The Horror Story You Should Know Before You See Bombshell

The women who triggered the downfall of Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes take center stage in Jay Roach's intense drama about the toxic atmosphere at America's top-rated cable news network

By Natalie Finn Jan 03, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Watch: "Bombshell" Stars Tell Why the FOX News Story Is Important

In her 2015 memoir Getting Real, Gretchen Carlson recounted why she was compelled to leave CBS for Fox News a decade prior.

First, she hoped to one day host her own national daily morning show. And second, she wanted to work with Roger Ailes.

"I thought Ailes was brilliant," Carlson wrote, describing the Fox News CEO's prescient idea to reserve the network's prime-time lineup for opinion shows, guessing that people who'd been consuming straightforward news all day would want to be entertained at night by his stable of conservative-leaning presenters.

She further described Ailes as "razor sharp and inscrutable," and they "seemed to have a real connection." Carlson wrote, "Over the years, I've come to value our time together. He encourages me to be myself, to relax, and to not try so hard to look smart." Ailes sent handwritten notes, so she'd do the same. He was "the most accessible boss" she'd ever worked with, and "he always has the capacity to surprise."

In 2016, Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes, alleging he sexually harassed her and eventually fired her for rejecting his advances.

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But let's go back a few years.

Gabriel Sherman reported in his 2014 Ailes biography The Loudest Voice in the Room that, back in the 1980s, when he was executive producer of the NBC late-night show Tomorrow, Ailes offered unemployed TV producer Randi Harrison, who was there seeking a job, a pay bump if she would sleep with him.


According to the book, which last year was turned into a Golden Globe-nominated limited series on Showtime starring an unrecognizable Russell Crowe as Ailes and Naomi Watts as Carlson, Harrison remembered the executive telling her, "I have helped a lot of women get ahead and advance their careers in the broadcast television industry." He offered her $400 a week, which she said was too low. "If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want," she says he countered, "I will add an extra hundred dollars a week." (Ailes and his supporters at the network blasted the anecdote as a fiction.)

John Lithgow, buried in prosthetics, plays Ailes in Jay Roach's new film Bombshell, the second onscreen Ailes saga of 2019 that focuses on the women of Fox News who finally decided enough was enough. Nicole Kidman plays Carlson, while Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, Fox News' shiniest star at the time the scandal erupted, and Margot Robbie is Kayla Pospisil, an aspiring anchor whose character is a composite of women who've said they were preyed on by Ailes.

And both she and Theron have been applauded for their work, up for best actress and best supporting actress honors at Sunday's Golden Globes

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

"I think the tone of it is what's surprising to people," Theron told E! News at the Los Angeles premiere of Bombshell. "And also, the fact that you feel like you may know the story, but it's really surprising how much people really forgot about the nuance of the story. And also, just in general, the themes of sexual harassment and where that lives in that gray area is something that I think is really kind of amplified in this. And people are really surprised by how complicated all of that stuff is."

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Theron had soured on the idea of trying to tell another story about the scourge of sexual harassment after she made 2005's North Country, based on a true story about a woman who fought back against rampant mistreatment of her and fellow female workers at a Minnesota mine. "Nobody gave a s--t," the Oscar winner, who's been nominated for a SAG Award along with the Golden Globe for her performance as Kelly, told The Hollywood Reporter recently, recalling the reaction, or lack thereof, to the film. 

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

But then, two months before the New York Times and New Yorker investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein dynamited the floodgates that had entrapped women (and men's) stories for decades, Theron read the Bombshell script by Charles Randolph, winner of a best adapted screenplay Oscar along with Adam McKay for The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis' book about the lead-up to the 2008 global financial crisis.

"My walls were up," Theron admitted, "but it was so good, and so contemporary." She's also a producer on the film.

As for Kidman, she said Big Little Lies season two co-star Meryl Streep basically ordered her to take on the pivotal role of Carlson (while, incidentally, her longtime friend Naomi Watts was doing the same for a different production).

"I wanted to work with Charlize, I wanted to work with Jay Roach—who I'd never worked with, and who is divine, probably the nicest person in Hollywood," the Australian actress told E! News in October. "And I so wanted to work with Margot as well...but Meryl did say, 'Yeah, you have to do it.'"

