Jessica Walter, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor in Arrested Development.
Jessica Walter, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor in Arrested Development.
Why this story?
I had this conversation with several people last night after an interview with the cast of Arrested Development ran in The New York Times ahead of the show's return to Netflix. In the interview, the men in the cast, led by Jason Bateman, seem to dismiss an incident during production. According to Jeffrey Tambor's own account in The Hollywood Reporter, Tambor and Jessica Walter had a "blowup," and later he "profusely apologized." According to Walter in the Times conversation: "In like almost 60 years of working, I've never had anybody yell at me like that on a set."
To take a step back, the reason Tambor's treatment of Walter on the Arrested Development set came up in the first place was that he had mentioned it to The Hollywood Reporter a couple of weeks earlier. The very sympathetic piece, titled with his passive-voice quote "Lines Got Blurred," discusses his feelings and his sadness and his sense of betrayal after his firing from Amazon's critically acclaimed Transparent. Tambor was fired from Transparent after being accused of sexual harassment by two transgender women: Trace Lysette, who's an actress on the show, and Van Barnes, who's Tambor's former assistant. Aside from those accusations, Tambor says in the Hollywood Reporter story that he yelled at creator Jill Soloway until they told him they were afraid of him (Soloway uses they/them pronouns), and that he yelled at a female executive producer until he made her cry. "I was mean," he says. But, he maintains, he never sexually harassed anyone.
All of this being so much in the news is not good timing for Netflix, given the May 29 drop date for the first half of the fifth season of Arrested Development. Inevitably, there is press to do, and Tambor is in that fifth season, so he is participating. Thus, yesterday's interview with Sopan Deb in the Times. Present were Tambor, Walter, Bateman, David Cross, Will Arnett, Tony Hale and Alia Shawkat. Deb brought the Transparent situation up by asking, in light of it, whether Tambor expected he'd be part of another season if there was one. He said he'd hope so.
Bateman jumped in: "Well, I won't do it without you. I can tell you that."
When Deb asked specifically about the Walter story and she tried to talk about it, Bateman, Cross, Hale and Arnett, between the four of them (though Arnett did the least and Bateman did the most by far), eventually intervened in all of the following ways: (1) said (jokingly?) that they've all done the same to her; (2) said all "families" have arguments; (3) joked about all the other terrible things they've done to each other; (4) pointed out that Tambor has already said he's working on it; (5) said "difficult" people are part of the business; (6) said "atypical behavior" is part of people's "process"; (7) said they've all lost their temper sometimes; (8) said expecting "normal" behavior means "not understand[ing] what happens on set"; (9) claimed to have "zero complaints" about working together; (10) called yelling at people "a wobbly route to [a] goal"; and (11) repeatedly emphasized context and everyone playing their role in conflict.
Through a good part of this, Walter was crying, as you can hear if you listen to the audio recording of this part of the interview. And at one point, as Bateman explains patiently that "certain people have certain processes," Shawkat interjects: "But that doesn't mean it's acceptable. And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently." In the audio, she seems even more irritated than these words make her sound, and he cuts her off anyway.
Bateman, in particular, took what I would defend as a well-deserved social media beat down last night after this interview was published. His dismissive attitude, his not listening, his excuses, his normalizing of terrible behavior as part of creative work — it was awful, and people said it was awful. And this morning, on Twitter, he apologized. He apologized in the way people often do, by saying it "sound[ed] like" he condoned verbal abuse, or was insensitive, or was making excuses, when in fact, he wasn't. (Narrator: "He was.") He said he'd been wrong to be so focused on supporting Tambor that he blew off Walter's feelings. "I'm incredibly embarrassed and deeply sorry to have done that to Jessica," he said.
As apologies go, it's fine. It says the right things. It ends with "I deeply, and sincerely, apologize." It's certainly better than if he hadn't apologized. It was probably urgently necessary in light of how big this story got, and how fast it got there.
But ... why this story?
The last year or so has been an XXL garbage fire of miserable tales of workplace abuse and other horribles, in the entertainment industry and elsewhere. But this story got under my skin. Several other women told me the same thing on Wednesday night. For me, I could only come up with this explanation: It's not the worst story, but it's such a complete story.
Consider that sympathetic Hollywood Reporter piece, in which Tambor's sadness is foregrounded, and in which private messages of support that he received are made public. Now, only months after he was fired over behavior on another set, he's back in a highly publicized project with multiple people standing between him and any criticism, ready with their zero complaints, with their context, with all those sentences that start, "Well, look."
