Will the ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ controversy make it a massive flop?

Tracking the prospects of Olivia Wilde's sexy psycho-thriller, before and after the drama

According to the latest industry projections, Don’t Worry Darling is on course to gross $17-24 million in North America this weekend. For a lavish Marvel blockbuster, that would be pretty disastrous, but Olivia Wilde’s psychological thriller was reportedly made for a modest $20 million. Against all odds, this controversy-plagued movie could become a low-key hit.

It’s reductive to shrug and say “all publicity is good publicity” – though the Cats movie generated lots of witty tweets in 2019, it still tanked at the box office. But in this case, a chaotic rollout seems to have piqued interest in a film that wasn’t necessarily an easy sell. Yes, Don’t Worry Darling has Oscar-nominated Black Widow actress Florence Pugh and pop superstar Harry Styles on the poster, but after watching the trailer, it remains tricky to pigeonhole.

We can see Pugh and Styles are an affluent young couple living in an idyllic yet eery vision of 1950s California. But, we don’t know what direction their story will go in – are we being sold horror, dark romance or even sci-fi here? When marketing a film that pivots on some kind of plot twist – as, spoiler, Don’t Worry Darling seemingly does – there’s a fine line between building intrigue and overdoing the ambiguity. If we have no clue what a movie is about, how do we know if we want to see it?

Florence Pugh attending the premiere of ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ at the Venice International Film Festival. CREDIT: Getty Images

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This is where the controversy – or perhaps more accurately, commotion – may well have helped Wilde’s movie. After a shedload of drama went down at this month’s Venice Film Festival, Don’t Worry Darling isn’t just mysterious, but something we’re all strangely invested in. Some punters will go and see it this weekend just to find out what the fuss is about.

Venice was incredibly messy for Team DWD, but a shadow of scandal was hovering over the film beforehand. In a late-August interview with Variety, Wilde was already having to deny rumours of a feud with Pugh and a hefty pay disparity in Styles’ favour. The latter was especially embarrassing for the director because she had previously praised him in an Instagram post for taking on a supporting role that allowed Pugh “to hold center stage”. Wilde told Variety: “I think the tabloid media is a tool to pit women against one another and to shame them.”

In the same interview, Wilde addressed Shia LaBeouf’s exit from the project in September 2020, which ultimately led to Styles being cast as his replacement. “[LaBeouf] has a process that, in some ways, seems to require a combative energy, and I don’t personally believe that is conducive to the best performances,” Wilde said, adding later in the interview: “Particularly with a movie like this, I knew that I was going to be asking Florence to be in very vulnerable situations, and my priority was making her feel safe and making her feel supported.”

Wilde’s decision to fire LaBeouf sounded admirable and even advisable, especially in light of the actor’s reputation. In December 2020, LaBeouf’s ex FKA Twigs filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress; he denied the allegations, and it was reported seven months later that they had held “productive discussions” to settle the lawsuit.

However, shortly after Wilde’s Variety interview, the actor insisted he left the project of his own accord. A leaked video seemingly shows the director trying to persuade LaBeouf to stay on board. “You know, I think this might be a bit of a wake-up call for Miss Flo,” Wilde says in the video, presumably referring to Pugh. “I want to know if you’re open to giving this a shot with me, with us. If she really commits, if she really puts her mind and heart into it at this point and if you guys can make peace – and I respect your point of view, I respect hers – but if you guys can do it, what do you think? Is there hope? Will you let me know?”

Combined with reports that Styles and Wilde started dating while making the film – something neither has ever confirmed – Don’t Worry Darling looked like tarnished goods ahead of Venice. Then the situation exploded. It was announced that Pugh wouldn’t be attending a press conference to promote the movie, only the red carpet premiere later this evening. Her flight from Budapest, where she is currently shooting Dune: Part II, would apparently touch down too late for the conference.

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Wilde and Styles did attend, but social media was more interested in photos of co-star Chris Pine looking bored beyond belief. At the premiere a few hours later, a reporter asked Pugh what she found “inspiring” about the film. “I think it’s very, very inspiring to see a woman push back and say ‘no’, and question everything,” she replied cryptically. “It’s very exciting to see a woman do that on and off camera.” Meanwhile, the actress’s stylist called her “Miss Flo” in an Instagram post. It was all becoming very Real Housewives of the Hollywood Hills.

The press tour reached peak weird when a clip of Styles appearing to spit on Pine at the premiere went viral. Both actors and Wilde later denied it happened. But by this point, Don’t Worry Darling had become a black hole for online gossip. Only the death of a monarch knocked it out of the news cycle.

So, how has Don’t Worry Darling managed to weather the storm better than other “controversial” movies? Well, none of its cast members has been accused of anything illegal or reprehensible, which is a problem Death on the Nile faced when Armie Hammer became the subject of a sexual assault investigation. And unlike Sia‘s directorial debut Music, its approach to storytelling isn’t the source of the problem: Sia would eventually apologise for her film’s widely criticised depiction of an autistic character played by neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler.

At the same time, it’s not fair to dismiss the noise surrounding Don’t Worry Darling as “harmless gossip” – there’s a strong whiff of misogyny to the way Pugh and Wilde have been portrayed as squabbling rivals while Styles just looks a bit careless with his saliva. But in this case, all the memes, rumours and general messiness might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

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