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The Scarlett Johansson Rub & Tug Fallout: How Do You Tell Your Own Stories If No Producer Sees a Profit In It?

These days, news happens so fast it is becoming increasingly common for politicians and celebrities to discover the latest headline while they’re actually on camera being interviewed about something else. This gives us a rare look at people displaying their genuine first, unguarded reaction to the latest headline everyone is going to be talking about for the next 24-48 hours.

This exact thing happened last Friday when trans actress and producer Rain Valdez (Transparent) was sitting in front of a camera in The Hollywood Reporter’s office for an interview about trans representation in the industry when the following story broke:

The great Rub & Tug controversy was suddenly over, just over a week after it had begun. Scarlett Johansson will no longer be playing Jean Marie Gill, who was born a female but identified as a man and ran a massage parlor and prostitution business in Pittsburg throughout the 70s and 80s. Whereas Johansson’s representatives had previously told any critics of her casting on the project to contact “Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment” this time they led with a carefully worded statement describing our evolving cultural views on the trans community. They spoke out against Rub & Tug, Johansson listened, and now she’s off the project, possibly having finally learned her lesson after Ghost in the Shell.

When THR told Valdez about this latest development, she almost cried:

It’s the look of someone observing a potentially significant transition from the way things used to be to the way they ought to have always been. “That actually makes me a little emotional. It’s not an easy industry for trans women. It’s not an easy industry for trans men,” she said, fighting back tears.

I lead with this part of the story as a reminder of the human element at the heart of all this. An underserved and constantly belittled community just wants a fairer shot to tell their stories. We can dispassionately observe from afar or debate the economic realities or ethical implications of all this, but for someone like Valdez and 20 other trans actors THR interviewed last week a cis white actress like Scarlett Johansson vacating a trans role so that it might be filled with an actual trans person is enough to make you cry tears of joy.

But remember all of those reasons people were citing for why exactly it made sense to cast Johansson in Rub & Tug, namely that she’s a known global name who can help a film secure financing? Yeah, that’s not going away.

Even given Johansson’s questionable (non-MCU) box office run as of late with flops like Ghost in the Shell and Rough Night, she still has a massively superior track record to any other trans performer who might want a shot at playing Jean Marie Gill. Not surprisingly, The Wrap now reports Rub & Tug might never go into production. Rupert Sanders, who directed Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, remains attached. It’s unclear if the two previously attached production companies, one belonging to Joel Silver, the other to Johansson herself, are still involved though.

Furthermore, the details of Gill’s life are now being contested: “People in Gill’s time sometimes called him ‘the woman who prefers to be known as a man,’ according to a 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary, which referred to him using female pronouns throughout. But Gill’s cousin, Barry Paris, told TheWrap last week that Gill definitely identified as a man and wanted to be referred to with male pronouns.”

All of which means this might have always been a flawed test case. The plot, based on its brief description, sounds like an indie drama, more sexually fluid version of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s old schlocky Lifetime show The Client List (aka the handjob show). In reality, the full story of Gill’s life plays a bit more like Dallas Buyers Club and involves things like surviving letter bombs and cleverly evading the cops during raids. However, now there’s some question as to whether Gill was even trans.

You know what would make a better movie: not Rub & Tug, but a documentary about the attempt to make Rub & Tug and the various cultural sore spots it touched for the trans community. Oh, if only there could have been a camera crew recording Johansson the moment she first realized where exactly her critics were coming from.

However, that’s not happening anytime soon and neither is Rub & Tug. The first major studio trans film might never happen. Salon begs to differ, arguing all this free publicity should at least pique the interest of some producers out there:

The film is now high profile regardless of who is in the role; the casting controversy provided far more free publicity than Johansson’s name. If the film fizzles out, it would support the notion that trans movies can only get made with an A-lister attached. “Rub & Tug” needs to happen now more than ever, to prove trans movies don’t need cis movie stars to sell tickets.

One example they point to is All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s drama which became “the movie Kevin Space was edited out of” just as Rub & Tug is now “the movie ScarJo dropped out of.”

How did all of that free publicity work out for them there?

Those…aren’t great numbers, especially not considering the film’s $57m budget.

What about Love, Simon, the first major studio gay rom-com?

That’s better, obviously, but it also cost significantly less to make at just $17m. Except, of course, that’s a movie about a gay kid and they cast a straight man to play him. That introduces the much larger ethical argument over where exactly do we start drawing the lines between who is allowed to play what part or who gets to tell whose stories.

Either way, the truth is that in this current market where the middle has fallen completely out an original drama about a trans pioneer in the 70s and 80s was always going to face an uphill battle even with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role. Without her, there might still be a future for it, but it will likely be at a much, much smaller budget and possibly at an indie instead of a major studio.

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3 comments

  1. A smaller budget might be a good idea anyway, though. Honestly, this story doesn’t sound like something which will draw major box office, and that is before we even get to problems in the foreign market and the chunk of the audience which genuinely hate transgender people. It just doesn’t sound particularly interesting. I mean, you just summoned up the plot with “it’s about a woman who run a massage parlour and felt like a man” and my first thought was “and?”. I mean, other than being in seedy business, what is particularly interesting about Jean Marie Gill? I have honestly no idea who that even is, even after reading some of the discussions about the casting. So why should I as regular audience member care about watching a movie about her (or him).

      1. There are about a million transgender actors they could have told a story about. Laverne Cox is a good example. People know her, and a lot of people might be interested in how she got where she is, but exactly why they plucked this particular person (Gill) out of the history books, is a mystery.

        There are some truly famous historical transgender people they could have told this story about, so this really does seem like more of an Indie/niche type of film, like Moonlight, that would be of tremendous interest to the kind of people that it’s about. On the other hand, Moonlight went on to win an Oscar so…

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