Harvey Weinstein’s protective PR racket
She was wearing a wire. Without it, the world would probably have never believed her. It was the idea of NYPD’s Special Victims Unit, whom the Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez had approached in March 2015 after famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein groped her.
Now here Gutierrez was. Standing before Weinstein’s hotel door. She was nervous. There were plenty of undercover officers around – in fact one, posing as a journalist, would soon intervene – but Weinstein was physically imposing. And now he was insistent.
“I’m telling you right now, get in here,” Weinstein said.
“What do we have to do here?”
“Nothing. I’m going to take a shower, you sit there and have a drink.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Then have a glass of water.”
“Can I stay on the bar?”
“No. You must come here now.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
“I’m not doing anything with you, I promise. Now you’re embarrassing me.”
“I know. I don’t want to. I’m sorry. I cannot.”
“No, come in here.”
“No, yesterday was kind of aggressive for me.”
“I need to know a person to be touched.”
“I won’t do a thing.”
“I don’t want to be touched.”
Weinstein goes on in this manner for some time – hectoring, persistent, pathetic. It is sinister. Later, he will suggest her failure to comply will have repercussions for her career. Later still, he admits to having groped her the day before. “I’m used to it,” he tells her.
The police were pleased. They thought they had a case. Things weren’t so easy for Gutierrez. Once Weinstein heard of the complaint, his protection network animated. She would fully appreciate the power of Harvey Weinstein when she saw the New York Post on March 31. There she was, splashed on its front cover, with the headline: “ ‘Grope’ Beauty: Italian model accuses Harvey Weinstein”. In the article, the words: “Weinstein’s camp says she’s a would-be extortionist.”
Making films in Hollywood, Weinstein employed many, but the industry engaged with concealing his alleged criminality was busy, too. Around the mogul was a retinue of lawyers, publicists and obliging journalists. Gutierrez would realise how obliging when the Post splashed her image on its front page for the second day running. On April 1, the tabloid’s snide, sardonic and disbelieving tone was ratcheted up. Beneath a photo of the model in lingerie, the headline: “Secret life of Harvey’s shy accuser.”
The campaign was far from over. Gutierrez made the Post’s front page for a third time, on April 3, with the words “Role Play: Grope Gal asked for movie part” superimposed on her image. “Ambra Battilana tried to use her ‘grope’ claim against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to score a film role, sources told the Post yesterday.”
This was Weinstein’s modus operandi, rehearsed over many decades. Lawyers, threats and money. Accusers would be slandered in tabloids and the entertainment press; lawyers would encircle, offering vinegar or honey; publicists made silk purses. Few in the industry were left with much doubt that Weinstein could, if so moved, destroy them.
In an extraordinary interview on the Charlie Rose program last week, former New Yorker editor Tina Brown – who in 1999 launched the Weinstein-funded magazine Talk – spoke of the vast power of the producer and his corruption of the entertainment press. “What I found really unsettling was how many journalists, frankly, were on his payroll. I mean, Harvey would have everyone on his payroll, just all the people at the Post and people in all the tabloids, people writing stuff, entertainment writers, gossip writers. If there was any stirring of a negative story, Harvey would often have a book contract, a development deal, a consultancy, and they used to succumb. Journalists are often short on money, and they were also very starstruck with the world that Harvey offered, which was movies and Hollywood, and, you know, every writer who is doing a small column somewhere dreams that his thing will be picked up and turned into a big movie and his life will be changed, or her life will be changed.”
Weinstein is sufficiently wealthy to employ publicists to spin mitigating “narratives” for him. This is an integral part of the protective barrier. In 2015, facing the Gutierrez allegations, Weinstein employed the services of the powerful publicist Ken Sunshine. Sunshine is a Democratic donor and adviser who co-founded the celebrity-favoured Sunshine Sachs firm in 2002. In 2015, he embarrassingly admitted that his team had breached Wikipedia guidelines by purging the page of their client Naomi Campbell. Their job? To erase reference to her “critically and commercially” failed album, Baby Woman.
That same year, Sunshine was releasing a slew of media statements supporting his client, Harvey Weinstein, including this proforma line published by the New York Post: “We are co-operating fully with the authorities and are confident that we will be fully vindicated.”
