Two films tackle sexual misconduct
Sexual harassment cases do not make anyone look good. They’re discomforting situations, full of fear, anger, and humiliation, and in the great majority of instances the complainant is a woman who files suit against a man. But since when does truth in the real world have anything to do with box office bang? In Disclosure and Oleanna, two men — best-selling polymath Michael Crichton and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet — shape the volatile subject of sexual harassment to their own exotic specifications. And big surprise: What they come up with is an outrageous Crichton concoction and an intricate Mamet puzzle, each of which has about as much to do with the realities of the subject as the methods of Dr. Frasier Crane do with accepted psychiatric practice.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sexual harassment is a serious and insidious problem, but if you’re not going to present it ”right,” then you might as well go for the sensational. So, figured Crichton, screenwriter Paul Attanasio, and director Barry Levinson in making Disclosure, why not do it bazoomy and cartoony and — oh, what the hell — throw in Demi Moore as the aggressive, vindictive sexual shafter and Michael Douglas as the hardworking, vindicated shaftee?
What a rich joke! When the movie was first released (after the book had already stirred ink), a lot was written about how sly Crichton was to turn the tables, and even more was written about the movie’s mantra, that sexual-harassment-isn’t-about-sex-it’s-about-power. Now, watching Disclosure again, I realize that Crichton’s slick and diverting story really has only one fifth to do with issues of harassment. The remaining four fifths are about (1) whizzy high-tech computing, which, to most of the guys who work with Meredith (Moore) and Tom (Douglas), is much more engrossing than sex; (2) sharky corporate maneuvers and how they’re done; (3) Douglas’ ability to convince us that he’s a virile yet faithful go-getter; and (4) Moore’s siren-power. All of which work far better than the harassment quotient. Moore, in particular, is worth a second viewing: She plays her role with a rapacious gusto I didn’t appreciate enough the first time around, and any man who can’t see what Meredith is up to when she stretches out her satiny legs in her office after hours and demands a back rub is — I think this is the legal term for it — a bimbo.
In contrast, there are no back rubs in Oleanna. But there is plenty of power at play. The creator of Glengarry Glen Ross and House of Games loves mazes, and in the labyrinthine conditions that legally constitute sexual harassment he finds dangerous blind alleys. Mamet (who wrote Oleanna as a play and retains the static constraints of the stage in his own movie direction) poses his riddles in the story of a college student (newcomer Debra Eisenstadt, working with just the right combination of innocence and fury) who is protesting the poor grade she has received from a professor (longtime Mamet actor William H. Macy, a master of verbal machine-gunning). He is pedantic; she is obtuse. He lectures and interrupts; she persists. He is preoccupied with negotiations on a house he and his wife are about to buy. But she is not dissuaded. He must teach her, she says, because she does not understand what he wants from her.
Midway through this stiff tango, a remarkable thing happens: The dialogue, so unrelievedly Mametian at the start of the story, takes on new intensity in the second act, when the student accuses the teacher of sexual harassment. Why? How? You start to replay in your head what went on before — how words and actions that appeared innocuous to one person can be perceived as anything but by another, and how the very relationship of male teacher to female student is loaded with assumed positions of power and subservience. And you are unnerved. (I recommend literal rewinding; I played the first half over again to watch it with new eyes.) In its way, of course, artsy Oleanna is the smarty-pants work of someone who likes to play mind games (his own form of power tripping?) and is no truer to the everyday issues of sexual harassment than its big-budget companion. But since when did movie stories equal truth? As Tom says to Meredith in Disclosure after she’s buttoned her blouse and cried foul, ”You don’t get it, do you?”