"Not to belittle it," Bateman says, twice. "Not to belittle what happened," he says again. "Not to excuse it," he says. "Not to say that, you know, you [Walter] had it coming," he says. This is agonizing to read. It is the infuriating practice of doing the thing while pre-characterizing what you're about to say as not at all what the ear will hear it to be. Because there is always a "but" after it. "Not to belittle what happened, but." And after that "but" is the part that makes it not matter — or not matter that much.
Consider the raw power in Bateman opening the discussion by setting the terms: If there's no Tambor, there's no him, and probably, there's no show. Later, Walter says — using very interesting words — "Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go. And I have to give you a chance to, you know, for us to be friends again."
What does have to mean here? Does it mean "should"? It could. Does it mean "want to"? It could. But Bateman has already declared at the top of the conversation that if she isn't over it and she doesn't want to work with Tambor, he's already chosen a side. Not only that, but if anyone else wants to go on without Tambor over his admitted behavior, as Transparent did with his admitted and alleged behavior, Bateman will not allow it. So maybe have to from Walter just means ... have to. I have to. This is my work. It is other people's work. It's loved by fans. It's loved by me. Maybe it isn't that, but what else could she have said, given what had already happened?
This spoke to me as an example of the genius pass that so many people in creative fields receive, where your process — your "atypical behavior," which in this case includes admitting that you yelled at three people until one cried, one said they were afraid of you and one said it was like no other yelling she'd experienced in a 60-year career — is simply what it takes for you to do your art. The accusations of sexual harassment at Transparent are profoundly grave, and the story from Walter is different. But the idea that a bright line that separates sexual harassment from other verbal abuse is a line that separates a firing offense from just a normal part of getting your work done is absurd.
Don't take it from me; take it from actor Thomas Sadoski, who took to Instagram to post a picture of himself with Walter and tee up the following statement, gently edited for a family web site:
This is Jessica Walter. She is a national [goshdarn] treasure. It was an honor and a privilege to work with her. I don't give a [darn] who you think you are or how good you think you are or how awesome you think your buddy/daddy is: screaming at someone isn't "part of the business". It's [horsepucky]. It's unhinged [horsepucky] behavior and it has NEVER been acceptable. It wasn't cool in the 70's or 80's or whenthe[heck]ever you "came up". It was [horsepucky] then, it is [horsepucky] now. And excusing that kind of behavior is pathetic. Just pathetic. I worked in [bad] greasy-spoon kitchens growing up: it wasn't acceptable behavior THERE and most of us were on HEAVY DRUGS. It certainly isn't acceptable for some man-baby millionaire to do on a cozy ass tv show set. And it is even less acceptable for his male cast-mates to excuse it away IN FRONT OF THE PERSON THAT IT HAPPENED TO....(wait for it)....WHILE SHE IS TRYING TO EXPLAIN HOW TRAUMATIZING THE EXPERIENCE WAS. What in the halfpenny [darn] is happening?!
As soon as social media started to chew on all of this, I was reminded that this is the case in many workplaces, not just show business. The hard-charging lawyer who abuses clerical staff, the domineering doctor who insults patients and nurses, the chef who abuses the servers and the cooks. And yes — yes, the charismatic television or radio journalist whose producers all quit because he never will.
It's not that we don't have a crippling sexual harassment problem, because we do. It's not that the allegations against Tambor, both from transgender women who are particularly vulnerable in most environments, aren't an ongoing part of that story.
But maybe it was this interview because the disrespect felt so benign in the delivery and so destructive in the effect. How can you have "zero complaints" about a workplace someone else remembers as containing the worst verbal abuse of her career? Is that not, itself, a complaint? Why is it important that over and above forgiveness, Tambor receives absolution from the utterly unaffected men in the cast, right in front of the woman who initially told the Hollywood Reporter she didn't even want to talk about her history with him in the first place? Tambor brought all this up, put all of it out in public, just so everyone else could explain why it didn't matter? Is this reverse roast, this closing argument by a self-appointed defense attorney — is this supposed to be his reckoning?
Many of us — yes, women, but humans in general — prepare for conflict by trying to toughen up. We build leathery skins and metal bones, and we learn how to fight back without being blamed for the force we used. Come at us throwing rocks, and we cross our forearms and hope they bounce off. Come at us in secret, we run for light. Come at us harder, we at least try to get away. But there is something about these gentle poisoned touches, where someone puts a hand on your shoulder and says, "I understand, but after all," and an audience cheers, and something bad seeps underneath your skin and up your neck.
Don't you care about art?
Don't you understand the business?
Aren't you fun?
Aren't we a family?
Don't you love us?
Don't you want to work?
It's not the worst story. Not by a mile. It may not even be Tambor's worst story. But seeing a woman so brilliant withstand repeated efforts, by people who say they love her, to recast her experiences as normal when she knew they were not? It was a lot to take.
It got under my skin.