The Next One
Not too long after the Harvey Weinstein stories broke, I attended a Q&A with Don Murray, an actor who began his film career in the 1950s. Murray’s first major movie role was Bus Stop, starring Marilyn Monroe. He later co-starred with stars such as Eva Marie Saint and Henry Fonda. He was most recently on the Showtime “Twin Peaks” revival. I asked Murray if, in his long career, he had heard about others in Hollywood doing what Weinstein had later done. Murray quickly condemned Weinstein, saying his actions were abhorrent, and expressed sympathy for his victims. I followed up, asking more specifically whether in the 50s or 60s, when he had been a major star, he had heard about sexual harassment or abuse. Murray said that he had, that friends had told him about it.
Murray’s answer stuck with me as I saw the Weinstein furor spread around the media. Stars, political figures, and other celebrities all racing to denounce Weinstein. It all struck me as piling on. Yes, Weinstein’s actions more than justify condemnation. But it’s all too easy to do so after the story broke, and after many others had already spoke out. There’s no risk involved.
The October 23, 2017 issue of Time, lays out, one-by-one, all of the allegations known at the time. The sheer volume is staggering. So too is that many of these came from the 1990s, with one as far back as 1984. Many of us are asking why it took so long for this information to go public. It’s easy to blame the victims for not coming forward, but doing so is both wrong and hurtful. Others knew. Actor-director Sarah Polley, in a New York Times piece, describes being summoned to Weinstein’s office when she was all of 19. Polley recounted: “In the taxi the publicist looked at me and said ‘I’m going in with you, and I’m not leaving your side.’ I knew everything I needed to know in that moment, and I was grateful.” So clearly Polley’s publicist was aware that, at a minimum, something was not right about the way Weinstein treated women. The New York Times also quoted journalist Peter Biskind claiming that when he was writing for Premiere magazine, he wanted to investigate Weinstein allegations in 1991, but Weinstein’s company Miramax threatened to pull advertising.
What about Weinstein friends such as Quentin Tarantino? Weinstein helped get Tarantino started by distributing Reservoir Dogs, and has backed all of his other films. In a New York Times interview, Tarantino explained that “Everyone who was close to Harvey had heard of at least one of those incidents... It was impossible they didn’t.” He added that “I chalked it up to a ’50s-’60s era image of a boss chasing a secretary around the desk, as if that’s O.K. That’s the egg on my face right now.” In a startling piece of candor Tarantino admitted that “I knew enough to do more than I did.” But the most unsettling admission Tarantino made is that Hollywood has been “operating under an almost Jim Crow-like system that us males have almost tolerated. We allowed it to exist because that’s the way it was.”
Biskind describes silencing, and Tarantino describes tolerance. Both appear true. Time referred to Hollywood as having a “see something, say nothing” culture when it comes to sexual abuse. Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s similar to what was uncovered about the Catholic Church, Penn State, plenty of other colleges around the U.S., and the military. All operated, or still operate, under insular systems where those in charge take care of problems themselves. Except they don’t take care of the problems, they keep them under wraps. Harvey Weinstein had a whole army of publicists, handlers and other employees paid to make him look clean.
The tolerance Tarantino spoke of made me think of the scene early in The Godfather, when studio head Jack Woltz bemoans how a starlet he had developed had left the business: “And let me be even more frank, just to show you that I’m not a hard-hearted man, that it’s not all dollars and cents. She was beautiful! She was young, she was innocent. She was the greatest piece of ____ I've ever had, and I've had ‘em all over the world.” Woltz may have been fictional, but his attitude was real, and very common.
