Movies

Caped crusader: who is the real target of Natalie Portman’s reply to Rose McGowan?

It’s hard to predict what the big stories from Oscar night will turn out to be. Parasite’s victory was a slight surprise – but not an earth-shaker. Mystic Meg wasn’t required in order to guess that Elton John might bash us out a tune or Joaquin Phoenix could bring out the vegan big guns for his acceptance speech.

The joy of the night is the curveball: Scorsese goggling at Eminem; Janelle Monáe popping her shirt button while struggling with a Mr Rogers cardie. Diane Keaton.

And it is one out-of-the-blue story concerning this year’s Academy Awards that’s proven the runaway hit in terms of Guardian audience engagement this year: Rose McGowan criticising Natalie Portman’s decision to wear a cape discreetly embroidered with the names of snubbed female directors.

Exactly why this couture-handbags-at-dawn spat has so captured the imagination is still something of a mystery – and a potentially unedifying one. Might it be that people like the sight of two hot warring film-star feminists? Or is there something irresistible about the calling out of apparent A-list hypocrisy?

Certainly the tide of opinion, both on Twitter and in this newspaper, has so far been staunchly pro-Rose. That little bit of stitching on Portman’s jacket was just a performative, first-world attempt to jump on a bandwagon the actor herself has failed to hail. Right?

Of course. Not even Portman denies that it’s tassel campaigning. What’s been overlooked is that her cool, measured response – which contained nothing approaching an apology to McGowan – was a reciprocal callout.

Portman wrote: “I agree with Ms McGowan that it is inaccurate to call me ‘brave’ for wearing a garment with women’s names on it. Brave is a term I more strongly associate with actions like those of the women who have been testifying against Harvey Weinstein the last few weeks, under incredible pressure.”

This isn’t just empty self-deprecation nor topical lip-service to the last two weeks. It’s an allusion to the fact that McGowan took the cash rather than the stand. Her $100,000 settlement with Weinstein in relation to an alleged sexual harassment in 1997 means she cannot testify against him in court; she has, of course, been vocal elsewhere.

Portman could have gone further. Her own track record working with female directors was questioned and found lacking. She might well have levelled the same accusation at McGowan, who has worked with a female director four times out of 27 on full-length features. That’s 15%: more than most – but far from anything approaching parity.

Portman could have mentioned other issues: that McGowan’s most recent theatrically released film was directed by a convicted paedophile and child pornographer, about whom McGowan said: “I still don’t really understand the whole story or history there, and I’d rather not, because it’s not really my business. But he’s an incredibly sweet and gentle man.”

That one of the female directors she worked with, Kari Skogland, had to issue a public apology after McGowan said she would “100% have been in the IRA” if she’d grown up in Belfast. “My heart just broke for the cause.”

Portman did not. She mentioned projects that hadn’t got off the ground, saying: “I have tried, and I will keep trying. While I have not yet been successful, I am hopeful that we are stepping into a new day.” It was a mature response from someone who has been in the business since she was a child; a child whose own negotiations with professional consent (rewatch Léon and Beautiful Girls) may themselves be muddied.

To acknowledge your own failings, while not explicitly pointing out those of the person who has abruptly branded you a “fraud” and your jacket “deeply offensive”, is quite something.

Everyone who’s ever campaigned knows how maddening faux-support can be. But McGowan is ripping strips off the wrong woman, when there are plenty of villains still to be flayed.

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