Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
There’s a quite remarkable scene in an otherwise entertaining but mediocre movie made in 1935, The Nitwits, starring the long-forgotten comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Bob Woolsey. Mary Roberts (Betty Grable), office assistant to music publishing CEO Winfield Lake (Hale Hamilton), suffers an unwanted sexual advance from her married boss when he puts his hand on her wrist. Mary calmly lifts his hand off her wrist and says, “I’d rather you not do that again” — a rare moment of women’s empowerment in a 1935 film about office work.
It was far more common in the 1930’s for Hollywood to tell women that if they wanted a career in business, being sexually harassed was just part of the dues they had to pay. A typical movie in that genre was a 1932 Warner Bros. production bluntly called She Had to Say Yes, which starred Loretta Young as a secretary to an executive at a fashion company. She’s given what at first appears to be a promotion to sales representative — a “customer’s girl,” she’s called in the script — but she soon learns that the people she has to say yes to are the buyers for major department stores, who expect to have sex with her in exchange for ordering her company’s clothes to sell in their stores.
So, to paraphrase a line from a classic Hollywood film far better known than either of these two, it’s bizarre to watch people in the movie industry today act shocked, shocked! by the revelation that Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Studio and the Weinstein Company, not only relentlessly harassed and made unwanted advances to women seeking work both behind and in front of the cameras, but essentially organized his studios as pimping machines for him.
The simple fact is that much of the history of show business in general and the movie industry in particular consists of middle-aged rich guys with power dangling the prospects of fame and fortune in front of nubile young women, and saying, “All these can be yours, if only … ” Occasionally, as with William Randolph Hearst and his long-time mistress Marion Davies, there was genuine love, affection and a long-term commitment involved. Usually, though, the grandees of Hollywood treated their fuck objects de jour as disposable commodities: use once (or a few times) and then throw away because there’ll be plenty more where they came from.
It’s been an open secret in Hollywood for decades, admitted to in the phrase “the casting couch” and jokes like the one about the actress, caught in the middle of a troubled production that’s run way over budget and schedule, lamenting, “Just who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?” All the legendary names of Hollywood history — Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and the rest — had legends surrounding them of the (metaphorical) revolving doors in their offices that whirled their latest victims in and out, each one with stars in their eyes hoping that for the sake of this indignity there would be untold riches and worldwide fame coming to them later on.
The secret made its way into American literature in a number of novels about Hollywood, most blatantly Norman Mailer’s 1955 book The Deer Park. Mailer made his point obvious by his title, a reference to the French King Louis XV and his conversion of one of the private gardens at Versailles into what he called his “deer park,” where he could stroll around his naked mistresses and pick the one (or more) he wanted to cavort with just them. In the novel’s most chilling scene, studio executive Herman Teppis — a character obviously based on real-life Columbia studio head Harry Cohn — is receiving a blow job from a woman crouched under his desk. While he’s being “pleasured” he makes a mental note to make sure she never gets a job in Hollywood again.
In her 1988 memoir Child Star, Shirley Temple Black recounted being pursued by Hollywood producers David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed, both of whom chased her around their desks while, no longer a child but not yet at the age of consent, she signed with them to make a comeback as a teenager. No one really cared, probably because by the time she made the accusations both Selznick and Freed were long dead. People are still watching the works of these two men, among the most tasteful, intelligent and both commercially and artistically successful producers in Hollywood history, and we’d be poorer as a culture without their films.
Other Hollywood stars fought off unwanted attentions from their producers with the same sort of wit that was their stock in trade on screen. In his biography of Judy Holliday, Gary Carey recounts one day in which a lecherous producer was chasing her around his desk, continually lunging at her breasts with his hands. Holliday reached down into her chest, pulled out the falsies she was wearing, and threw them at the producer, saying, “You want ’em so bad — you can have ’em!” It’s a line one can readily imagine coming from a Judy Holliday movie.
So Harvey Weinstein was right, in a way, when he said as an excuse for his behavior that he came up in an era (the 1950’s and 1960’s) when sexual harassment was taken far less seriously than it is now — indeed, when it was regarded as one of the legitimate perks of being a boss. Of course, that was no excuse: it was wrong when David O. Selznick and Arthur Freed chased an underage Shirley Temple around their office desks in the early 1940’s, and it was wrong when Harvey Weinstein used his physical bulk to corner women and force his tongue (or more) down their throats. But it adds to the sense I have, as a fan of old movies and a student of Hollywood’s politically Byzantine and sexually sordid history, that Weinstein is being punished for the sins of a lot of his colleagues, past and present.
Weinstein a Throwback
The myth surrounding Harvey Weinstein was that he was a major figure in the rise of independent film in the 1990’s and 2000’s, and that despite his personal boorishness he made “classy,” high-quality film that elevated the caliber of American moviemaking and gave opportunities to visionary directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. The reality of Harvey Weinstein is that he was a chip off the block of Old Hollywood, similar to the moguls of the classic era not only in his tendency to treat the women in his employ as his own private “deer park” but his egomania and his bullying tactics against quality filmmakers pursuing an artistic vision.
Miramax and the Weinstein Company weren’t the first U.S. film studios founded by a pair of feuding brothers, one of whom worked directly with filmmakers as a creative producer while the other hung back from the limelight and ran the business end of the company. That was also the division of labor between studio head Jack Warner and financial manager Harry Warner at Warner Bros.; between studio head Harry Cohn and financial manager Jack Cohn at Columbia; and between studio head Walt Disney and financial manager Roy Disney at Disney.
Indeed, the tensions in this sort of relationship between people who are both biological siblings and business partners can get even nastier than many professional breakups between people who aren’t related. In the world of rock music, we’ve seen spectacular fallings-out between Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks, and Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. The dynamics in this sort of relationship are to me summed up by a famous anecdote of the argument Walt and Roy Disney over Walt’s decision to shoot the three half-hour episodes of his Davy Crockett TV mini-series in color. Roy, the how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-pay-the-bills finance guy, said, “Why did you waste all that money shooting Davy Crockett in color? TV isn’t in color!” Walt, the artistic visionary, smiled his gnomic smile and said, “It will be.”
The Weinstein brothers were throwbacks to the Warner, Cohn and Disney brothers temperamentally as well. Harvey was notorious for losing his temper at story conferences and business meetings, and though it clashed with his reputation as a protector of independent films and their creative talent, stories abound of Harvey treating major directors, writers and stars in the same high-handed ways Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and Harry Cohn were notorious for in the classic era. Actress Molly Ringwald published an article on The New Yorker Web site on October 17 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/all-the-other-harveys) in which she discussed her experience of sexual harassment from producers other than Harvey Weinstein, but also mentioned her own non-sexual but still unpleasant and artistically frustrating experience with him.
It happened in 1990, when Ringwald, then 20 years old and a star in John Hughes’ comedies about teen life (especially teen sex life), wanted to prove that she could do more adult roles in more sophisticated stories. She took a role as the female lead in a Weinstein production based on a Graham Greene novel called Loser Take All. “When we began filming, in France, I was warned about the producer, but I had never heard of him and had no reason to fear him,” Ringwald recalled. “The feeling on the set was that he and his brother Bob were becoming powerful and were difficult to work with, and that it was inadvisable to cross them. During a dinner at the Chèvre d’Or, in a tiny medieval village, there was a tense, awkward moment when Harvey became testy toward our British co-workers and accused them of thinking of us Americans as just the ‘little guys in the colonies.’ It was sort of meant as a joke, I suppose, but it made everyone cringe, and all I could think was that the guy was volatile.
While Ringwald didn’t have to deal with Harvey Weinstein hitting on her, she did suffer an indignity that’s been just as common in the filmmaking world as unwanted sexual advances: arbitrary and unwelcome interference in the actual creation of a film. She and her co-star, Robert Lindsay, found themselves “performing new pages that Harvey had someone else write, which were not in the script,” Ringwald said. She and Lindsay “had signed off to do a film adapted and directed by one person [James Scott], and then were essentially asked to turn our backs on him and film scenes that were not what we had agreed to. We hadn’t even finished filming, and the movie was already being taken away from the director.
“After that, the film was completely taken away, recut, and retitled. Weinstein named it Strike It Rich, because he insisted that Americans couldn’t stand to have the word ‘loser’ in a title. He also changed the poster: he had my head stuck onto another body, dressed in a form-fitting, nineteen-fifties-pinup-style dress, with a hand reaching out to accept a diamond, like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I wouldn’t have posed for a picture like that, since it had nothing to do with the character I portrayed; it struck me as ridiculous false advertising.” Not surprisingly, the film bombed at the box office. What’s more, Harvey Weinstein tried to stiff Ringwald on the percentage of its gross receipts she was supposed to be paid, and she had to sue him to get her money.
