Ben Stiller Has a Very Naive Opinion About Hollywood and Nepotism

The actor faced backlash on social media after claiming Hollywood is a meritocracy

Honoree Ben Stiller poses at the 2019 Rosie's Theater Kids Fall Gala at The New York Marriott Marquis on November 18, 2019 in New York City. Stiller is under fire for his comments on nepotism in Hollywood.
Ben Stiller poses at the 2019 Rosie's Theater Kids Fall Gala
Bruce Glikas/WireImage

On Thursday, news of The Rightway, a film directed by Steven Spielberg’s daughter Destry Spielberg, broke. The film stars Hopper Penn — the son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright — and was written by Stephen King’s son, Owen King, so as you might imagine, it sparked a conversation on social media about nepotism. Ben Stiller, who of course is the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, took it upon himself to weigh in on the issue, and get this: he doesn’t think having Hollywood parents provides any sort of leg up.

The actor weighed in after Vanity Fair contributing editor Franklin Leonard tweeted out the news about The Rightway and wrote, “Hollywood’s a meritocracy, right?” “Too easy,” Stiller responded. “People, working, creating. Everyone has their path. Wish them all the best.”

“Just speaking from experience, and I don’t know any of them, I would bet they all have faced challenges,” he added. “Different than those with no access to the industry. Showbiz as we all know is pretty rough, and ultimately is a meritocracy.”

 “I don’t for a second doubt that they’ve all faced challenges,” Leonard responded. “They’re human. I simply reject the claim that the industry is — in the short term or long term — a meritocracy. If it were, how do you explain the utter lack of diversity behind the camera? Lack of merit?”

Stiller relented on Leonard’s (very good) point about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, but he still wouldn’t admit that there are untalented people succeeding in Hollywood because of who their parents are. “100 percent agree. Diversity is much bigger issue. No question. And I see your point, access is access. So yes. I’m saying that untalented people don’t really last if they get a break because of who they are or know or are related to.” 

“Numbers don’t lie,” Leonard responded. “Based only on the exclusion of other folks, statistically speaking, roughly 1/3 of the industry has their job not because of merit, but because of other factors (who they know, colonial legacy, sexism, whatever). And we both know plenty of unqualified people who manage to stay employed for reasons other than their talent, though both of us have enough decorum not to name names. It’s not just access. It’s undervaluation. It’s active discrimination. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Hollywood film C-suite is the least diverse sector in American business. Less diverse than Trump’s cabinet.”

He’s right, of course. There’s statistical proof that anyone who isn’t a white man has a harder time breaking into the industry, and to argue that has anything to do with “merit” is racist and sexist. Stiller, it seems, can admit that much. But why dig his heels in and pretend that “untalented people don’t really last if they get a break because of who they are or know or are related to”? Obviously he’s sensitive about the implication that he got where he did on the backs of his famous parents, but there should be no shame in admitting your privilege. There’s room for nuance; not everyone who got their foot in the door because of connections they may have had is a talentless, undeserving hack — but some certainly are, and to pretend otherwise is just being intentionally obtuse.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.