State of the Arts

Why elder statesmen such as Terry Gilliam need to grow up – not just grow old

After the Monty Python star made a series of provocative comments to The Independent, Roisin O'Connor wonders if the bitterness of certain disgruntled stars will end up destroying their own legacies

Saturday 11 January 2020 09:09
Clockwise from top left: Terry Gilliam, Wiley, Michael Caine and Roger Daltrey
Clockwise from top left: Terry Gilliam, Wiley, Michael Caine and Roger Daltrey

Woke reporter hates Monty Python.” This isn’t a headline. Rather, it’s a tweet by former US presidential candidate Ted Cruz about my colleague, Alexandra Pollard, and her interview with actor and director Terry Gilliam.

During this conversation, Gilliam seemed to do his best to cause offence, with all the glee, Pollard noted, of a schoolboy telling on his classmate. He claimed to identify as a “black lesbian in transition”, and suggested that some of the women who accused Harvey Weinstein of abuse had in fact made “a choice”. He said he was tired of white men “being blamed for everything”.

Gilliam is one of a number of older public figures who seem to relish any opportunity to rile up what they deem to be an “oversensitive” and reactionary generation of millennials. And for all his complaining about how white men are blamed for “everything”, it was the woman in this exchange who suffered a barrage of online vitriol for having the temerity to challenge his views.

As we all know, men such as Gilliam don’t like being challenged. Why else would he have spent over two decades trying to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote off the ground? Given the fact that the film is essentially about a man who insists he’s right, despite the rest of the world telling him he’s not, it’s easy to see why it would appeal.

Gilliam’s comments are symptomatic of an ever-widening generation gap, where previously revered figures of popular culture seem to wilfully undo their legacies by revealing an unpleasant selfish streak. Sure, millennials might be the more narcissistic generation, with their selfies and Instagram and TikTok videos. But selfish? Not so much.

Selfish is The Who’s Roger Daltrey dismissing the suggestion that Brexit could have a serious and devastating impact on young artists who want to tour Europe. It’s Michael Caine claiming he’d rather be a “poor master than a rich servant”. It’s Gilliam claiming that he is the real victim of the #MeToo movement, as opposed to the women who were actually abused, sexually assaulted and raped. It’s anyone who sneers at people – vegans, climate change activists, LGBT+ campaigners – for caring about people or beings other than themselves.

The irony of Gilliam’s comments was that, while demanding people take responsibility for their own failure, he simultaneously refused to acknowledge the benefits of his own privilege – and the harm it causes others. Terms such as “cancel culture” and “woke” have become catch-alls for disgruntled seniors who dislike feeling reprimanded by people younger than themselves. At its most base level, it is an attempt to undermine or delegitimise valid questions about the way our society works.

And as much as these older stars love to complain about lives being destroyed by accusations, who has actually had their life destroyed? Certainly not Louis CK, back on the touring circuit three months after being accused of exposing himself to female comedians without their consent. Nor Chris Brown, convicted of assaulting his then-girlfriend, the artist Rihanna, in 2009, but still enjoying a string of number one albums and sold-out tours.

It’s disheartening to see your heroes reveal themselves to be someone less than you believed. Grime star Stormzy, currently embroiled in a feud with elder statesman Wiley, conveys this in his diss track “Disappointed”, which speaks of a young man who feels let down by someone he used to idolise. It’s how hundreds, if not thousands of Harry Potter fans will have felt upon seeing JK Rowling support a woman who was fired from her job for expressing transphobic views.

The lasting effect, though, is not going to be a revelation among future generations that Gregg’s sausage rolls are actually the devil, or that the act of letting a woman star as 007 amounts to treason. It is, as Twitter user Lucy Uprichard pointed out, “coming across as such miserable decrepit bigots that they have ensured Gen Z will never give a s*** about them, freeing the current generation of young women from having to hear boys parrot Monty Python jokes”.

Half the time, you wonder if many of these old timers even believe half the diatribes they’re spouting. Gilliam admitted in the Independent interview that he just “love[s] arguing”. “And if you’ve got a point,” he continued, “you should be able to argue your thing.” But what was his point? He didn’t have one. His comments were for naught, other than to make himself feel validated in a time when he is more used to feeling bitter and irrelevant. These older stars might be growing older – but they’re certainly not growing up.

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