James Toback and the Death of a Would-Be Ladies Man's Self-Image
The Internet Movie Database lists 17 writing credits for writer, director and repellent human being James Toback. That doesn’t include the books or articles he’s written but as someone who has hate-followed the crazed narcissist for decades, it sure feels like Toback has only one story: his own.
Then again, it might be more accurate to say that Toback ultimately has two stories. There's the well-worn self-mythology he's been peddling for nearly a half-century positing himself as a brilliant, passionate, compulsive artist, irresistible to women and a soldier for truth and art, and then there's an uglier, much less flattering reality that's been spilling out over the last few months from the hundreds of women (including actresses like Selma Blair, Rachel McAdams, Julianne Moore) accusing him of sexual assault and harassment.
Yes, Toback is a true “auteur” in the sense that he makes the same staggeringly self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing movie over and over again to feed his ego and his lofty conception of himself more than anything else. James Toback makes movies for, by, and about James Toback, and expects an understandably unimpressed and uninterested public to revere him for continually covering such a fascinating and important subject.
Sure, the names and decades and plots might change but the core of pretty much everything Toback has ever worked on remains the same. These films all revolve around an intense, charismatic Toback surrogate driven to extremes of behavior—sexual, criminal and otherwise—by their relentlessly compulsive and artistic nature. I suspect Toback only wrote about Bugsy Siegel in his Oscar-nominated script for Bugsy, because he was intrigued that Siegel was such an early, proto-James Toback type.
These characters are defined by their addictions but also by how incredibly, unbelievably desirable beautiful people find them. Of course it helps that Toback made Robert Downey Jr. his muse/surrogate in movies like The Pick Up Artist, Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White and the movie star possesses the attractiveness, charm and youth Toback desperately wishes he had.
The cult of James Toback isn’t just at the core of Toback’s movies: that’s pretty much all there is. I was fascinated that other filmmakers would remake Toback scripts like The Gambler and Fingers because all Toback writes about is his dick, and why, for the love of God, would anyone other than James Toback want to make a movie about how awesome and irresistible James Toback’s dick is?
Sex plays a huge and specific role in Toback’s movies and his intricately wrought self-mythology. In this telling, Toback is one of the world’s great ladies’ men, not because he’s handsome and popular and famous like his friends and collaborators Warren Beatty and Robert Downey Jr, but rather because he's so smart and so strong and such an irresistible alpha-male that he’s been able to convince a stunning array of gorgeous women to sleep with him throughout the decades.
Anyone can seduce a woman if they’re young and handsome and charismatic, Toback’s thinking seems to go, but it takes a true master of seduction like Toback to bed an endless series of beautiful, powerful and desired women while looking like a bullfrog that came to life and unhappily and only semi-successfully adopted human form.
I was not at all surprised to see the elaborate fiction Toback has created for himself about his sex life crumble instantly when literally hundreds of women came forward to depict the writer-director as a repellent sex criminal who shamelessly flaunted his credits and famous friends to beautiful young woman as a way of getting them alone behind doors, at which point he would begin a process that generally ended with him masturbating furiously and ejaculating either on his leg or on the horrified young woman begging him to stop. Sometimes threats were involved to hurt a young actress or her family if they told anyone, sometimes he just walked away.
Needless to say, these accounts, given by hundreds of women and occurring over a period of decades, paint a much different picture of Toback and his sex life than the one he has publicly been promoting for decades.
Toback has denied the allegations, arguing in part that for the 22 years it would have been “biologically impossible” for him to do what he was accused of. It’s weirdly telling that this self-professed world-class Casanova’s defense centers on him being, I would have to assume, impotent, and incapable of ejaculating on anyone or anything.
I had the dubious honor of interviewing Toback around the time he made 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary/mockumentary about joining forces with fellow creepy dude Alec Baldwin to try to get a contemporary version of Last Tango in Paris made in a world where studios are all about making sequels and superhero movies, not X-rated vanity projects.
Toback and Baldwin see themselves as Serious Artists cursed to work in an unserious field with unserious people who do not understand how important and essential it is for these two awful white men to get to realize all of their dreams. Toback and Baldwin see the Last Tango in Paris as the kind of serious art film we need to get back to making.
I don’t think it matters to Toback that Maria Schneider, the female lead in Last Tango in Paris, felt she was being sexually violated during the filming of the infamous butter scene. If anything, it would probably make the film seem more important and provocative and personal to him.
In the aftermath of the great Hollywood Reckoning of 2017 and 2018, a question that is increasingly being asked is “Who gets to tell the story?” Who gets to tell the stories that become the mythology of our lives? And who gets to tell the story when it comes to what is known as “real life?”
The answer, all too often, has been men like Toback, men obsessed with their own images and coldly indifferent to the emotions of everyone else.
Now, thank God, different people are getting to tell the story. This is true both in terms of more women and minorities getting to make movies that reflect their lives and their unique experiences, and in terms of women coming forward to counter Toback’s self-mythology with a bracing blast of cold, hard reality.
Conceptualizing this piece, I found myself wondering who the female James Toback might be. It’s a tricky subject, in no small part because who on earth would want to be compared to someone as gross as Toback?
The first person I thought of was Asia Argento, who also makes ferociously personal art films about sex and power and celebrity and ego for a tiny, auteurist audience the way Toback has.
Hopefully the Great Reckoning has brought about a seismic shift in pop culture and that in the decades ahead we hear a whole lot more from the Asia Argentos of the world and a whole lot less from the James Tobacks. In fact, the time has finally come for Toback to shut the fuck up and leave the industry to the very people he preyed upon under the pretense of making art.
Join a nice community full of nice people, get access to patron-only content and do the right thing over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace