Bradley Cooper’s upcoming Maestro has been stirring controversy after the film’s first trailer released, throwing back to other heated debates around movies that weren’t even out yet. There’s no doubt that the current state of cinema enables many discussions that used to be taboo to be addressed freely, as a result of inclusion and awareness of topics such as LGBTQ+, racism, gender, and religious intolerance, subjects that are now widely discussed, but weren’t even considered years ago.
Although the internet helped audiences to accept topics that were otherwise neglected, it also opened the door for what people like to call the “cancel culture.” The whole debate around the limits of digital boycotting is another story, but it’s always important to know when to draw the line at something that is just blatantly offensive or, alternatively, just a harmless misunderstanding. What is derogatory to someone might not be to another, yet empathy should always come first. For a movie to stir controversy even before it came out, it can’t be an easy matter. Here’s a look at Maestro and nine other movies that caused controversy before they even released.
10 Maestro (2023)
Cooper’s ambitious Leonard Bernstein biopic has been a long time coming, but it’s finally premiering at 2023’s Venice International Film Festival, a few months before a wide release on Netflix. With a star-studded cast that includes Cooper himself in the lead role, Carey Mulligan, and Maya Hawke, the film was rumored to be a strong contender for the awards season and the prestigious Academy Awards. However, Maestro‘s trailer brought about more criticism than compliments.
The main controversy revolves around the exaggerated nose prosthetics used in Cooper to portray Bernstein, a Jewish conductor. People were quick to point out the disrespectful decision to insist on such a cheap stereotype, despite Maestro‘s best intentions to illustrate the artist’s life. Per Deadline, Bernstein’s family stepped up to defend Cooper’s use of prosthetics in an attempt to end the discussion, but it only fanned the flames of the debate.
9 The Flash (2023)
Ever since The Flash was announced, DC was trying hard to sell the movie as their most ambitious project yet: a multi-million-dollar blockbuster with a roller-coaster of emotions, cameos, and thrilling action. What Warner Bros. and DC certainly didn’t expect was that their golden star Ezra Miller, their Barry Allen, was about to engage in a crime spree a year before the film’s release.
In March 2022, at least once a week, there would be an article about their most recent misdemeanors, to the point it was possible to trace a timeline of Miller’s criminal activities. Gradually, their wrongdoings evolved into serious offenses such as second-degree assault and burglary, until they finally answered for the crimes and came in public to say how deeply sorry they were. Meanwhile, The Flash was rumored to be scrapped, but the massive budget made that impossible for Warner Bros.. The result: one of the biggest box office flops of 2023.
8 Blonde (2022)
At the moment Blonde received a scandalous NC-17 rating, people began to suspect there was more than meets the eye in the movie. While the film was never advertised as the “ultimate biopic” of legendary actress Marilyn Monroe, the headlines and teasers of the film weren’t necessarily sticking to the fact that Blonde was, in fact, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ book, a work of fiction.
Despite being one of the best experts in Monroe’s life, Oates decided to write an alternate story about the actress, addressing the abuse she suffered from the media and the people around her with fictional depictions of child abuse, rape, gaslight, and all sorts of terrible things. It only became clear to the audience that the movie would rely on Oates’ fictional retelling once the NC-17 rating was revealed, and most people disagreed about seeing Monroe depicted that way, especially from Andrew Dominik’s male perspective.
7 Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)
Sonic the Hedgehog is a rare case in which a pre-release controversy ended up being beneficial to the film, thanks to the movie’s commitment to attend to the audience’s complaints. Live-action ideas aren’t frequently welcomed with great expectations, and when the first trailer of Sonic the Hedgehog came out, fans were outraged by the seemingly official CGI asept of the character, claiming that Sonic’s creature design made him look like a completely different character; its eyes were too far apart, the teeth too big — it just looked somewhat creepy overall.
The internet was heard and when a second trailer finally dropped, the new character design for Sonic was the target of admiration, turning the viral controversy into a positive stir to the film.
