If you are not a active follower of show business, you may not recognize the name Scott Rudin. Heck, I am an active follower of show business, and I only began actively registering his name in my RNA lately because of the sudden shift in his fortunes. Rudin, in case you’re normal and barely noticed, has long been one of the most celebrated and powerful producers in Hollywood and Broadway. His productions have made billions; he has created too many stars to list, and his work has earned an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and 17 Tony Awards. The problem, except that it wasn’t a problem until recently, is that Rudin is a toxic, bullying, abusive jerk who makes working with or for him a living hell. He’s not a sexual predator, like Harvey Weinstein, so his misconduct has not been strictly illegal. Moreover, while he is an extreme case, his obnoxious type has hardly been rare in show business. One could say it is closer to the norm.
Yet suddenly, Hollywood, Broadway and the entertainment business have begun a cultural shift. It was undoubtedly spurred by #MeToo, but in the end it may be more significant that #MeToo. This highly influential industry is beginning to reject the King’s Pass. As much as I hate to say anything good about show business culture, this is an unquestionably ethical development that could have wide reaching effect far beyond movies, plays, TV shows and music.
The King’s Pass is described in the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List thusly:
11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?” One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head. In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust.
It is one of the most pervasive of all ethical perversions, and throughout human history, as reliable as an aspect of human nature. If you are successful and valuable to organizations and people, you can get away with bad, even terrible conduct that ruins lesser mortals. The rule reigns in business, academia, politics, government, sports and, of course, entertainment. One can speculate on why Scott Rudin’s unexpected fall has become a possible catalyst for weakening the iron grip of The King’s Pass, but for the moment, let’s focus on the fact that he has.
Rudin terrorized subordinates, habitually hurling projectiles like staplers, cellphones, mugs, bowls and artworks at heads an walls. He is vengeful; he is litigious; he broadcast his callousness without shame or regret. Rudin escaped consequences for his behavior because established and emerging artists saw him opening a pathway to success, and he also benefited from his reputation for ruthlessness. He had power, and would use it to retaliate without restraint. But an April article in The Hollywood Reporter exposing his history of bullying assistants was a tipping point. Prominent artists and former backers announced that they would not work with him unless his conduct changed. Just as Broadway is preparing to turn the lights back on, Rudin announced that he would step back from “active participation” in his projects on Broadway, in Hollywood, and in London’s West End. He has begun to apologize for his behavior, and resigned from the Broadway League, which is the trade association of producers and theater owners.
Rudin’s response is almost certainly orchestrated in the hope that the storm will blow over; I’m certain that he has hired a high-priced crisis consultant. People who have been successful don’t change mid-career: they only know one way to be successful. There was, is or could never be nice, successful versions of studio executives like Louis B. Mayor, David O. Selznick, Harry Cohn and the rest; Broadway producers like David Merrick and Flo Ziegfeld, tyrannical film directors like John Ford, Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, Busby Berkley and other more recent abusive auteurs like Joss Whedon; or, to cross into other realms, Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo, and Don Corleone.
Hollywood signaled its acceptance of the abusive behavior of its leaders in satires like “Swimming With Sharks,” “The Player,” and TV’s “Entourage” and “Flack.” As long as such bullies and jerks managed to steer clear of the kind of habitual sexual harassment that brought down so many (but not Joe Biden) in the wake of Weinstein’s fall, there was no reason to think that the King’s Pass was any less current than ever.
The wall started to crack last year, when the Hollywood Commission for Eliminating Harassment and Advancing Equality issued its first report concluding that “the entertainment industry is, unfortunately, a breeding ground for bullies who are typically highly ambitious, opportunistic, combative, powerful and competitive.” A group called #PayUpHollywood launched to help abused assistants in the industry combat abusive bosses. Just last week, Ellen DeGeneres announced that after 19 seasons, she would be ending “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Her cover story is that she is tired of doing it, but her ratings and reputation crashed with revelations that she’s not nice to the people who work for her. In the so called Golden Age of television, this would have been inconceivable: many of the biggest stars, like Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Johnny Carson, suffered no consequences at all for being infamously cruel and ruthless.
Maybe Rudin is just an extreme case and an outlier. He probably is. However, if this really is the beginning of the culture turning against The King’s Pass, Hollywood is doing something good for society for the first time in decades.