how the buzziest film of the year became a cautionary tale


I was worried going into Don’t Worry Darling

The drama surrounding Olivia Wilde’s second movie as a filmmaker has turned it from one of the most anticipated fall releases to a TikTok laughing stock. Her hit debut, teen comedy Booksmart set up expectations soaring for next project. Don’t Worry Darling, a period thriller about the seemingly idyllic micro-society Victory Project, was subject of a bidding war and much hype.

But the hype has turned sour. There’s the not-confirmed-but-totally-happening on-set romance between Wilde and her male lead, Harry Styles. There’s the alleged feud between Wilde and the film’s star, Florence Pugh. There’s the firing, or maybe quitting, or maybe something else, of Shia LaBeouf, who was once cast in Styles’s role. The film’s Venice Film Festival premiere was notable not for the glowing reviews (which were thin on the ground anyway), but for the forensic analysis of who refused to stand next to who on the red carpet, Pugh’s glaring absence from the press conference, Chris Pine’s astral projecting in front of the world press, and, of course, the fever dream that was Spitgate. The memes from the Don’t Worry Darling press tour will have us dining out for months.

But what about the movie? Will all this melodrama help it sell tickets? Is there a way to watch it without trying to figure out if you can see the feuding happening on screen? 

Photograph: Warner Bros.Art imitating life? Florence Pugh as the besieged Alice in ‘Don’t Worry Darling’

Awareness sells, at least initially, and using on-set beef to sell tickets isn’t new in Hollywood. One of the most infamous feuds is that between Tinseltown legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Aged out of leading roles, the pair collaborated on the psycho-biddy classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, only to hate each other so much they engaged in mutual sabotage. Their mutual dislike was subject of much media interest, and continued right up until the Oscars: Crawford, who wasn’t even nominated while Davis was, collected the Oscar (and posed with the winners!), stealing her co-star’s spotlight. 

Awareness sells and using on-set beef to sell tickets isn’t new in Hollywood

The spat became the subject of endless articles, books, and even a Ryan Murphy show. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, though, was a hit and revitalised the careers of both actresses. 

More recently, the feud between Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel hasn’t made a dent in The Fast Saga’s box office. The former called out an unnamed but obvious co-star as a ‘candy ass’ and departed the Fast family. Diesel even publicly begged Johnson to return to the franchise, but was openly rebuffed. Will their feud affect the franchise’s box office potential? Absolutely not. It’s nothing more than an entertaining Wikipedia footnote. Usually feuds like these have little longevity and don’t infect the film’s release or our reception of it.  

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Photograph: British Film Institute‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’ was a famously poisonous shoot

Surrounding a film with this level of Twitter turmoil, however, sets it up for disaster. We might never know the full picture, but we have enough information to read into every decision, interview response, and red carpet choice. The drama surrounding Wilde’s film has tarnished it, creating an expectation of failure.

Somehow, Olivia Wilde is left as the villain of all this. She positioned herself as a protector of women but was outed as a hypocrite by, of all people, a man currently awaiting trial for abusing his ex-girlfriend. Then there are the fandoms of both men in Wilde’s life: Harry Styles’s stans will automatically dislike anyone taking up romantic space in the singer’s life and Ted Lasso fans will be up in arms about the messy separation between the show’s star, Jason Sudeikis, and Wilde. 

Don’t Worry Darling has stopped being a film and become spectacle to gawk at

Joining the queue to throw Wilde under the bus is her cast, apparently. Rarely since the premiere of the colossal flop that was Cleopatra (1963) has an entire ensemble been so dismissive of a film before it even came out. Nobody involved in Don’t Worry Darling seems to even want to talk about it, so are we supposed to want to go see it? 

Pugh’s talent and tactical silence has endeared her to audiences, but the rumours of her directing certain scenes contaminate the experience. Can we tell which ones? Is her alleged annoyance at the director the reason her jaw is clenched so tightly throughout the entire movie?

Styles’s detour into acting will not leave a stain on his music career or his relationship with his fans. But it’s impossible not to read into the lack of chemistry he shares with his co-star. At odds with his fun, fluid pop-star persona, he feels neutered on screen. Pine and co-star Nick Kroll, meanwhile, have endeared themselves on the press tour just by physically being there. Those memes bleed into their performances too: at times, I found myself looking for an eye roll in Pine’s performance as the leader of the Victory Project.  

For anyone even minimally online, the delicious circus of the feud, the affair, the gossip and allegiances has tarnished the film beyond repair. Perhaps someone will stumble across it on a streaming service somewhere and give it a fair chance – someone who probably hasn’t engaged with the real-time pisstaking. But for the rest of us, who have inhaled the drama and chuckled at the TikTok gossip-mongering, the film isn’t a film. It’s a spectacle for us to gawk at. 

Don’t Worry Darling is in cinemas worldwide Sep 23.



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