This will all sound very familiar.
First, the facts:
Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of the most popular and highly paid actors of the silent film era. On Labor Day in 1921, at the apex of his fame, he hosted a shindig in his hotel suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. It was a wild party and things got out of hand.
There’s lots of lurid speculation about what, exactly, went on at this party, but because people like to read things while they eat their lunch, I’ll leave it to you to Google the words, “Fatty Arbuckle party hotel San Francisco Coke bottle.”
More facts: One of the guests, Virginia Rappe—a rising actress in Hollywood—was attacked. One of Rappe’s companions accused Arbuckle of raping and assaulting Rappe with such violent force that she subsequently died of her injuries. Stories emerged about the party, the wrecked state of the hotel suite, the drinking (during Prohibition), and the sexual deviance of Hollywood people in general.
People at the party insisted Arbuckle had done nothing wrong. His main accuser, the magnificently named Bambina Maude Delmont, delivered shifting accounts. Some people say she was merely trying to extort a rich and famous man to pay for her silence. Some people say Arbuckle was a serial abuser. Some people say Virginia Rappe was essentially an alcoholic prostitute with chronic health problems. Some people say Arbuckle used his enormous girth as, basically, a deadly weapon to physically trap women beneath him.
Doctors examined Rappe’s body for signs of rape but found no evidence. This happened a century ago, so who knows what that might mean? There was no Special Victims Unit at the San Francisco Police Department at the time. In any case, Arbuckle denied the charges, which was about all a person could do then. He couldn’t have taken to social media to say, “While I vigorously deny the charges made against me, I understand that my past actions and statements have been offensive and hurtful. I am taking a step back to reflect and listen to the voices of victims everywhere and beginning a journey of healing of my own to process the trauma of being called ‘Fatty.’ Please respect my privacy at this time.”
Arbuckle was tried three times for manslaughter. The first two trials ended in hung juries, the third in an outright acquittal. The jury in the third trial took the unusual step of making a public statement following their verdict: “Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle,” they declared. “We feel that a great injustice has been done him.…Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free from all blame.”
But Arbuckle’s career was essentially over. He worked only intermittently after that and died in 1933, perhaps the first and most famous example of Hollywood power players “cancelling” a star who seemed like more trouble than he was worth.
Flash forward 100 years.
The facts: Armand “Armie” Hammer is a popular, handsome leading man. He is both fantastically attractive and a fine actor, which of course isn’t necessary for a successful career, but it’s a nice combo to have. The future for Armie Hammer looked very bright.
Then, in early 2021, some women came forward to describe his behavior in their past relationships. He had been mentally, physically, and emotionally abusive, they said.
The accusations were lurid and highly specific. He fantasized about cannibalism and vampirism, was deeply into bondage, either wanted to or actually did carve his first initial into the skin of a girlfriend—accounts differ—and was, in general, a real freak. Again, some of you are eating, so you’re on your own to Google the words “Armie Hammer lower rib removal eat girlfriend.”
Hammer denies all of this, but much like Fatty Arbuckle’s acquittal, it didn’t mean much. He quit, or was asked to leave, three major upcoming projects. His powerful agent, WME, dropped him as a client.
Armie Hammer has entered the Cancelled Catacombs. He has gone underground for a time to wait it all out. Maybe he’ll work again; maybe he won’t. As handsome and talented as Armie is, there’s a never-ending stream of more handsome and talented actors getting off the plane at LAX and dropping their pictures off at WME.
The Armie Hammer incident is pretty much the same as the Fatty Arbuckle incident, just sped up. When Arbuckle’s troubles erupted, the fuse burned long and slow across the country, in breathless tabloid headlines and elliptical, vaguely worded articles. Still, Fatty wasn’t done until the third trial. Hammer’s career was wrapped up and tossed with a week. That’s the difference between the world of Instagram and the world of William Randolph Hearst.
I was telling a friend about the Fatty Arbuckle story and his ultimate acquittal. “So, wait,” my friend said. “You’re a Fatty Arbuckle apologist now? You’re hashtag TeamFatty?”
Not exactly, I answered. But it’s a complicated problem. We know exactly how to exile someone in Hollywood. What we now call “cancel culture” has existed in show business since before talkies. What we don’t have is a way to bring anyone back, to let the people in the catacombs know it’s okay to come back into the sunlight. Or even if it’s ever okay for them to come back.
My friend pressed on: “But you’re hashtag TeamArmie, right?”
Not exactly, I answered. But I don’t really know—none of us do—what actually happens in someone else’s bedroom or in someone else’s sexual-fantasy imagination. There are incriminating Instagram messages and texts, but Hammer denies being anything other than a seriously kinky dude—which, in Hollywood, isn’t all that unusual.
My friend reminded me that last week, after Armie Hammer moved out of his Los Angeles house, there was a rope-bound female mannequin found stuffed into a garbage can behind his garage: “You don’t think that’s a problem?” I reminded my friend that the movie Fifty Shades of Grey made about $400 million worldwide and has spawned two sequels, for a box-office total of about $1 billion. So it’s a little late for Hollywood to stand firm against freaky bedroom stuff.
In 1921, it was still possible to be genuinely shocked at the private cavortings of movie stars. In 2021, it’s not possible to be shocked by anything. When comedian Louis CK was accused of sexual misconduct and went into his own catacomb, he emerged a few years later—not without resistance and controversy—to identify the problem: We all know too much about one another.
“Everybody’s got their thing,” he said in a recent comedy special, and I’ll let you Google what his “thing” was on your own.
“You’re so…lucky that I don’t know what your thing is,” he went on. “Do you understand how lucky you are? That people don’t know your…thing? ’Cause everybody knows my thing. Everybody knows my…thing now. Obama knows my thing—do you understand how that feels? To know that Obama was, like, ‘Good Lord.’ Everybody in the world knows my thing.”
In Hollywood, it’s not about what’s fair or just. The jury that acquitted Fatty Arbuckle did so with loud enthusiasm, but his career was over anyway. The allegations against Armie Hammer are just that—allegations that he denies, but his career is (probably) over. One hundred years apart, Armie and Fatty learned the same, hard lesson about Hollywood: You are always replaceable.
It doesn’t matter how famous you are. Never be more trouble than you’re worth. And keep your thing to yourself.
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