Meaning and Means

I can understand, after seeing All The Money In The World, how Director Ridley Scott could reshoot the Kevin Spacey scenes, but I’m mixed after learning why and how.

This crime thriller movie, which is based upon John Pearson’s (1995) book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, narrates Getty’s refusal to pay the ransom demands of his grandson’s kidnappers in 1973. Getty relents in the move only after he is criticized by his employee Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative, when his grandson’s severed ear is sent to a newspaper. Even so, Getty is only willing to pay the amount that he can claim as tax deductible, and he insists that his former daughter-in-law Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) must relinquish her custody rights of his grandchildren, whom he hardly knew. 

Scott had finished filming and was editing the movie, in which Kevin Spacey had performed the role of J. Paul Getty, when the sexual assault allegations against Spacey were initially reported. Spacey reportedly didn’t call Scott to discuss the reports of his behavior or the implications for the impending movie release, so Scott decided to replace Spacey with Christopher Plummer. To do so, Scott had to reassemble the performers and secure locations for 22 scenes at an estimated cost of $10 million.

Part of the appeal of his movie is its bewildering events that are largely based upon facts, including Getty’s persist refusal to pay the ransom for the return of his grandson. His refusal, in both fact and the movie, surprises one of the kidnappers, who challenged Gail to explain why someone with so much money would be willing to jeopardize his grandchild’s safety. This situation is even more surprising given that the ransom amount was equivalent at the time, as a result of the 1973 oil crisis, to Getty’s daily profit. Getty’s explanation is that he would be jeopardizing the safety of all his grandchildren if he paid the ransom for one — he reportedly was constantly afraid of kidnapping — although he also seems to have other, and even ulterior, motivations.

The larger appeal of this movie, at least for me, is less Getty’s motivations and more Gail’s determination to save her son. From this perspective, the movie dramatizes her perseverance in her pursuit of her son’s safe release in spite of the challenges, including those created by her son’s grandfather. She had assumed responsibility for her children after she divorced her husband, who was estranged from his father and became an addict, and she only asked for custody of the children as her divorce settlement. She even offers suggestions, at one point when contacted by the kidnappers, how to care for her son, whose health is declining, and she eventually succeeds in the relatively safe return of her son, as well as is assigned the responsibility of managing her children’s inheritance after Getty dies.

As a result, the decision to reshoot the Spacey scenes seems less costly to the movie as a narrative than it might initially seem. At the same time, it also appears as a moral stand against alleged sexual assault although it might have at least something to do with financial or personal concerns.

This decision might have been easier, at least in terms of financial costs, than it seems. Scott had said, as widely reported, that the actors agreed to reshoot these scenes “for nothing,” or the union minimums, and Williams, who won a Golden Globe for her performance, agreed to reshoot the scenes, and even offered her usual salary and Thanksgiving holiday to do so. In contrast, Wahlberg initially insisted upon substantially higher compensation but subsequently donated this money to the sexual assault defense fund Time’s Up that Williams co-founded, which he also did in her name.

Perhaps the right result, regardless of the reasons, is enough.

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