultimately saying, ‘Well, the movie looks good so maybe this was OK. Maybe the finished product really is the most important thing.’ And I’m always hesitant to tell people otherwise. If that’s really what an actor thinks, hey, that’s what they think. I want to respect that, because who am I to come in and say, ‘Your rights were sort of abused here.’ ”

As audiences, we’ve been primed to accept that the ends justify the means and we praise and admire actors for the lengths they’re willing to go.

“We can be transported by incredible moments and there are actors who put themselves through physical harm to get that,” said Lori Myers, founder of the Chicago-based advocacy group Not in Our House, which has created a formalized guideline for professional standards and provides advice to actors looking to report concerns to a theater company. “Often the director doesn’t stop them. So where do we start drawing the line? We want that from actors. We demand it.”

Myers is also an actor. “The idea that the director is this person there to inflict or cause harm to create a reaction — it’s unnecessary,” she said. “In acting there’s this idea of the Magic If, which means imagining oneself in a fictional set of circumstances. And as an actor, that’s my job. If I’m playing a character going through a psychotic episode, I don’t need to become psychotic to convince the audience.”

Here’s an anecdote I wasn’t familiar with until recently. Journalist Rachel Abramowitz was on set for the filming of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” starring Winona Ryder and in a 1992 story for Premiere magazine she wrote about one scene in particular:

“Despite the urgings of her acting coach, Greta Seacat, and ‘Dracula’ director Francis Ford Coppola, Ryder tries to fake her way through the first couple of takes, hiding her face with her hand … secretly instructed by Coppola, her friend and co-star (Keanu) Reeves insults her, shames her; then, also unexpectedly, Coppola stars yelling at her.” Coppola screams profanities and calls her a whore.

“It’s just the push Ryder needs. ‘Waaaaa!’ she shrieks, collapsing onto the bed. Over and over again, Coppola makes her heave and sob, refusing to cut as she does the scene six, seven, eight times. ‘No more,’ she says finally. Coppola runs up and gathers the frail Ryder into his arms. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,’ he whispers. ‘I don’t mean it.’ It is perhaps an indication of the emotional tumult of the ‘Dracula’ shoot that when asked months later about Ryder’s outburst, Coppola barely remembers the incident.”

Abramowitz, for her part, told me that “I don’t remember having a memory that Coppola was abusive to Ryder.” When I reached out to Ryder’s publicist to see if she might be interested in talking about her experiences on the film I was told, “Sorry but she is not going to be available due to her schedule.”

What some actors think is part of the job, others reject vehemently. “It’s a hundred percent offensive when directors do this,” Myers said. “As if I don’t have the skill or talent. In Tarantino’s case, obviously he trusted Uma Thurman’s ability in the utmost by casting her in such an enormous and demanding role. So you mean to tell me that there was not any other way to get to that point?”

Good question.

“A lot of it is bound up in the idea of getting a ‘real’ reaction,” McClelland-Nugent said. “With all of these movies we sort of say, ‘Well the art is great.’ And my question is: Wouldn’t it be greater art if you could do it without abusing people? Great art is when you really simulate it. Just setting someone up to be harassed and filming it? I’m not sure that’s as great.”

On Twitter, “Halt and Catch Fire” showrunner Christopher Cantwell offered this take:

“I say this as one: white male directors have to cool it. Like, immediately. The rules should be simple: 1) Don’t abuse or endanger your cast or crew 2) It ain’t your movie alone. It’s a collective medium 3) It’s a MOVIE.”

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Nina_Metz

RELATED: It's time Hollywood's male stars use their power to level playing field »

The problem with Maureen Dowd's Uma Thurman column, and why it matters »

My worst moment: Justina Machado on unexpected improv with Sean Penn »

Copyright © 2018, CT Now
32°