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So, back to July 2016, when Carlson, two weeks after Fox News didn't renew her contract, blew the whistle on Ailes in a lawsuit—just a year after singing his praises in Getting Real, a play on the show she had hosted on the network since 2013, The Real Story With Gretchen Carlson. Before that, she was a co-host on Fox and Friends.

Per NBC News, the complaint alleged that Ailes had systematically denied Carlson "fair compensation, desirable assignments and other career-enhancing opportunities in retaliation for her complaints of harassment and discrimination and because she rejected his sexual advances." That included her removal from Fox and Friends, the suit claimed.

She confronted Ailes and he replied, "'I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago and then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better,'" the suit further alleged. Carlson also claimed that Fox and Friends co-host Steve Doocy "created a hostile work environment by regularly treating her in a sexist and condescending way," and when she reported his behavior to Ailes, her boss called her a "man-hater."

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"It was good that my kids were away," she would recall in her 2017 book Be Fierce: Stop Harassment and Take Your Power Back. "I didn't want them to see the reporters parking their cars outside our house, or hear the phone ringing at all hours of the night. I sat there alone, enduring it…This was the hardest thing I had ever done. And it was still Wednesday. I was sleepless for the first forty-eight hours."

Ailes denied acting inappropriately with Carlson, or with anyone, firing back that her claims were "without merit," and his number-one-rated guy, Bill O'Reilly, fervently defended him on Late Night With Seth Meyers days later.

"Best boss I have ever had," the O'Reilly Factor host said. "Straight shooter, always honest with me. And I believe that over the years—he's been in the business for 50 years—95 percent of the people who have worked for Roger Ailes would say exactly the same thing that I just told you. In this country, every famous, powerful or wealthy person is a target. I'm a target. You're a target. At anytime, someone could come out and sue us, hack us, go to the press, anything like that. And that's a deplorable situation."

He concluded, "I stand behind Roger 100 percent."

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Which made sense, because over those 20 years Ailes had helped shield O'Reilly from facing any serious repercussions over the host's own alleged behavior. (O'Reilly has maintained he didn't do anything wrong, that he too was railroaded by false accusations.)

A week later, Ailes accepted a $40 million severance package and resigned, after which the media mastermind who helped get Richard Nixon elected in 1972 served as an unofficial adviser to Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

"Roger Ailes has made a remarkable contribution to our company and our country," News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch said in a statement. "Roger shared my vision of a great and independent television organization and executed it brilliantly over 20 great years."

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That August, erstwhile Fox News host Andrea Tartaros also sued her former work place, alleging she was retaliated against after complaining about Ailes' behavior.

She said in the lawsuit that "Fox News masquerades as a defender of traditional family values, but behind the scenes, it operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult, steeped in intimidation, indecency and misogyny." (A judge later ordered the complaint to arbitration; a second lawsuit, alleging that Ailes had her under surveillance, was dismissed in 2018.)

Though his spirit remains alive at Fox News, the number-one rated cable news network thanks to his prime-time vision, Ailes died in May 2017 of injuries suffered in a fall at his Palm Beach, Fla., home. He was 77.

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In November 2016, Carlson teared up in an interview with ABC News as she read one of countless letters she'd received thanking her for bravely speaking up—for herself and for others who felt that didn't have a voice to fight back with.

"I never thought I was going to be in this position," she told Amy Robach. But asked about being called an "unlikely feminist," the former Miss America groaned. "I know, I don't like that title," Carlson said. "Listen, I have been fighting for women my entire life. People who've known me all along know that about me."

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Carlson wrote in 2015's Getting Real about her response to being sexually harassed by an unnamed PR executive she had a meeting with in Los Angeles: "I'm embarrassed to say I didn't flee, although in that unfamiliar setting I'm not sure where I would have gone. But I spent sleepless nights wondering what I should do next. Should I tell someone? I thought of the innocent young women who would be crossing these high-profile predators' paths, and it upset me.

