The Apology Olympics: Celebrities’ Awful Behavior Matters Less Than How They Atone for It

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The minute Gary Oldman’s insane Playboy interview appeared online, it was obvious to anyone with even the dimmest understanding of the celebrity news cycle that an apology would be forthcoming. The question was, would it be a “good apology” or a “bad apology”? Would it be Jonah Hill telling Jimmy Fallon and the world, in no uncertain terms, that “faggot” is a hurtful, unacceptable word and interrogating his own unthinking use of it? Or would it be more like Lana Del Rey compounding her false accusations that a Guardian interviewer misrepresented her by explaining to Frances Bean Cobain, via Twitter, that her words about Cobain’s father had been misrepresented in the interview?

As it turned out, Oldman adopted the increasingly common strategy of apologizing multiple times, via multiple platforms, with mixed results. In an open letter to the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, he wrote:

I am deeply remorseful that comments I recently made in the Playboy Interview were offensive to many Jewish people. Upon reading my comments in print — I see how insensitive they may be, and how they may indeed contribute to the furtherance of a false stereotype. Anything that contributes to this stereotype is unacceptable, including my own words on the matter. If, during the interview, I had been asked to elaborate on this point I would have pointed out that I had just finished reading Neal Gabler’s superb book about the Jews and Hollywood, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews invented Hollywood. The fact is that our business, and my own career specifically, owes an enormous debt to that contribution.

I can’t think of a single explanation for an act of bigotry that has ever succeeded as an excuse for it, and the implication that some of the blame lies with Oldman’s interviewer for failing to ask follow-up questions is plain unfair. A line in the next paragraph — “The Jewish People, persecuted thorough the ages, are the first to hear God’s voice, and surely are the chosen people” — is so over-the-top that it just reads as patronizing.

Oldman, perhaps taking a cue from Hill, did a better job last night on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Instead of trying to defend himself or deflect the blame for what he said, Oldman simply said:

Words have meaning, and they carry weight. And they carry on long after you’ve said them. I don’t condone or excuse the words that I used in any context. I just basically shouldn’t have used them in any context, but I did, and I have deeply injured and wounded a great many people… I am a public figure, I should be an example and inspiration, and I am an asshole, and I’m 56. I should know better. I extend my apology and my love and best wishes to my fan base.

By this morning, The Wrap had described Oldman as having spoken “from the heart,” The Hollywood Reporter had called him “humble,” and Business Insider noted that, after his statement, the actor “looked relaxed, first swallowing and blinking before cracking a smile and reaching out for Kimmel’s hand.” It was a “good apology” that will surely result in people going to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and “Team Oldman” continuing to mythologize their hero and the news cycle of shame sucking some other celebrity into its orbit.

What’s lost in all of this is the seriousness of what Gary Oldman actually did. He defended Mel Gibson’s racist and anti-Semitic slurs, as well as Alec Baldwin’s homophobic one. He perpetuated the myth that Hollywood is some kind of Jewish cabal. He complained that he wasn’t allowed to call Nancy Pelosi “a fucking useless cunt,” and thereby went ahead and proved himself wrong. And, as Jason Bailey pointed out earlier this week, he did all of it while ostensibly sober and calm and safe. That makes what Oldman said in an interview several orders of magnitude worse than what Jonah Hill said while being chased by paparazzi. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what Lana Del Rey did, which was flat-out lie when she wasn’t satisfied with the way she came off in a profile.

You’d never know that, though, from the media’s Celebrity Apology Olympics, the kind of narrative-building that results in lists like this one and this one and this one. These PR scoreboards are just the most obvious example of the way we’ve come to discriminate not between infidelity and bigotry and doping and interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards show but between doing it right and getting it wrong on the “I’m sorry” circuit.

It isn’t that Gary Oldman, one of the greatest and most entertainingly bonkers actors of his generation, doesn’t — or, at least, won’t ever — deserve forgiveness. But maybe before we do that, we should spend some time thinking about what a talk-show apology, even a beautifully executed and apparently sincere one, really means, coming from a man whose comments to Playboy didn’t seem to reflect poor word choice so much as deep-seated anger and bigotry.

It’s notable that the Anti-Defamation League hasn’t accepted Oldman’s apology yet. Abraham H. Foxman, the group’s national director, said,

While his apology may be heartfelt, Mr. Oldman does not understand why his words about Jewish control were so damaging and offensive, and it is therefore insufficient… Mr. Oldman needs to recognize that his words, not just as they were written, but as he uttered them, are deeply offensive. And he needs to be sensitive to the fact that other remarks for which he has yet to apologize – including his disparaging remarks about the Pope and about gay people – were also deeply troubling and hurtful to many.

As someone with an unmistakably Jewish name, I should make it clear I often disagree with the ADL, but in this case I think they’re right to push Oldman for a better response. I’m especially interested in the fact that the organization also says it’s begun a conversation with his managing producer. There’s no question that comments like the ones Oldman made to Playboy call for an apology — but it should be an apology that comes after conversation and education and all the hard work that challenging years’ worth of prejudice entails.