More recently, Kate Winslet gave an interview to Los Angeles Times reporter Glenn Whipp (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-et-mn-kate-winslet-harvey-weinstein-20171014-story.html) in which she recounted her similar experiences with Harvey Weinstein nearly 20 years later on a 2008 film called The Reader, set in 1950’s Germany, in which Winslet plays a woman trying to conceal the fact that a decade earlier she’d worked at a Nazi extermination camp. When The Reader’s director, Stephen Daldry, told Weinstein he couldn’t deliver the film in time to qualify for the 2008 awards season, Weinstein badgered the film’s producers, Sydney Pollack, Scott Rudin and Carolyn Choa. (Pollack was on his deathbed at the time and Choa was involved because she’d inherited a share of the film from her late husband, Anthony Minghella.)
“I can’t even begin to describe the disgraceful behavior that went on — and I’m actually not going to because it’s a can of worms that I’m not prepared to publicly open — nothing to do with sexual harassment, thankfully, lucky me. My god. I somehow dodged that bullet,” Winslet told Whipp. When the filming was drawing to a close, Winslet explained, “We still had a full four days of shooting of very key scenes that for me — as a person playing that part — were absolutely crucial to the story and to Stephen Daldry, they were as well,” Winslet says. “And Harvey just decided, ‘O.K., we’re done. No more money. I’m pulling the plug.’ We had to stop and were sent home. That was it. And again, this is just on the business side of things, but he was always, always very, very, very unpleasant to deal with. Very.”
Thanks in part to Weinstein’s promotional activities on her behalf, Kate Winslet actually won an Academy Award for her truncated performance in The Reader. But she refused to thank Harvey Weinstein for it in her acceptance speech. “That was deliberate. That was absolutely deliberate,” Winslet told Whipp in the Los Angeles Times. “I remember being told. ‘Make sure you thank Harvey if you win.’ And I remember turning around and saying, ‘No I won’t. No I won’t.’ And it was nothing to do with not being grateful. If people aren’t well-behaved, why would I thank him? … The fact that I’m never going to have to deal with Harvey Weinstein again as long as I live is one of the best things that’s ever happened, and I'm sure the feeling is universal,”
Screwing with the artistic intentions of the directors, writers and actors actually making a film may seem like a lesser sin than screwing, metaphorically or literally, with the nubile young female bodies of the cast, crew and office staff. But it belies Harvey Weinstein’s carefully cultivated image as an avatar of quality filmmaking just as his sexual antics belie all the donations he made to women’s groups and political candidates like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And Weinstein did it again to the French director Olivier Dahan when he filmed Grace of Monaco, about actress Grace Kelly, her abandonment of a Hollywood career to marry Prince Rainier Grimaldi of Monaco, and her successful involvement in Monegasque politics that kept the tiny principality from being taken over by France in the 1960’s.
Olivier Dahan was just coming off his star-making movie La Vie en Rose, a biopic of legendary French singer Édith Piaf, when he made Grace of Monaco. To play Grace Kelly he landed Nicole Kidman — “ironically, a far better and more sophisticated actress than the real one she was playing,” as I wrote in my blog post on the film. Only when the movie was finished, Weinstein pulled rank on Dahan and insisted that he re-edit the film according to Harvey Weinstein’s idea of what an American audience would want. Dahan refused, the two were unable to agree on a version of the film that satisfied both, so Weinstein took the film off his theatrical release list and dumped it on the Lifetime cable-TV network, where it sat oddly next to Lifetime’s cheap productions with unheard-of actors playing clichéd damsel-in-distress stories.
In short, Harvey Weinstein was an old-style producer who successfully merchandised himself as a friend of visionary directors and edgy independent films. He convinced people that he was a man of taste and culture, just as he convinced people that he supported equal rights for women, while treating them like meat in his personal life. “I was always a little mystified that Harvey had a reputation as a great tastemaker when he seemed so noticeably lacking in taste himself,” Molly Ringwald wrote in The New Yorker. “But he did have a knack for hiring people who had it, and I figured that’s what passes for taste in Hollywood.”
The Political Implications
The spectacular fall of Harvey Weinstein proved an unexpected political boon for the radical Right. Progressives both in and out of the entertainment industry had been making great hay out of the abrupt downfalls of Fox News founding president Roger Ailes and his biggest on-air star, commentator Bill O’Reilly, over similar accusations that they’d used their positions to force women to have sex with them. Both lost their jobs over the issue, and Ailes subsequently died. Weinstein has been a convenient cudgel for Rightists to beat Leftists who tried to make a facile — and wrong — link between Ailes’ and O’Reilly’s anti-feminist politics and their sexual behavior. Here was a guy, Harvey Weinstein, who said all the right things about women’s equality, gave to all the candidates and causes that promoted feminist issues like equal pay and reproductive choice, and treated women as shabbily in his workplace as Ailes and O’Reilly did in theirs.