Industry historian Neal Gabler wrote that “Harvey Weinstein fancied himself an old-style, hard-charging movie mogul, a Louis B. Mayer, a Jack Warner, a Darryl Zanuck, a Harry Cohn, and fought hard to cultivate that image with all the ugliness it entailed... Zanuck ordered female contract players to his office for afternoon liaisons. Mayer pursued starlets and was accused by one of Judy Garland's biographers of having groped her. Warner was a compulsive womanizer who would ask of directors about prospective actresses: ‘Would you f-ck her?’” New York Times critic Manhola Dargis cited another historian, Scott Eyman, who noted that “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — the studio that bore Mayer’s name and boasted that it had more stars than there are in heaven — had a supply “of what were known as ‘six-month-option girls’ to be passed around the executive offices.” Dargis added that “If this seems, well, normal it is because this tawdry glimpse into the industry — with its powerful men and passed-around girls — is deeply embedded in its history, its lore and its very identity.” In a recent Hollywood Reporter, actress Janis Page, now 95, gives a vivid recollection of a sexual assault in the 1940s at the hand of her director’s friend.
In other words, Hollywood had a sexual abuse problem going back long before Harvey Weinstein was born. For those in charge having their way with women, whether the women wanted to or not, was one of their perks along with the big office and a chauffeur. As always with abuse, it was as much about power as it was about sex. The abusers had considerable power, and the victims had virtually none.
As Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote, the outcome of a victim speaking out “was entirely predictable. A woman who spoke up risked losing standing in her profession, or at the very least being labeled a whiner who didn’t know how to play their game. And a man in power would lose nothing. If anything, he’d just grow more powerful.” This was true in the studio era, and was still true until a few weeks ago.
Any victims had to face a simple cost-benefit analysis: What was to be gained from coming forward? Not much. As Zacharek noted they would be considered the problems. The allegations would be “he said, she said.” What was to be lost by coming forward? Possibly their entire careers. Add in the trauma of having to relive and recount what had happened. So no, I don’t blame any of the victims for not having come forward earlier.
But what about people in the industry that had more power, such as Tarantino and others who worked with Weinstein or other abusers? Go back to Tarantino saying that “We allowed it to exist because that’s the way it was.” Perhaps they also saw coming forward as a cost-benefit analysis. Doing nothing is always easier.
So Weinstein is gone, for the time being anyway. What happens now? An Entertainment Weekly article quotes a TV showrunner saying “I heard a man say that he called his buddies, asking, ‘Are you worried now?’ And they’re all saying, ‘I’m shaking in my boots.’” Good. You would hope that a moral compass would stop someone from abusing or harassing women, but if it takes fear, than so be it. The same article maintains that “Hollywood has been called the ultimate fear-driven town, so a combination of empowering victims and threatening abusers with exposure and career implosion is like the primordial ingredients of a sea change.” Actress Alyssa Milano started the #MeToo campaign encouraging women who have experienced abuse or harassment to come forward. Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy is trying to set up a commission to develop “new, industry-wide protections against sexual harassment and abuse.” Over 38 women have come forward with accusations against director James Toback. And as I finish writing this column, new allegations have surfaced about Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Piven.
But is all of that enough? Just as the Hollywood’s sexual harassment and abuse problem existed long before Weinstein, it’s naïve to think that this wave of awareness will solve the problem. John Oliver pointed out that, while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and Mel Gibson are among those who remain. Woody Allen warned against a witch hunt mentality, perhaps not realizing he wasn’t the best person to make that case. But it doesn’t have to be a choice between a witch hunt and willful ignorance or cover-up. The accused should always have a right to defend themselves, but the case has to come forward first.
The Weinstein scandal and its aftermath will eventually fade from the news. What happens a year from now when a victim comes forward? Five years from now? Ten? If, and much more likely when, another Hollywood power player sexually abuses or harasses someone, will there be a safe way for the victim to speak out? Will there be a mechanism to allow the victim's voice to be heard, and to hold offenders accountable? The various companies and corporations involved in Hollywood need clear sexual harassment policies with clear consequences. Yes, there is potential for a “sea change” but this could also be just a blip before a return to a culture of silence and complicity. Time will tell whether those in Hollywood who hurt women will still be “shaking in their boots.” For too long that’s been the victims’ role.
November 1, 2017
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