6 Marighella (2019)
Marighella is a Brazilian historical drama centered around the Afro-Brazilian politician Carlos Marighella, one of the leading figures of the opposition against an oppressive military dictatorship that lasted over 20 years. It marks the first directorial effort from Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, best known for playing Pablo Escobar in the Netflix show Narcos.
Marighella premiered in 2019’s Berlinale, but only hit domestic movie theaters in late-2021, mainly because of the incessant controversy around the film and Brazil’s political scenario. Released amid Bolsonaro’s turbulent and highly conservative government, the film was nearly censored due to its portrayal of Marighella as the impressive political leader that he was. Marighella was met with backlash by Bolsonaro supporters and had its IMDB ratings boycotted due to its anti-dictatorship message, dividing a whole country as if it was election year.
5 The Neon Demon (2016)
Every year, there are plenty of articles covering that one controversial movie that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and caused people to walk out, throw up, or boo, but The Neon Demon took the polemics to another level. Featuring graphic scenes of sexual abuse, necrophilia, and bizarre depictions of cannibalism, the movie held people back before its wide release.
By the time it finally hit theaters, the audiences seemed already convinced about the depravity in the film’s imagery and didn’t feel like giving it a shot, resulting in a terrible theater run despite its relatively small budget. Regardless of the number, The Neon Demon will always be remembered as one of the most divisive movies to ever screen at Cannes.
4 The Interview (2014)
There was no way an American comedy about agents planning the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un wouldn’t stir controversy, but things spiraled way too out of control, and too fast. While the headlines covering The Interview‘s premise were already enough to bring about a polemic debate, the icing on the cake was the cybergroup “Guardians of Peace” allegedly hacking Sony Pictures, the film’s distributor, and engaging in serious threats of violence to prevent The Interview‘s release.
The mass hysteria surrounding the movie’s premiere caused many theaters to cancel their screenings, and after all the damage has been done, Sony was forced to release the film digitally. Hopefully for them, it turned out to be their biggest digital release and the biggest movie ever streamed on Google, according to Seth Rogen.
3 Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)
The Palme d’Or is the most prestigious prize a filmmaker can achieve at the renowned Cannes Film Festival, as the movie that wins it is guaranteed to have a spot in cinema history. The 2013 winner was Blue Is the Warmest Color, an LGBTQ+ story that is LGBTQ+ only on the surface. Based on a popular graphic novel written by Jul Maroh, the author was the first to point out the film’s questionable depictions of a lesbian romance, indicating how a male director in charge resulted in intimate scenes that looked more like reckless pornography than accurate depictions of a love act.
The movie’s approach immediately stirred controversy among the LGBT community even before the sexual assault allegations against director Abdellatif Kechiche, and the Palme d’Or win only added fuel to the fire.
2 Blue Valentine (2010)
Blonde wasn’t the first movie to give rise to polemics due to its rating; over a decade before Blonde, the unforgiving romance Blue Valentine brought many people’s attention to the controversy around MPAA’s choice to classify the movie as NC-17. The NC-17 symbol is usually reserved to movies with an abundance of violence and sex portrayed in graphic faction, and it drastically affects the box-office performance of any movie.
Blue Valentine had a handful of sex scenes, in particular one featuring Michelle Williams receiving oral sex, but nothing too graphic. The cast was outraged by MPAA’s decision as their decision was blatantly based on misogyny towards a free representation of women’s sexual fulfillment, and an official appeal granted them an R-rating instead.
1 The Brown Bunny (2003)
The Brown Bunny remains a landmark in the discussion around depictions of sex in movies, as it features a 10-minute-long unsimulated oral-sex scene performed on the film’s director and star Vincent Gallo, a man who never shied away from controversy even in his early career. The movie premiered at Cannes and left audiences horrified with Gallo’s crude, possibly defying decision to present the infamous scene as the ultimate climax of his slow-burn road movie.
Most of the initial controversy was focused on whether actress Chloe Sevigny agreed to the scene or not, and then The Brown Bunny‘s scandalous reception at Cannes got close to destroying what was otherwise intended to be a serious movie.