Hollywood is a vastly different place than it was five years ago, before the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement. This week alone, Weinstein, Danny Masterson, Kevin Spacey, and Paul Haggis are all on trial facing various allegations of sexual misconduct. Next month, Universal Pictures is releasing She Said, a major film starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, the New York Times journalists who first exposed Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse. But the conversation surrounding bad behavior in the movie business—still defined by big egos and power imbalances, lewd humor and boundary-crossing—remains unfinished, particularly when it comes to #MeToo offenses that fall short of Weinstein-level sins.
That brings us to the complicated case of Bill Murray. A few years ago, the 72-year-old star was being hailed as a “secular saint,” a cross-generational icon as admired for his off-screen joie de vivre as for his unexpectedly satisfying career arc. Then came the April shoot for Being Mortal, the directorial debut of Aziz Ansari (himself an early controversially borderline #MeToo figure). On the set, Murray was said to have engaged in “inappropriate behavior” that caused Disney’s Searchlight unit to abruptly shut down production.
What happened, exactly? Well, nobody revealed that, not even to the crew on the film. Without going into details, Murray told a CNBC interviewer, “I did something I thought was funny, and it wasn’t taken that way… The world’s different than it was when I was a little kid.”
Since then, Being Mortal has languished in purgatory, and neither Searchlight nor Ansari has said whether the under-$20 million film will move forward. Murray, too, is also in a kind of purgatory. Has he been canceled? Well, since few know what actually happened, how can anyone even have that conversation?
The details of Murray’s alleged transgression, which I’ve now learned from multiple sources, may help to provide clarity. On the set, Murray was particularly friendly with one female production staffer. (I’m withholding her name, although it’s not actress Keke Palmer, as has been speculated.) This much younger woman, Murray felt, had been flirting with him. So at one moment when the two were in close proximity near a bed that was part of the production, Murray started kissing her body and straddling her. It was perhaps an unclear bit of physical comedy, but one that was unannounced. She couldn’t move because he outweighed her, she alleged. Then, he kissed her on the mouth, although when he did so, both Murray and the woman were wearing masks, owing to Covid protocols. Murray later said that he was just being jestful, but the woman interpreted his actions as entirely sexual. She was horrified.
The woman made a complaint about what had occurred. A second staffer also witnessed the incident and lodged a report, too. This traveled up the chain at Disney, I’m told. Eventually, Searchlight, in an unsigned memo, informed the cast and crew that production was being suspended, although the reason and the nature of what had happened was withheld. (A Searchlight rep wasn’t available to comment.)
Murray felt miserable, a source close to the actor told me, not just at what he thought was a miscommunication, but also at how one moment had caused his co-workers to essentially lose their jobs. He resolved to remedy the situation, and engaged the production staffer in mediation. The staffer, who shared Murray’s desire to finish the film, was represented in the proceeding by attorney Shawn Holley at Kinsella Weitzman, who declined to comment. David Nochimson, Murray’s lawyer, also wouldn’t comment.
After some time, Murray and the woman came to a settlement: The actor paid her just north of $100,000, according to sources, and she agreed to maintain confidentiality. Notably, the deal included another component besides a non-disclosure agreement: The woman agreed to waive any legal claims she might make against the producers of Being Mortal, including Searchlight and Disney.
Murray hoped this resolution—including the Disney waiver—would be enough to restart production. But that hasn’t happened, for a number of reasons that speak to how Hollywood has changed in the #MeToo era. Sometimes, stars are replaced (e.g. Spacey in Fox’s All the Money in the World, or Louis C.K. in Universal’s The Secret Lives of Pets 2); sometimes the movie just comes out and everyone pretends the canceled star isn’t in it (Armie Hammer in Disney’s Death on the Nile); and sometimes the project is simply scrapped (e.g. Brett Ratner’s Milli Vanilli biopic). Being Mortal, which Ansari adapted from Atul Gawande’s nonfiction book about end-of-life care, and which co-stars Seth Rogen, was about half-shot. Yet it looks like it’s headed toward cancellation rather than a reshoot.
The primary stumbling block for Ansari is Searchlight itself. There was a time when the specialty studio was Fox Searchlight, owned by Rupert Murdoch, who tends to care less if his media properties are controversial. (Especially if it regularly scoops up Oscars, as Searchlight has for everything from Slumdog Millionaire to 12 Years a Slave to Nomadland). But Murdoch sold Searchlight in 2017 along with his other Fox movie assets to Disney. And while the division still enjoys plenty of creative latitude to chase awards, Disney tends not to tolerate this sort of controversy—especially when box office is so challenged for specialty movies, and the “win” here is likely landing a prize-winner on Hulu. Disney C.E.O. Bob Chapek has been particularly guardful of the company’s image since the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy in Florida, which turned the Mouse House into a culture war lightning rod. The last thing Chapek needs is to be charged with progressive hypocrisy.
Murray and his reps may have believed that they could save Being Mortal by getting the woman to release any claims against Disney. Yes, there are occasions when a settlement is all that’s necessary. After all, Rust is apparently moving forward after Alec Baldwin and producers struck a deal with the family of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer killed on the set. But that was an accidental shooting. This Murray situation is different—and clearly, the problem isn’t merely legal.
That said, there could be a fresh arbitration ahead. A pay-or-play deal typically mandates that a star be compensated whether or not a project moves forward. I’m told that Murray didn’t have such an arrangement for Being Mortal, which means he isn’t entitled to a full paycheck. But Searchlight can’t just walk away from its contractual obligations. This could trigger a quiet legal fight over whether the studio would be justified in terminating the deal.
Perhaps with that in mind, Disney has allowed Ansari to shop Being Mortal to prospective buyers. So far, there’s been no word of any takers.