Ellen DeGeneres, noted American comedian, TV host, and writer, is widely regarded as an equality champion, humanitarian, and leader in the global fight for LGBTQ rights. She has been hosting the popular TV talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, since 2003. In 1997, DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her disclosure sparked a nationwide debate and the media coverage around it nearly destroyed her career. DeGeneres subsequently battled depression but ultimately came out strong. She married her longtime girlfriend Portia de Rossi in 2008.
In the year 2017, she added her name to the list of Hollywood celebrities who came out in support of the #MeToo movement. She famously said on her talk show, “This is not a male thing or a female thing. It is not a Hollywood thing or a political thing. This is a human thing. And it happens in the workplace, it happens in families, it happens all over the world, and we are all the same. We all want the same thing — we want respect and love and kindness. And if I could have those three things — and a new iPhone 10 — I would be complete.”
Fast-forward to the present and we find Ellen apologising to her staff over workplace “issues” following a Buzzfeed news story reported that several former employees on the show have complained of toxic work environment wherein they were constantly subjected to racism, fear, and intimidation. While some said that they were fired after taking medical leave or bereavement days to attend family funerals, others said that they experienced “racist comments and microagressions”. Soon an internal investigation was ordered by Warner Bros. in the matter. In a recent statement, Warner Bros. and Ellen DeGeneres have stressed upon on their commitment to ensuring a workplace based on respect and inclusion.
However, shortly before Warner’s statement was released, a new Buzzfeed report emerged containing allegations of rampant sexual harassment and misconduct by top executive producers on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. While one former employee has accused head writer and executive producer Kevin Leman of asking for sexual favors, another revealed that “she saw Leman groping a production assistant in a car”. Several others have complained that executive producer Ed Glavin “touched them in a way that made them uncomfortable”. That Glavin “has a reputation for being handsy with women”.
Now, some of the former staffers have even accused Ellen DeGeneres of “turning a blind eye” to the situation. Ellen’s tagline on the show is “Be Kind”. Can there be a greater irony than this? What has transpired on The Ellen DeGeneres Show over the last few weeks is a stark reminder of the dark reality of showbiz. Most human rights movements are usually channeled through these popular platforms known for hosting the world’s most famous celebrities uninhibitedly talking about kindness, love, respect, and equality. But what goes around in the same workplaces behind the cameras is the exact opposite of what’s preached to the whole world. It’s all essentially a game of power where those at the top of the hierarchy of power exploit those at the bottom. Let’s try and examine this stark reality better through an Elia Kazan film which came out over six decades ago.
It was back in the year 1957 that Elia Kazan made A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith in the iconic role of Lonesome Rhodes — a fast talking country who goes on to become a television sensation. Rhodes is sought after by advertisers and business magnates. In his own words, he is “not just an entertainer, but an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force”. As his fame and influence grow, he is even enlisted to improve the mass appeal of top politicians. But, in contrast to his friendly onscreen persona, he is privately an egomaniac who incessantly berates his staff. A Face in the Crowd is not just a film but a prophecy that’s more relevant today than ever. Many who have watched it would feel that Kazan predicted the rise of workplace toxicity several decades in advance. What happened to the ex-staffers on The Ellen DeGeneres Show is nothing but a natural extension. Fame and power corrupt one and all and Kazan’s classic presents a haunting take on how television serves as the perfect conduit for their propagation.
At the end of Kazan’s film, one also gets to witness Rhodes’ great fall which is triggered by a resentful colleague who activates a live microphone over the end credits of his TV show that reveals Rhodes’ ugly reality as he contemptuously mocks his viewers calling them “stupid idiots” completely unaware that the microphone is still capturing the live sound. Consequently, his popularity as well as the show’s ratings plummet, and the advertisers cancel their sponsorships. The film ends with a character predicting that Rhodes’ career is not completely over. And while he may never again enjoy the same level of popularity and prestige, he will likely find further TV work after a reasonable cooling-off period. Now, Warner Bros. too will most likely fire the executive producers found guilty in their internal investigation. But, after a reasonable cooling-off period, they too would be back on TV in some capacity or the other. And, unfortunately, the ugly power game will continue to find its new victims.
Murtaza Ali Khan is a noted film critics and writer. The views expressed are personal.