Was ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Helped by Offscreen Scandals? Of Course! They Made the Movie Sound Like a Tabloid Soap Opera

We live in an age when all kinds of behavior that was once not thought of as scandalous is now scandalous. Yet the mentality of “calling people out” can extend to less serious and sometimes even trivial things. That’s been the drama of “Don’t Worry Darling” — and by drama, I don’t mean the story of a Stepford housewife, played by Florence Pugh, who wakes up to discover that the candy-colored ’50s dreamworld she’s been living in is a carefully constructed nightmare. That drama, as I wrote in my review, is just okay; it starts enticingly and then loses steam. But the offscreen drama? That’s been a gift of gossip that keeps on giving. (If you want to know what Neil Postman meant by the title of his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” look no further than Spitgate.)

Part of the addictive fun of “Don’t Worry Darling: The Offscreen Diaries” is that it’s been a juicy backbiting tabloid celebrity saga in which nobody actually did anything too wrong. (You can have your facile Twitter moralism and eat it too.) The pieces of the saga, if you take them one by one, aren’t complicated or even very outrageous. In the midst of making her second feature, Olivia Wilde, a high-powered film director, entered into a romantic relationship with her leading man, Harry Styles, who happens to be the most coveted pop star on the planet. (Important fact to take note of: A film director carrying on a relationship with his or her lead actor has never before happened in the history of motion pictures.)

There’s also the matter of who the lead actor was originally set to be. Shia LaBeouf, who was first cast in the part, was replaced by Styles — but how and why that happened remains a matter of dispute. Wilde claims that it was her decision to let LaBeouf go; as she repeated this week on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the interpersonal thespian chemistry between LaBeouf and Florence Pugh, who plays the heroine, wasn’t working out. LaBeouf, however, claims that it was his decision to leave the movie. A leaked phone conversation in which Wilde pleaded with LaBeouf to stay might seem to support his version and contradict hers — but then, it all depends on when that conversation took place. Wilde could have wanted LaBeouf in the part… until she didn’t. (Second important fact to note: A director changing his or her mind in this fashion has never before happened in the history of motion pictures.)

Of course, none of that would have had much traction were it not for the scandal that lit the fuse: Florence Pugh’s largely bowing out of the promotion for “Don’t Worry Darling.” On Friday, the day the movie opened, the actress finally released a PR mash note on Instagram, but up until then Pugh has ghosted the movie in her social-media communiqués. When “Don’t Worry Darling” bowed at the Venice Film Festival three weeks ago, all of global media united to shine a spotlight on the fact that she showed up for the red-carpet premiere but didn’t attend the film’s press conference. That really was unusual — at least, in a universe where publicizing a movie has become nearly as important as acting in it.

Florence Pugh, it’s clear, was/is steamed at Olivia Wilde. She wouldn’t so much as look at her when the film was introduced at Venice. But why? If you had just scanned the headlines and soaked up the highly speculative coverage of the “Don’t Worry Darling” troubles, you might easily think that what happened offscreen amounted to some sort of high-school tiff. One rumor that drove the story is that Pugh was mad at Wilde for disappearing with Harry for long periods on the set. But why would she be so furious about that? You can imagine how this might “read” to a 14-year-old Harry Styles fan (or the 14-year-old Harry Styles fan in a lot of us). According to my sources, the feud between Wilde and Pugh, which sounds like it could be a one-way feud, relates more to what happened with LaBeouf — the difficulties that situation presented, how they were resolved, and the competing spin zones, even extending to a conflict over what the rehearsal schedule would be. That said, plenty of people who work on movies together end up disliking each other, and they’re still able to paper over their antipathies for the sake of the film.

The fact that Wilde is helping to blaze a trail for women directors, and has seen her movie hit with this perfect storm of bad juju, is unfortunate. Did the fact that she’s a woman heighten the media response to reporting the scandal? I would say: In ways you can’t prove, there’s no doubt that it did. But the fact that the movie now looks on track to make $21 million in its opening weekend should offset all of that nicely. Whatever problems emerged from the casting of Shia LaBeouf, the way they were resolved turned out to be the single greatest gift to Olivia Wilde’s career. Instead of LaBeouf, she got Harry Styles, who has likely been instrumental in transforming her second feature into a (medium-size) hit.

If you’re wondering whether all this drama turned people off or if, in fact, it’s now drawing people to see “Don’t Worry Darling,” the answer should be obvious. Of course it’s a draw. Seeing the movie has become a de facto vehicle for advancing the offscreen story. Let’s watch it for clues! Many observers have invoked the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity; in fact, there is such a thing. But it may be that there’s no press conference that can publicize a movie as powerfully as an up-and-coming star refusing to appear at a press conference, all because of her… resentment? Pride? Or some hidden motivation obscurely yet stubbornly linked to the presence of the world’s reigning pop star? Go ahead — try and fill in the blanks. And if you want to imagine that what’s happening onscreen completes the meaning of what’s happening offscreen, by all means indulge the fantasy. It’s part of what’s been selling movies for 100 years.