Olivia Wilde – best known for her role as Thirteen in the series House, M.D. – is taking her directing career quite seriously. That is not surprising; in 2022, there are still not many women who get a second chance to direct in Hollywood if their first film is not a box-office hit. In Wilde’s case, her first movie, Booksmart (2019), was a critical success, but its indie, feminist style of humor was not enough to bring millions of spectators to the theaters.
Nonetheless, Wilde has managed to direct a new project: Don’t Worry Darling, which will premiere on September 5 at the Venice Film Festival. The movie, a psychological thriller with a touch of science fiction, is set in a community called Victory during the 1950s and tells the story of Jack and Alice, a supposedly happy couple, played by Florence Pugh and singer Harry Styles. He works for a large corporation, while she is a perfect, Mad Men-style housewife. Little by little, Alice’s world falls apart, revealing an unsettling reality beneath her seemingly perfect world.
The film promises to be one of the most talked-about productions of the season. In fact, news, rumors and gossip have been appearing in media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic for months.
It all started with the announcement, in September 2020, that singer Harry Styles would replace Shia LaBeouf in the role of Jack. According to the rumors, the Transformers actor was fired because he “displayed poor behavior and his style clashed with the cast and crew.” LaBeouf denied these rumors a few days ago by means of a letter addressed to Wilde, in which he claims that it was he who decided to leave the project because he could not find time to rehearse with the rest of the cast. “I quit your film,” the letter reads. “You and I both know the reasons for my exit.”
After this (voluntary or forced) departure, Harry Styles joined the project. The actor and singer had actually been Wilde’s first choice, but at the end of 2019 his schedule was busy with a world tour. Due to the pandemic, however, the tour was suspended and Styles suddenly found himself with all the time in the world for movies.
This change would end up having huge consequences in the director’s personal life. But before that, something else happened: only a couple of months after making the decision, Wilde announced her separation from Jason Sudeikis, the actor who recently achieved great success with his Ted Lasso series. The couple had been in a solid relationship for nine years; everyone assumed they were married – even though they had never actually walked down the aisle – and they had two children together, Daisy and Otis, ages five and eight, respectively.
The media noise caused by this breakup, which in itself was already quite juicy for the press, turned into a small avalanche when, in January 2021, photographs were published in which Styles was seen walking hand in hand with Wilde at a wedding in Los Angeles.
This implicit confirmation of the new relationship caused the fans of both Sudeikis and Styles to lash out at the actress and director. The former accused her of disloyalty to her previous partner, suggesting that her romance with Styles had begun before she officially ended things with the father of her children. The latter claimed that she was too old for the singer, who is 10 years her junior.
In a long interview that Wilde recently gave Variety, the director refused to talk about her relationship with Styles. However, they have not exactly been shy about showing their affection in public in recent months, which has made them the couple of the moment for the American gossip press.
But not all the stories are about love. In July, Page Six magazine claimed that the movie’s female lead, Florence Pugh, did not have a good relationship with Wilde, and that, during filming, she had been very annoyed by the new couple’s constant displays of affection.
It was also noteworthy that the actress, known for her performances in Midsommar and Little Women, did not even mention the film on her social media accounts until August 11, when she posted an eight-second video, with a merely promotional text announcing the premiere. The post was so lukewarm that she seemed more motivated by her contract than by genuine enthusiasm.
But perhaps what put the film at the global epicenter of gossip was the way in which Sudeikis’ lawyers chose to serve Wilde with their children’s custody papers in April. The director was on stage presenting Don’t Worry Darling in front of hundreds of representatives from American movie theaters during the CinemaCon convention at Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, when a person approached her and handed her an envelope. The actress, perhaps thinking that it was some sort of prank, decided to interrupt her speech and open it in front of everyone. “Is this a script?” she said. After reading for a few seconds and realizing what it was, she said, “Ok, got it, thank you,” and continued her speech with a smile.
Sudeikis denied any knowledge that the delivery was going to happen that way, but in the Variety interview, Wilde said that it had to have been planned very carefully in order to get through all the security filters at the convention. She added, “Sadly, it was not something that was entirely surprising to me. I mean, there’s a reason I left that relationship.”
The fact that this strange incident did not alter Wilde’s presentation in the least is an indication of the seriousness, the strength and the clarity of purpose that she has as a director; without a doubt, all of this is also helping her to overcome her painful separation and the media exposure of her new relationship with one of the most famous and successful men of the moment. “I hated that this nastiness distracted from the work of so many different people and the studio that I was up there representing,” she told Variety. “But I had a job to do; I’m not easily distracted.”
Wilde, a declared feminist and one of the most visible faces of the Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment in Hollywood, explained that, in Don’t Worry Darling, women are not merely accessories to help the male characters look good; they are actually the ones that drive the action.
That can also be perceived in her representation of sex. “Female pleasure, the best versions of it that you see nowadays, are in queer films,” she told Variety. “Why are we more comfortable with female pleasure when it’s two women on film? In hetero sex scenes in film, the focus on men as the recipients of pleasure is almost ubiquitous.” The director has joked about this, assuring that not a single man has an orgasm in her new film; only the women.
Undoubtedly, Wilde is aware that she is under a spotlight that is much more powerful and decisive than that of the tabloids and sensationalist media. The film industry is watching her and, in part, her success or failure will influence whether or not the big studios choose to give more opportunities to other female storytellers. She is also convinced that the good commercial and artistic results of films directed by women are the key that will inspire the next generations of female directors. It remains to be seen whether, after the Venice screening, the director will manage to make the gossip give way to somewhat less trivial conversations.