The Weinstein incident proved a lesson we San Diego progressives had already learned the hard way from the spectacular crash and burn of our city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, Bob Filner. As a multi-term Congressmember he had consistently scored a 100 percent voting record on women’s issues from feminist organizations. As Mayor of San Diego, he engaged in a bizarre series of sexual harassments that seemed aimed less at actually getting women to go to bed with him than exorcising some weird demons in his mind, heart or maybe a lower part of his anatomy.
Like disgraced former Democratic Congressmember Anthony Weiner — whose “sexting” unwanted photos of his private parts to women he didn’t otherwise know made him one of the few politicians driven from office by a sex scandal that didn’t involve any actual sex — Filner’s conduct seemed more diseased than depraved. But that didn’t stop San Diego’s Democrats from leading the charge to get him out of office, even though that meant he would likely be replaced by a business-friendly, pro-developer, anti-labor Republican — as he was.
In one recent show, MS-NBC host Rachel Maddow read off a list of people who’d lost hugely important and influential careers overnight as a result of sexual harassment allegations, including Ailes, O’Reilly, Bill Cosby (who counts on both sides of the political fence: in the 1960’s he was a major activist in the civil rights movement but more recently he’d become a hero on the Right for his calls to African-Americans to stay in school, avold the “gangsta” life and not listen to rap music) and Weinstein. Then she mentioned one name that was conspicuously absent from her list: Donald “Grab ’em by the pussy … If you’re a star, they’ll let you get away with it” Trump, who not only got away with it but got to be President of the United States.
One of the ironies is that Trump’s election proved that, though Republicans proclaim themselves the party of “family values,” Republicans actually vote more ideologically than Democrats. Democratic politicians like Filner, Weiner and Elliot Spitzer fell from grace due to sexual allegations because Democratic voters seem more concerned than Republicans with what kind of person their candidates are, and whether they live up to their proclaimed values in their personal lives. (There are exceptions, though; when Republicans impeached President Bill Clinton in 1999 over his inept attempts to lie about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky, Democrats rallied around him and he escaped Senate conviction and removal from office.)
But the main moral of the virtually simultaneous downfalls of Weinstein, Cosby, Ailes and O’Reilly is that sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with political, ideological or even moral values. As one Hollywood executive said to the Los Angeles Times, it’s all about power — and it’s revealing that, like Cosby, Weinstein was exposed when his career was on the downgrade. It’s been a long time since the Weinstein Company released any movies on the level of success, either criminal or commercial, of The English Patient, Pulp Fiction, Chicago, Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech. By the time he was exposed as a serial harasser, Harvey Weinstein was a far less Mcinfluential figure in Hollywood than he’d been at his peak — and that meant he had far less capacity to threaten anyone who exposed him than he’d had at the heyday of his career.
And, as Molly Ringwald wrote in her New Yorker piece, there are far more lecherous males in Hollywood than Harvey Weinstein. “When I was thirteen, a fifty-year-old crew member told me that he would teach me to dance, and then proceeded to push against me with an erection.” she recalled. “When I was fourteen, a married film director stuck his tongue in my mouth on set. At a time when I was trying to figure out what it meant to become a sexually viable young woman, at every turn some older guy tried to help speed up the process. And all this went on despite my having very protective parents who did their best to shield me. I shudder to think of what would have happened had I not had them.”
Ringwald’s most horrifying memory was of an audition she underwent in her 20’s. “I was blindsided … when I was asked by the director, in a somewhat rhetorical manner, to let the lead actor put a dog collar around my neck,” she wrote. “This was not remotely in the pages I had studied; I could not even fathom how it made sense in the story. The actor was a friend of mine, and I looked in his eyes with panic. He looked back at me with an ‘I’m really sorry’ expression on his face as his hands reached out toward my neck.
“I don’t know if the collar ever made it on me, because that’s the closest I’ve had to an out-of-body experience. I’d like to think that I just walked out, but, more than likely, there’s an old VHS tape, disintegrating in a drawer somewhere, of me trying to remember lines with a dog collar around my neck in front of a young man I once had a crush on. I sobbed in the parking lot and, when I got home and called my agent to tell him what happened, he laughed and said, ‘Well, I guess that’s one for the memoirs. … ‘ I fired him and moved to Paris not long after.”
