Working with Weinstein: What happened in Ireland

Alleged misbehaviour after ‘Into the West’ filming probed by Channel 4 documentary

Harvey Weinstein (centre) and his brother, Bob Weinstein, at Miramax offices in New York in 1989. A new Channel 4 documentary, Working With Weinstein, focused on backroom staff. Photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty

Harvey Weinstein (centre) and his brother, Bob Weinstein, at Miramax offices in New York in 1989. A new Channel 4 documentary, Working With Weinstein, focused on backroom staff. Photograph: Barbara Alper/Getty

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You would think there was little else to be said about the outrages of Harvey Weinstein, but Working for Weinstein, a documentary on Channel 4, dragged up new (if not exactly “fresh”) aspects of the grimiest scandal to hit Hollywood since the McCarthyite blacklists.

Many of the headlines have focused on the sexual abuse meted out to celebrities. Those stories were worth highlighting. But, somewhere in the mix, the struggles of the women who worked with Weinstein each day have been overlooked. It was people like Zelda Perkins, the producer’s former assistant, and Laura Madden, a Monaghan woman who moved into his orbit while working on the film Into the West, who finally helped nudge the grubby outrages into the spotlight. The programme offers answers to some nagging questions. How did this not emerge sooner? Why did others look elsewhere?

“If it had come out five years ago we wouldn’t have been listened to,” Perkins says. “Harvey was still powerful enough. I don’t think the environment was right.”

Madden agrees. “There have been people trying for 20 years to break this story. It has taken this length of time. At least it has brought a conversation into the public that will help industries that don’t have a voice.”

Madden, who later worked for Miramax, the company Harvey founded with his brother, Bob, found herself invited to a hotel room with the boss. We are now grimly familiar with what followed

Madden, Perkins and others included in the film have already done plenty for those working in the less-exposed corners of the film industry. Their story reminds us how malign authority can be pressed home on an hourly basis. Their testimonies concern rampant abuse of hierarchies. One of the most shocking anecdotes in Working for Weinstein has nothing directly to do with sex. A former assistant describes how, in his eagerness to get to a door, Weinstein pushed her to the floor as if she were an inanimate object. “Don’t work for me any more, you mongoloid c**t!” he then bellowed. There are few happy options for women in such positions.

Sad to relate, the story begins in Ireland. Madden, who later worked for Miramax, the company Harvey founded with his brother, Bob, found herself invited to a hotel room with the boss. We are now grimly familiar with what followed. He demanded a massage. He settled for massaging her. Then he began touching himself. Madden articulately explains how, as a young woman, she was made to feel it was she who was “making it a problem”.

It soon became an open secret within Miramax – and, later, the Weinstein Company – that no woman should enter Harvey’s hotel suite alone. The women staff took to wearing Puffa jackets to make themselves look less attractive. They learned to sit in armchairs rather than on sofas, so he would have no room for an incursion.

Efforts were, however, made to fight back.

Harvey leaned on people. Harvey terrified members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into voting the right way at Oscar time

After Harvey’s alleged assault of a friend at the Venice Film Festival, Perkins approached lawyers and asked about legal action. The learned friends noted it would be the alleged victim’s word against that of the powerful Harvey Weinstein. The event happened in another jurisdiction. That was also a problem. Zelda eventually negotiated a financial settlement with Weinstein. After that incident Weinstein and his associates instituted a network of nondisclosure agreements that made future hush-money payments unnecessary (at least until the recent dam bursts).

None of this would have worked if Weinstein didn’t have something to sell that was worth buying. The British producer Stephen Woolley, a frequent collaborator in the glory days, is to be commended for agreeing to appear on screen. He admits that it was useful, professionally, to have somebody else do the strong-arming for you. Harvey leaned on people. Harvey terrified members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into voting the right way at Oscar time. “I’m glad he’s doing this, because I’d hate to do it,” Woolley says with some regret.

The documentary ultimately presses home the ease with which an aggressive bully can be a tyrant in any workplace. Office staff, waitresses, medical staff, army personnel: all can be victims of similar techniques. The glamour isn’t the story. Misuse of power is the story.

The programme ends with a statement from Weinstein denying all the accusations made above. We’ll see how that works out.

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