VENICE — Even before the talent filed in for the “Don’t Worry Darling” news conference on Monday afternoon at the Venice Film Festival, the name placards on the dais told a story.
Though the filmmaker and top-billed star are typically seated next to each other, the placards for the director, Olivia Wilde, and her leading man, Harry Styles, were spaced far apart, with co-stars Chris Pine and Gemma Chan in between them, so photos of the rumored couple would be harder to snap. And there was no placard at all for the film’s star, Florence Pugh, whose no-show at the session further deepened rumors of a rift between her and Wilde.
The premise of “Don’t Worry Darling” is juicy enough on its own: Pugh plays a housewife with a picture-perfect 1950s marriage who suspects that the carefully manicured world around her is a sinister illusion. But the movie’s behind-the-scenes drama has been even juicier, and after weeks of headlines and speculation, Monday’s news conference proved to be a hotter ticket than many of Venice’s major premieres.
A recap of the drama thus far:
Fans initially figured something was amiss when Pugh, who is normally eager to promote her projects on social media, appeared to be giving “Don’t Worry Darling” the cold shoulder. Indeed, Pugh has done notably little promo for the film whether on social media or in traditional outlets, and the usual onslaught of press junkets and interviews required for a movie and star of this scale appears to have been waived.
Pugh’s reps maintained that she has been too busy filming her new role in “Dune: Part Two” to commit to obligations, including the Venice news conference, but “Dune” star Timothée Chalamet was able to clear several days to promote his romantic drama “Bones and All” in Venice. And one would presume that since Warner Bros is distributing both “Don’t Worry Darling” and the “Dune” sequel, an accommodating schedule could have been carved out for Pugh the moment she signed on for the latter film, especially since it features a sprawling ensemble cast.
Puck’s Matthew Belloni recently reported that Pugh and Wilde began feuding because of the on-set affair between Wilde and Styles, writing that Pugh “wasn’t a fan of her director disappearing so often with her leading man” between camera setups. Indeed, Wilde’s personal life has received outsized scrutiny during this promotional tour, not simply because she is dating a famous pop star but also because her ex-fiancé, the “Ted Lasso” star Jason Sudeikis, had her served with custody papers while she was onstage promoting “Don’t Worry Darling” at CinemaCon in April.
It’s worth noting, too, that a significant portion of Styles’s fan base resents the presence of Wilde in his life and continually whips up social-media trending topics about her in a bid to damage her sophomore film. No matter that if “Don’t Worry Darling” tanks, it would presumably wound their pop idol’s nascent film career: The flames of passion, once fanned, blow indiscriminately in every direction.
Because of all these behind-the-scenes narratives, many expected fireworks at the Venice media session. But having sat through quite a few of these, I knew that the festival press corps is tame and given to blandishments; in the early going, after Wilde, Styles, and the rest took their seats, most of the questions were simply about how Styles managed to juggle his music and movie careers.
“Personally, I find them to be opposite in a lot of ways,” Styles said. “What I like about acting is the feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing.”
But around the halfway mark, a journalist finally broke through the glaze and asked Wilde the big question: Would she like to clear the air about her rumored falling-out with Pugh?
“Florence is a force,” Wilde replied evenly, noting that Pugh would at least walk the red carpet at the film’s Venice premiere. “We are so grateful that she is able to make it tonight despite being in production on ‘Dune.’ I know as a director how disruptive it is to lose an actor even for a day.”
Wilde continued to wax rhapsodic about her leading lady — “I can’t say enough how honored I am to have her as our lead,” she said — and then pivoted: “As for all the endless tabloid gossip and noise out there, the internet feeds itself. I don’t feel the need to contribute. I think it’s sufficiently well-nourished.”
At that, some friendly journalists broke into mild applause, but The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman rose with a follow-up: “I would like to ask about the noise you just mentioned.”
“The question has been answered,” replied the moderator, Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan.
Ritman protested that he had a separate question about Shia LaBeouf, who was initially cast as the male lead in “Don’t Worry Darling” and left the film under disputed, clearly contentious circumstances. In a recent Variety cover story, Wilde claimed she had fired LaBeouf because the actor, who has been accused of abuse by his ex-girlfriend FKA twigs, “was not conducive to the ethos that I demand in my productions.”
LaBeouf replied with a statement declaring he had not been fired but instead quit the film of his own volition, supplying Variety with text messages from Wilde and a video she sent LaBeouf asking him to consider staying on “Don’t Worry Darling.” In the video, Wilde says LaBeouf’s departure could be a “wake-up call for Miss Flo.” Minutes after it leaked online, Wilde’s diminutive nickname for Pugh became a Twitter trending topic.
Still, the moderator of the Venice news conference refused to allow the line of questioning. “I think this question has been answered,” D’Agnolo Vallan said firmly as the other actors on the dais stared neutrally into space. Two more questions were taken from other journalists and then the session wrapped.
“It felt ridiculous,” Ritman told me later, after his inquiry to Wilde was denied. “She hadn’t already answered the question, and it seemed like it had already been carefully arranged with the moderator beforehand.”
But in Venice, as in Hollywood, careful choreography is par for the course. Five minutes after Wilde was asked why Pugh had missed the news conference, her star was photographed sauntering down a deck in Venice, dressed to the nines in purple Valentino. Maybe her plane went through Newark?