Hollywood seems to reserve a special hell for female actors who do not play nice, and the most enduring example–for me anyway–is Sean Young. Young’s performance in the 1982 Ridley Scott sci-fi classic Blade Runner left an indelible impression on me as a teenager and even more so when I saw the first of many “director’s cuts” theatrically. Regardless of what lens is utilized to examine it–film criticism, feminism or feminist film criticism–the film says some pretty unsatisfying things about females and its construction of gender is quite essentialist. Arguably the essentialist construction of gender supports the narrative framework–replicants are gendered beings in a reductive way to limit confusion. Even so, it still is a bothersome element of Blade Runner.
Because Blade Runner made quite an impression on me, I paid attention to Young’s other projects during the 80s, where arguably her career peaked. While she was never positioned as a leading lady in the manner of stars like Michelle Pfeiffer or Kim Basinger, her looks, acting range and onscreen charisma did have a currency, often explored in films where she was mostly sexual eye candy, but always depicted as a little bit dark or off. Throughout the 80s, Young appeared in memorable films such as No Way Out, Dune, Wall Street and The Boost. While filming Wall Street–where Young played the glamorous wife of ruthless corporate raider Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (Michael Douglas at his smarmy best) –stories of her erratic on-set behavior and “frequent” clashes with cast and crew members began to surface.
From an interview she gave to Entertainment Weekly in 2008:
Sure, she could rattle cages sometimes, like on the set of 1987’s Wall Street, where she irritated director Oliver Stone so badly that he wrapped her scene early and had her dropped off at the bus station. But her coltish good looks and snappy, sexy appeal suggested a kinetic star just coming into her own.
Then in 1989 actor James Woods–Young’s costar in the film The Boost–filed a $2M harassment lawsuit against her, citing a variety of charges, which Young flatly denied:
More troubling is the continuing fallout from the harassment lawsuit that James Woods, her costar in The Boost, and Woods’ then-fiancée Sarah Owen, filed against her in 1989, alleging in part that Young left an iodine-splashed, headless baby doll on their doorstep.
While the suit was ultimately settled out of court–with damages paid to Young in a rumored sum of $250,000–the damage to her reputation, already precarious after clashes with her Wall Street director Oliver Stone, was catastrophic. For what it’s worth, Woods later divorced Sarah Owens (the other party in his suit against Young) and their acrimonious divorce included charges by Owens of verbal and physical abuse:
In 1987, she [Owens] accused him [Woods]of verbal and physical abuse, including pointing a gun at her and ordering her to strip, lie on the floor, and say, “I am a whore, I am a baby killer.
I read many accounts of her supposed antics - some unsubstantiated–a few a little odd and sad, and some really unfortunate moments. In sifting through all the published reports, tabloid fodder and interviews with Young herself, it seems in many cases there was bad behavior all around, but unfortunately–and this comes as no shock–the threshold for female misbehavior is substantially lower than it is for males, and the punishment is disproportionately more severe. Male actors engaged in similarly bizarre antics or even convicted of attacks on women seem immune to the harsh career derailments experienced by women accused of the crime of being opinionated, sexually alluring–but inaccessible–or just flat out odd.
Sean Young is not a saint, and makes no claims suggesting so. Nevertheless, she was my first glaring example of the sexual inequities present in Hollywood and she definitely stoked my feminist fires in their infancy. Despite working steadily for the last several years in cable fare and television guest spots, Young’s smoldering brilliance in her early films is a faded memory, replaced with a continuous sexist drumbeat of hateful slurs, rumor, and jokes about her struggles with alcohol. Currently, Young appears on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless as Maggie, a “sultry” barmaid. I have no idea what sultry barmaids have to do with Y&R as it has been nearly twenty-five years since I last watched it.
Young does suggest that the fact that she was a woman — a strong, mouthy, opinionated one — also contributed to her exile. She points fingers at the suits at Warner Bros. who shook their heads in eye-rolling dismay when she showed up in her Catwoman suit.”The fact that I made them see me, that aggressiveness on my part was just not allowed for women to do. If a guy had done that — if Jim Carrey had done that, if Sean Penn had done that — it would have been ‘Ha-ha, what balls!’ But for me it totally backfired.”
Okay, so she’s a bit eccentric, but she does make an astute point. Lots of male actors have done wacky things in order to get coveted roles. More importantly, Hollywood encourages its actors to behave like contestants on any number of reality shows in order to earn a precious few roles that for the most part aren’t even that great. For women it’s much worse. Sean Young wants a comeback, and that budding feminist in me who wrote passionately about equal treatment for girls and boys (I was 14, cut me some slack) says maybe it’s time she gets one.