And it’s not just a Hollywood thing, either. U.S. Olympic-medal winning gymnast McKayla Maroney just reported to the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/18/sports/olympics/gymnast-mckayla-maroney-team-doctor-sexual-abuse.html) that she is one of at least 150 young women sexually abused by the U.S.A. Gymnastics team’s doctor, Lawrence Nassar. The story actually broke over a year ago (https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/09/12/former-usa-gymnastics-doctor-accused-abuse/89995734/), but has got a new lease on life from Maroney’s public statement as well as the hyper-awareness of sexual abuse allegations following those against Weinstein.
Maroney told Twitter that Dr. Nassar would sexually assault her and other U.S. women gymnasts under the guise of giving them “medical treatments.” ““It seemed whenever and wherever this man could find the chance, I was ‘treated,’” Maroney told the New York Times. “It happened in London before my team and I won the gold medal, and it happened before I won my silver. For me, the scariest night of my life happened when I was 15 years old. I had flown all day and night with the team to get to Tokyo. He’d given me a sleeping pill for the flight, and the next thing I know, I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment.’ I thought I was going to die that night.”
Another gymnast, Rachael Denhollander, told IndyStar media a similar story over a year ago. “I was terrified,” she remembered. “I was ashamed. I was very embarrassed. And I was very confused, trying to reconcile what was happening with the person he was supposed to be. He’s this famous doctor. He’s trusted by my friends. He’s trusted by these other gymnasts. How could he reach this position in the medical profession, how could he reach this kind of prominence and stature if this is who he is?”
Sexual harassment in the workplace happens, and it happens in every setting where one person has the power to inflict economic or physical harm on another by virtue of their working for him — or her, I suspect. It happens at the empyrean heights of Harvey Weinstein’s (former) position in the movie business, where he opened his arms and promised young women stardom if they’d open their bodies to his dick. It happens in the lowliest office to people who go along with it just for the sake of keeping their minimum-wage jobs and keeping food on their tables for their kids.
And it doesn’t just happen to women, either; there’ve been plenty of reports of Gay male bosses (including former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey) demanding sex from other men in exchange for jobs, promotions or just continued employment. Indeed, I remember reading a series of stories in the San Francisco Queer press in the 1980’s revealing that the founder of San Francisco’s Shanti organization, the group that created the model for support agencies for people with AIDS and HIV, was an equal-opportunity harasser. A Bisexual man, he was hitting on both the men and women in his employ.
I don’t doubt for one minute, human nature (not just male nature!) being what it is, that as women get more power in the workplace and more women rise to important executive positions that give them sweeping powers to hire, promote and fire, we’ll hear more stories about women abusing their positions to force men to have sex with them the way Harvey Weinstein did with women. The problem isn’t one industry, one political tendency or even one gender: it’s with the inequality of power, authority and autonomy inherent in the whole concept of employment: “You do what I say — or else!” Mostly the “you do what I say” has something to do with the actual work, but all too often it doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean we’re helpless to stop it. We can build social awareness of the problem. We can attempt to educate shareholders and managers of corporations that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, and that the short-term profits the efforts of a sexually abusive boss can be giving their bottom line are not worth the long-term discredit and opprobrium that will attach to a company that tolerates such abuse. We can launch boycotts against companies who keep on sexual harassers, and use the power of social media as well as traditional news outlets to explain why.
Harvey Weinstein fell farther and faster than most in Hollywood, partly because he was already on the downgrade, but also because he was taken on by an angry but thoughtful group of women who were willing to hold the industry to account to live up to its stated values. If there’s a heroine in this, it’s probably actress Rose McGowan, who not only has gone public with her own accusation that Harvey Weinstein out-and-out raped her but has mobilized many of his other accusers to step forward.
But Weinstein was able to get away with it for decades because he built enough power to threaten to punish anyone who moved against him — and it’s the power imbalance between employer and employee, more than anything else, that keeps sexual harassment happening. It takes a rare degree of courage and a willingness to risk one’s livelihood for one’s integrity to do what Betty Grable’s character did in the 1935 film The Nitwits — to lift her harassing boss’s hand off her wrist and say, “I’d rather you not do that again” — but that’s what it’s going to take until we figure out a way to run our economy and get our work done without giving people like Harvey Weinstein that kind of authority in the first place.