Harvey Weinstein is no longer getting away with it. That’s good
The film business isn’t as bad as it once was for sexual misconduct. But it’s still pretty awful
Viewed from a certain angle, the revelations concerning Harvey Weinstein constitute a good news story. The co-founder of Miramax Pictures, a driving force in 1990s independent film culture, has long had a reputation for unorthodox business practices.
Rumours concerning sexual abuse were legion, but Weinstein’s continuing authority seemed likely to shut down any public accusations.
A recent exposé in the New York Times confirmed that some shift in power structures had taken place. It was revealed that Weinstein had reached settlements with at least eight women for sexual harassment.
Depressing stories emerged of Weinstein inviting woman to his hotel room and asking them to watch him shower. Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd were among the actors pointing the finger.
The good news here is that the accusers are now taken seriously. After decades of muttering behind hands, something actually happened last week. And it happened quickly.
The mogul first went on a leave of absence from the Weinstein Company – the firm he founded after he and his brother bequeathed Miramax to Disney in 2005 – and was then sacked following further revelations. Chickens are coming home to roost all over the Coast.
Sexual harassment happens in all nearly industries. But there has always been something especially grim about employment practices in the movie industry. It is from that world that the phrase “casting couch” was drawn.
Since the studios first opened their doors in the Hollywood Hills, inappropriate jokes about misused starlets have been doing the rounds. Nothing better presses these truths home than the details of a “manifesto for casting” that Equity, the UK actors’ union, published in 2015.
The document’s guidelines helpfully explained that “no sex act should be requested at any audition” and that “a performer should not be requested to undress in whole or in part unless a mutually agreed observer is present”.
An employee in any other profession – bar pornography – could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Do these things really need to be said? Do we also need to clarify that no auditionee should have a finger severed?
Any ruffle through a library of Hollywood autobiographies will confirm that Equity’s concerns were well founded. A normalisation of the abnormal has been afoot for decades (centuries in the theatre).
“I just went into a room and a guy practically threw me on the desk,” Susan Sarandon said of an experience in the 1970s. “It was my early days in New York, and it was really disgusting. It wasn’t like I gave it a second thought. It was so badly done.”
Earlier this year, in an interview with the BBC, Jane Fonda confirmed that being Hollywood royalty was no protection. “I’ve been fired because I wouldn’t sleep with my boss, and I always thought it was my fault; that I didn’t do or say the right thing,” she said.
In his pathetic defence, Harvey Weinstein argued that he was a victim of generational differences. “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different,” he said.
What he says is not untrue. But there has never been a time when everyday moralists believed trading sexual favours for work was appropriate. If that were the case then the practice would have been discussed openly. Heck, if nobody minded, then such exchanges would have been included in formal contracts of employment.
Such abuses are the result of unequal distribution of power. Historically, men would report to other men about their experiences in the audition room. The studio bosses reported only to God. Word has it that, for a few years in the mid-1990s, God reported to Harvey Weinstein.
The power imbalance is heightened by Hollywood’s continuing inability to spread roles evenly across the genders. A recent survey found that only a third of speaking roles in the top-100 grossing movies were female. If the parts are in shorter supply then the person who allocates the jobs has still more opportunity to abuse that authority.
All this is shifting steadily. With more women in positions of power there is greater chance that accusers will be believed. It is difficult to imagine accusations from misused actresses ousting a mogul in Hollywood’s golden era.
If the lurid histories of Kenneth Anger and the admittedly heightened fantasies of James Elroy tell us anything, then such an accuser could have found herself in the trunk of a Plymouth on the way to Lake Tahoe.
Gender politics in Hollywood are awful. But they’re a little less awful than they once were.
One of the more amusing sideshows was the accusation of double standards from the political right. Oh, the liberals were happy to berate president Donald Trump, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly and former Fox chief executive Roger Ailes when evidence emerged of their inappropriate behaviour towards women, but none of these lefties would say a word against Weinstein. Right?
Stephen Miller of Fox News described: “the silent left’s stunning hypocrisy”.
In fact Democrats were elbowing one another to put distance between themselves and Harvey. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said he would pass a donation from Weinstein on to women’s charities. Senator Elizabeth Warren did the same.
Donald Trump’s depressing (indeed, still scarcely believable) political survival following the leaked tapes of his vile braggadocio last October suggested that sexual harassment was still regarded as no great enormity.
But such allegations did force Ailes and O’Reilly from Fox. They have now forced the producer of Pulp Fiction into a comfortable corner of the wilderness. Notwithstanding the Trump case, there has been a change in attitudes.