"But whom could I tell? Who would believe me? In my heart I knew that such a he-said, she-said scenario would never favor me. These men were just too powerful. I imagined myself being characterized as a tease, a liar, and worse, and I was frozen with terror. I'm not proud of it, but I stayed silent."

But she did eventually speak up about Ailes, knowing she was risking her career due to his outsized power in the media world.

Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock, Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Her story about Ailes was, if not corroborated, further validated by Megyn Kelly, who in her own November 2016 book Settle for More detailed instances when she too was subjected to Ailes' harassment, including inappropriate sexual comments and attempts to kiss her on the mouth.

"Roger had made sure I knew the stakes," Kelly wrote, "telling me: 'I don't like to fight, but when I do, I fight to kill.' The message could not have been clearer: 'If you tell anyone, I will destroy you.'"

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Ailes had a habit of locking the door when she was in his office, Kelly said at Business Insider's Ignition Conference in 2017.

"You would sort of shrug it off, because he was known to be very paranoid about security," she recalled. "But that feeling I'll never forget of going in there and having him lock that door. So it culminated in him trying to be with me physically. And it was only at that point where you couldn't pretend it wasn't happening anymore that I really had to come to terms with it and I ran out of the guy's office and he tried to grab me three times—make out with me, which he didn't.

"But I had to shove him off of me. And he came back. And I shoved him again, and he came back a third time. And then when I shoved him off a third time he asked me when my contract was up."

Frank Franklin II/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Kelly also revealed in her book that she was asked to defend Ailes' honor when Carlson sued him in July 2016.

"I was approached several times, and several times I refused," she wrote. "There was no way I was going to lie to protect him. When I refused, he engineered hit pieces about me online, which cited 'Fox News insiders,' to suggest that I was being 'selfish' for not defending him or looking to improve 'my brand' by having a 'feminist moment.' It wasn't true and it didn't work."

When an internal investigation into Ailes began, and she knew his allies were trying to limit the scope to his stalwart supporters, Kelly picked up the phone and called Lachlan Murdoch, telling the executive chairman of 21st Century Fox that a real investigation needed to be conducted into Ailes' behavior. She figured that if he had never done to anyone else what he'd done to her, "he likely had nothing to fear." If it was a pattern...

Days later, Ailes stepped down.

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In the meantime, however, Kelly's name had been leaked to the press, adding her to the ranks of Ailes "accusers." She had wanted her involvement to stay private, but the upside, she later wrote, was all the text messages she received from current and former colleagues relaying more or less the same thing: "Megyn, it happened to me too."

"I appreciated that she told the truth, and I know it was risky," Carlson told the Washington Post after her old boss had stepped down. As for the Ailes defenders, including Sean Hannity, Maria Bartiromo and Neil Cavuto, she was surprised that they were being so willing to pass judgment amid ongoing litigation, but "I know how it works. You could sense that it all was orchestrated."

That September, Fox settled Carlson's lawsuit for a reported $20 million and issued an apology stating that they regretted that Carlson "was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve."

And so Carlson embarked on her next chapter: advocating for the fair, respectful treatment of women, and encouraging others to speak their own truth.

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While part of the response to her speaking out was a flood of support, such as the letter she tearfully read to Amy Robach that November, then there was the flip side—the angry side full of people who thought she was full of it.

Including women, who—judging by the type of vitriol directed at Dr. Christine Blasey Ford from self-described conservative women who were outraged by what they claimed was Ford's attempt to ruin now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's life with an accusation of sexual assault—especially don't like it when the conservatives they favor come under fire. (No one likes it, on either side of the political aisle, but they really don't.)

"It has been sad to me to receive many negative and hurtful messages from women, who clearly do not understand the damage created by sexual harassment," Carlson wrote in Be Fierce. "Like this one: 'I'm disappointed in what you and now every woman is crying about...Be lucky you have what you have, keep your mouth shut, and move on.'"


Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Hollywood Reporter

Meanwhile, in January 2017, Bill O'Reilly agreed to pay Lis Wiehl, a network analyst who had accused him of sexual harassment, $32 million (first reported on by the New York Times 10 months later). In February, Fox renewed his contract for $25 million.

