Lights! Camera! Infraction! Mad Max shows why Hollywood indulges bad behaviour

To the list of movies that will for ever carry with them the stink of disreputable on-set behaviour (such as Last Tango in Paris and Kill Bill) comes a surprising new addition. Mad Max: Fury Road is already a contender for the best and most berserk action film of the century so far. Unfortunately, it now transpires that the craziness was not restricted to porcupine-spined jalopies, double-necked flamethrower guitars and other markers of its delirious visual excess. With the publication of Kyle Buchanan’s Blood, Sweat and Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max Fury Road, it is now a matter of public record that Charlize Theron felt so threatened and intimidated by her co-star, Tom Hardy, that she asked to be protected from him – and that no one called time on his behaviour.

To cut a long standoff short, it seems – after weeks of tension and bubbling aggression – that Theron berated Hardy for his persistent lateness, which had resulted in many hours of delays on set in the Namibian desert. One morning, after he kept her and the crew waiting for more than three hours, she suggested the producers should “fine the fucking cunt $100,000 for every minute that he’s held up this crew”. His response included “charging up to her” and saying, “What did you say to me?” Theron, whose baby daughter was with her in Namibia, requested that a female producer, Denise Di Novi, should be present to protect her – “I was really scared shitless,” Theron said – but this was overruled by another producer, Doug Mitchell, who blocked Di Novi’s attendance. The director, George Miller, says that if he were faced again with the same situation, “I would probably be more mindful”. How reassuring for an actor to know that a director will “probably” have her back.

What is depressing is not so much that a star has behaved like a brute – power corrupts, after all – but that the system does nothing to discourage such behaviour. The industry has responded to the #MeToo movement by bringing in measures such as intimacy coordinators for sex scenes, as well as a heightened presence on sets from the human resources departments to whom cast and crew members can bring complaints in confidentiality. There is an increased awareness of the need for gender pay parity, even if that ideal hasn’t yet been reached. And stars such as Frances McDormand and Michael B Jordan have pledged to feature “inclusion riders” in their contracts to guarantee diversity on the sets of their movies.

If nothing comparable is being done about the enduring macho spirit that persists in cases such as 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, that may be because it is indivisible from the mystery surrounding the craft of acting, and a general unwillingness to tamper with it. Sexual harassment, pay inequality, lack of diversity: none of these problems are remotely sexy. But news of an actor throwing a hissy fit, even to the point of sending co-stars and crew members ducking for cover, retains a bizarre but stubborn whiff of Hollywood lawlessness. Toxic masculinity is polling badly these days except when it is harnessed for the good of a movie. Would Max still be Max if he wasn’t Mad?

This is part of the fabled wild west spirit of moviemaking: what happens in Namibia stays in Namibia, as the saying almost goes. Sometimes, this can result in tragedy, such as the death last year of the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, who was shot accidentally by the actor Alec Baldwin with a gun that was meant to be loaded with blanks; the set of that film, Rust, has been described as “chaotic”. Mostly, it doesn’t get further than poor or reprehensible behaviour. And it can always be justified. A film set is a bit like Downing Street; normal rules don’t apply because people are working so damn hard in ways that the rest of us couldn’t begin to understand.

When ordinary people watch the footage of David O Russell haranguing Lily Tomlin during the making of I Heart Huckabees, we might wonder why “creatives” are exempt from being civil to one another. (George Clooney claimed he was head-butted by Russell during the making of Three Kings. “If he comes anywhere near me, I’ll sock him in the fucking mouth,” the actor later said.)

Likewise, when we listen to the 2008 recording of Christian Bale viciously berating the cinematographer Shane Hurlbut on the set of Terminator: Salvation, we hear only a callous, bullying narcissist. We are too far outside the creative process to appreciate that Bale is operating at a higher plane; he can’t be expected to deal with stress in the workplace by having a moan to HR like the rest of us. Perhaps we might even entertain such footling questions as: “All this for a Terminator movie? Really?

Until there are executives or film-makers willing to prioritise wellbeing over craft and celebrity, or at least to put it on an equal footing, then the industry is unlikely to produce figures brave enough to advise Hardy to calm down, let alone to shut up. The suspicion also prevails that his behaviour was orchestrated merely to mirror the on-screen tensions of the characters played by him and Theron – that he was going full method. The picture’s camera operator Mark Goellnicht suggested as much when he pointed to the tentative rapprochement between the pair as shooting went on. Hardy, he said, is “such a method actor that I think he took the arc in the literal sense”. Faced with that dubious defence, it is hard not to recall Robert Pattinson’s remarks on the subject. “You only ever see people doing method when they’re playing an asshole,” he said. “You never see someone just being lovely to everyone going: ‘I’m really deep in character.’”

It is even more disappointing that these horror stories should have emerged from a film that exhibits such strong feminist credentials. It is the women, after all, who drive Mad Max: Fury Road – literally so, in the case of Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, who spends much of the movie at the wheel of a tanker, leaving Max for the most part a mere hanger-on in the film that bears his name. Miller even seemed to be goading any sexists in the audience, first by teasing them with a shot of women hosing each other down in the desert – a parodic Pirelli calendar-style spectacle if ever there was one – and then by placing most of the movie’s power in female hands. The misogynistic website Return of Kings, now no longer active, referred to the film as Mad Max: Feminist Road and urged its readers to shield their fragile eyes from its fearsome women.

As a highly respected Oscar-winner with a badass brand, Theron had seniority over Hardy. She also happens to be exceptional in Mad Max: Fury Road, and now it turns out her performance wasn’t confined to the movie: at its Cannes premiere, she was pictured with one arm draped on Hardy’s shoulder, which surely merits a prize for best performance by an actor pretending not to loathe her co-star.

In celebrity terms, she was his superior. Perhaps that was what he found so intolerable. Hardy certainly wouldn’t be the first man to feel chastened or emasculated by the prospect of a woman in a position of power, any more than he would be alone in using aggression to redress the balance. But until the industry begins penalising this behaviour, and kills off the myth that anything goes so long as it results in a good performance, then movie sets will remain stuck between a rock and a Hardy place.

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