The website of Sunshine Sachs is a one-page business card. It says nothing of what the company does, nor the staff who work for it. There are addresses, phone numbers, emails... and nothing more. The implication is clear: If you can afford them, you already know who they are. To publicly describe their staff and services would be both indiscreet and demeaning. The blunt presentation of their website is all part of the game – the bogus mystification of a company that charges top dollar to edit Wikipedia pages and represent alleged sex criminals.
In 2007, Linda Fairstein wrote a short piece for Vanity Fair about her desire to be offered a film contract by industry demigod Harvey Weinstein. For 25 years, Fairstein had led the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for the New York county district attorney, but had since abandoned law for the writing of pulp crime novels and had been “waiting for my own movie deal since I tapped my first fictional strokes on the keyboard”. Lamentably, those strokes weren’t “fictional” but very real, and exercised in the production of books that would partially inspire the TV series Law & Order: SVU.
Fairstein’s piece is a cheeky aria to the influence of Weinstein, and her dreams of attracting its magic. “I’d met Harvey on several social occasions during my years in public service,” she wrote. “He was always gracious but never engaged me on the subject of my novels. Then, about four years ago, at a cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard, he made his first overture.”
The overture is a fizz, and it’s only years after the soiree that a representative for Weinstein finally emails the author to arrange lunch. Until then, the ambitious author has played it cool, refraining from contacting the mogul directly and instead banking on her newer, more “visual” novels attracting his attention. Having received the email, she believed her strategy had borne fruit.
To be fair to Fairstein’s piece, her confessed desire to secure a Weinstein contract is craftily dramatised to better prepare the punchline: the Harvey Weinstein who wants to lunch is not the Harvey Weinstein, but a retired fashion designer and fan. “I laughed for about 10 minutes,” she wrote, “until tears began to stream down my face.”
But in 2015, Fairstein signed on as a legal consultant to the Harvey Weinstein. It was during the Gutierrez allegations. She told The New York Times that she thought the model’s claims were “baseless”. In this light, we might reconsider her boasts. “I had made the New York Times best-seller list and been translated into more than a dozen languages. I’ve dreamed about the movie deal. I’ve cast the central characters scores of times. I’ve even spent the proceeds.”
The dumpy Queens kid who loved movies became Hollywood’s dream-maker, and he enjoyed a lofty view of the kingdom. Lofty enough to glimpse the thousands swarming its boundaries. And Harvey clocked them: the dreaming actors, dubious lawyers and ambitious hacks. Then he abused, manipulated and conscripted them.
From this bleak perch, Weinstein helped make some wonderful films. The beast had a sense of beauty. This isn’t exculpatory, and nor is it inarguable – the producer for Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki anticipated Weinstein’s artless enthusiasm in the cutting room and sent the mogul a samurai sword with a note attached: “No cuts.” But Weinstein was in part responsible for the blossoming of American indie cinema in the 1990s – Clerks, Pulp Fiction – and in the previous decade had offered his backing to Peter Greenaway and Pedro Almodóvar. He was considered a “maestro” by more than one peer, a vulgar man possessed of subtle instinct. It is a complex irony that his artistic ability likely assisted the concealment of his alleged predations.
When Tina Brown left the editorship of The New Yorker to work with Weinstein, she initially found her patron to be a warm exhibitionist. A man who would lend his energy and treasure to the success of the magazine. But quickly, she told Charlie Rose last week, she realised the congeniality was just a “carapace” that contained a vindictive and raging paranoid. “He was very intimidating … He’s a big imposing man and he could become very snarly and intimidating and scary.”
Brown now wonders if the explosive temper wasn’t the product of an intimate dissonance. “I always felt with him that some of the volcanic rage that one saw with Harvey was his sense of dissonance with who he was,” she said. “I mean, this was a man of incredible taste, who had an enormous flair for the movies. You know, to sit in a screening room with Harvey was to really see a maestro. You know, he understood how to make a film better in every way, and it was interesting to see … But at the same time, dissonant with that was this personal behaviour that was so utterly unacceptable in every way, that was so gross, that I almost wonder whether that was the source of his own anger.”
The British actor Emma Thompson was blunter in her assessment: “He had the most appalling aura,” she told the BBC this week.
Tina Brown wondered aloud if Weinstein might not be slightly relieved. After all, decades of the sleaziest duplicity had finally come to an end. We don’t know – but certainly a great number of women are more than slightly relieved. The protective network is finally coming apart.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "The PR racket that shielded a mogul". Subscribe here.