Fox News fired O'Reilly that April, however, after the New York Times reported that he had settled at least five sexual harassment claims from women who had either worked for him or appeared on his show over the years, totaling about $13 million in payouts. In exchange for the money, they agreed not to take legal action.

O'Reilly denied the claims across the aboard, but the marketplace had spoken: Amid the public outrage, advertisers started to boycott his show.

That October, in the Times' report on the $32 million, O'Reilly was quoted as saying, "It's politically and financially motivated and we can prove it with shocking information, but I'm not going to sit here in a courtroom for a year and a half and let my kids get beaten up every single day of their lives by a tabloid press that would sit there, and you know it." (His attorney said O'Reilly and Wiehl were friends for 18 years and sometimes she gave him legal advice.)

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

Carlson tweeted, "Nobody pays $32m for false allegations - nobody."

The next month, Weinstein happened, and it's been largely forgotten that the reckoning had started at Fox News the year before.

The Loudest Voice, and now Bombshell, may help remedy that.

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"It's quite liberating as an actor to play that kind of role," Watts, who portrayed Carlson in The Loudest Voice, told The Hollywood Reporter this spring. "It feels really juicy and vindicating as well. And again, it speaks to what we're going through currently. I mean, she really was the first."

"...[T]he #MeToo Movement started after [Ailes' ouster]. To take down a man as powerful as Roger is kind of extraordinary," she said.

What she hoped The Loudest Voice would communicate, Watts added, was, "in terms of Gretchen, I think it's an incredibly powerful story in that there are many people who could have been taken down by this level of power, and just to survive in a place that was that misogynistic is incredible. It's also an incredibly encouraging story that she was able to come out with dignity and grace."

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

As for Carlson, she wishes she could have participated more in the telling of her own story, in The Loudest Voice or in Bombshell—or in anything.

But in accepting the $20 million settlement, she signed a nondisclosure agreement, and she's been bound by those terms for the last three years. (Which is why there are no mentions of Ailes or Kelly, or any specific details about what happened to her at Fox News, in Be Fierce.)

Neither Watts nor Kidman was able to meet her, let alone discuss her life story.

Carlson is working on changing that, though. (Numerous women who talked to the press about Weinstein were breaking their own NDAs they had signed in exchange for a payout that maybe seemed fair—or at least it was something—at the time.)

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"It's a strange and frustrating reality that I can't partake in any of these projects based on my settlement, which is why I'm working so hard on Capitol Hill so that nobody else has to be handcuffed anymore," Carlson told Entertainment Weekly in October. "And I'm trying to pass the bill to take the muzzle off of women who face harassment in the workplace so that they're not forced into signing NDAs and have to go to the secret chamber of arbitration where nobody ever knows what the hell happened to them."

Kelly, who left Fox News for NBC News at the beginning of 2017, hasn't had much to say about the onscreen portrayals of Ailes' downfall save for calling her early screening "an incredibly emotional experience for me, and for those with whom I saw it"—but she hasn't had much to say about anything since the ignominious end to her time at NBC in October 2018.

She's been largely avoiding the spotlight, minus an October sit-down with Tucker Carlson on her old network.

Kristina Bumphrey/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock

But caught up with her in September and asked how she felt about Charlize Theron playing her in a movie.

"She seems smart, seems like a good mom, so I could do worse," Kelly said.

"I really feel like nobody would have done these movies three years ago when I jumped off the cliff all by myself in July of 2016," Carlson told EW. "The idea now that Naomi and Nicole have been portraying my character is surreal."

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And though she wasn't involved in the production, "the [Bombshell] trailer got a tremendous amount of attention and for me, that's what this is all about. In the end, I can't participate, but it's all about continuing the dialogue. And if projects like this and the Showtime miniseries keeps people in our society talking about this issue, then that is amazing."

"I want as many people as possible to see this film," Margot Robbie told E! News at the December premiere. "Men, women—everyone. I think it's so important. I think it's so important. You don't have to be aware of the scandal...It's entertaining no matter what, and very thought-provoking."

But you do know about the scandal. And as the story unfolds onscreen, don't forget what went into making sure there was a story to be told at all.

(Originally published Dec. 13, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)