The Harvey Weinstein scandal
ONE week on from the ‘New York Times’ exposé of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, its effects have followed a curious path. In an age of celebrity, news is often only news if someone famous says it. However, in the matter of Weinstein, the whistleblowers have mostly not been well known.
The story has come from temps, former employees, unnamed employees, actresses with quiet careers.
Days later, after the less celebrated had stuck their necks out, the condemnation bandwagon got rolling.
It included his brother, Bob Weinstein, who knew of the settlements with some of the accusers; former Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Weinstein’s “close friend” of 30 years (albeit the kind of close friend who shares private emails with the ‘Hollywood Reporter’); and Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie, who had worked for Weinstein and finally lent their voices in order to say “me too”.
When those two actresses experienced Weinstein’s unpleasant overtures they were young and scared – so there is, really, no judgment here. But their late arrival to the story, along with so many others who knew or could have known, begs a question, because they have since become very powerful, and this is a story about power: who has it, how it’s wielded, the forces that keep it in place.
Could these people really have been fearful of speaking up? Had they signed up to their industry’s omertà? Or did they assume this was par for the course, in their business and others?
Whatever the answer, their silence must be seen as part of the problem.
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at the ‘New York Times’, and Ronan Farrow in the ‘New Yorker’, found three decades’ worth of evidence against Weinstein.
Was there a clear way for him to have been exposed sooner?
The question of whether Weinstein’s habits were an “open secret” is crucial here. One of the ironies of such accepted practices is that they don’t appear to need to be exposed because they are already so visible. Some of Farrow’s sources report allegations of actual rape, and one hopes the law will address that. But generally the allegations concern more insidious behaviour: it was part of the system – an extension of the casting couch.
Agents booked the meetings, assistants booked the rooms, staff brought the “talent” to the wolf’s door. So one has to ask: who are the bodyguards, what exactly are they defending, and why have they now given up their jobs?
Some of the close protection personnel are obvious: Bob Weinstein, the members of the board of The Weinstein Company, so-called friends and former colleagues.
Brad Pitt, who was dating Gwyneth Paltrow when she was harassed by Weinstein, and was married to Angelina Jolie, allegedly confronted him. Yet he made several films with Weinstein afterwards. Why are most of these people deserting Weinstein now?
Well, maybe because the matter can no longer be hidden, but the opposite possibility is significant enough for some to suspect an intentional leak: it can be unhidden because Weinstein’s position in the Hollywood stratosphere is fading. This is a convenient moment – he is, in effect, already emasculated.
More broadly, though, one answer to the question of what the system is designed to protect is: our own desires. Ever since the birth of the studio system, demand has been created by the moviegoing public, and supply provided by Hollywood.
We pay for tickets; Weinstein’s success may have been created in part by the Academy – whose members are now holding an “emergency” meeting – but it has also been determined by the box office.
In F Scott Fitzgerald’s last, unfinished novel, ‘The Last Tycoon’, a movie mogul based on Irving Thalberg enters a cutting room in which “dreams hung in fragments… suffered analysis, passed – to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded”.
If we the crowds didn’t want those movies, there would be no need for Harvey Weinsteins. And if we the crowds don’t like the circumstances in which movies are made, we need to show that clearly.
Of course, the problem is not restricted to a single industry. Weinstein is metonymic: a part representing a much vaster whole. But Hollywood is as good a place as any in which to hatch a story, and we can think of it as we do any other of its products – made in movieland, but about the world.
Years ago, when I was researching a story about Hollywood in the Fifties, I spoke to an ageing lawyer and asked about a friend of his who ran what I described as “a prostitution ring”. The lawyer begged to differ. “I wouldn’t call it a ring,” he said. “It was just a place where you could get a guy a girl.”
IHAD to think about the filter through which I chose to tell this story – it was a matter of description rather than opinion. If I portrayed it through 21st century eyes, that would be anachronistic; yet if
I didn’t show the fundamental misogyny that allowed such a casual acceptance of the practice, that would also be historically inaccurate, because I’d be omitting one of that moment’s essential characteristics.
What to do about the “generational” defence? How far will it fly? “He was an old-school movie mogul,” the British producer Alison Owen told the BBC.
Lisa Bloom, a lawyer initially said to be advising Weinstein on “gender and power dynamics”, told the ‘New York Times’ that he was “an old dinosaur learning new ways.”
I would argue both that the “old guard” plea is pathetic, and that responsibility for requiring new ways lies with all of us.
Angelina Jolie: Actors’ silence was part of the problem. Inset: Gwyneth Paltrow