Opinion

Clem Bastow
Hollywood’s disgrace of ‘open secrets’

Let’s start at random, with film director Joss Whedon, accused of years of misconduct by his former wife, Kai Cole. Whedon has long been one of Hollywood’s most vocal self-described male feminists, creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, giving stirring speeches about feminism, and criticising others’ feminist failings, such as decrying Jurassic World’s “ ’70s-era” sexism. In August, Cole accused Whedon of 15 years of on- and off-set affairs and a duplicity that left her with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Then there’s Harry Knowles of film site Ain’t It Cool News, who took a leave of absence following allegations of sexual assault. Film critic and commentator Devin Faraci stepped down from his website Birth.Movies.Death and cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse after similar allegations. Los Angeles repertory cinema house Cinefamily went to ground after staff reported behind-the-scenes sexual harassment.

And this week Harvey Weinstein – the uber-producer whose aggressive awards-season campaigning had become a hallmark of the business – was undone by allegations of nearly three decades’ worth of sexual harassment. A damning investigation by The New York Times uncovered at least eight settlements reached with women Weinstein is alleged to have harassed. Days later, an investigation by The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow revealed further allegations against Weinstein, including rape.

The sexual assault and misconduct allegations are such textbook “casting couch” scenarios that it almost beggars belief: Weinstein in a bathrobe, asking actor Ashley Judd to watch him shower; Weinstein telling a temp he could boost her career prospects if she agreed to accept his advances. In one especially damning report, news anchor Lauren Sivan says Weinstein cornered her in an empty restaurant and exposed himself, masturbating and ejaculating into a pot plant.

In a rambling statement that found time to mention the National Rifle Association and misattribute some made-up rap lyrics to Jay-Z, Weinstein apologised for his behaviour and blamed his misconduct on his having come of age during “the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different”. His lawyer, Lisa Bloom, described him as “an old dinosaur learning new ways”, before she quit her role. A day later, Weinstein had been sacked from the board of The Weinstein Company (TWC).

Other female actors and producers have tweeted their support of Weinstein’s accusers. Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, whose careers have been bolstered by the support of Miramax – Weinstein’s first company – and later TWC, offered statements of condemnation. Jessica Chastain said of Weinstein’s behaviour, “I was warned from the beginning. The stories were everywhere.” Weinstein’s wife, Marchesa designer Georgina Chapman, announced she was separating from him: “My heart breaks for all the women who have suffered tremendous pain because of these unforgivable actions.”

Though “Tinseltown” may seem a world away, it is helpful to view the revelations of sexism and sexual misconduct in Hollywood as a microcosm. Similar allegations have surfaced in tech, music, politics and publishing, suggesting that where groups of men gather to maintain a white-knuckle grip on power, appalling behaviours have a tendency to emerge. As the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer put it, abuse of power comes as no surprise.

Weinstein’s case, as in similar ones before it, is almost tragic: was he so unsatisfied with the immense power of box-office glory and multiple Oscar wins that he still had to fortify his ego by casting himself as an all-powerful Lothario whose naked massages had the power to make or break young women’s careers?

Through this turbulent week of revelations, as ever, prominent male voices commenting on the allegations were scarce. Actors Russell Crowe and Matt Damon were implicated in working to kill an exposé on Weinstein in 2004. The Guardian contacted 20 prominent actors and directors about the recent revelations – including Brad Pitt, Daniel Day-Lewis, Michael Moore and Martin Scorsese. None would comment. Later, some would only confirm certain details, shared by their former co-stars, through their representatives.

A year to the day after leaked Access Hollywood recordings exposed his own sexist views, President Donald Trump said: “I’ve known Harvey Weinstein for a long time. I’m not at all surprised to see it.”

A few others who did speak out were already known for their decent politics. Actor Mark Ruffalo called it a “disgusting abuse of power”. Director Judd Apatow said: “The ’70s were 37 years ago ... You haven’t picked up anything since then?” George Clooney described the alleged behaviour of his colleague of 20 years as “indefensible”. In an act of solidarity, actor Terry Crews revealed his own experience of sexual assault at the hands of an unnamed executive.

These men were, in their swift responses, outliers; many others remained silent. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Lena Dunham called upon her male colleagues to step up; actor Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein’s accusers, did the same on Twitter. “To the men out there, stand up,” she wrote. “We need you as allies.” Was it a coincidence that certain prominent men of Hollywood, such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, only spoke out after they had been implored to do so by their female colleagues?

If there’s a weariness to my tone, it’s because the behaviour of Weinstein and the aforementioned directors, commentators and other film industry figures is nothing new, and neither is the collective male reticence when it comes to weeding out such behaviour.

The late producer Julia Phillips’ 1991 book, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, in part attempted to expose the “boys’ club” mentality of Hollywood and its accompanying casting couch abuses, which she had witnessed since the 1970s. For her troubles, Phillips’ book was described by one producer as “the longest suicide note in history”.

I thought of Phillips’ book, and the reaction to it, when I read the news about Weinstein. I thought of how, interviewed for the 2003 “New Hollywood” documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, actor Richard Dreyfuss discussed how his initial anger at Phillips’ revelations faded. “A little voice inside my head [said] ‘Richard, Richard, the truth was so much worse.’ ”

Presumably, male associates, co-workers and friends of Weinstein, Whedon, Faraci and others have heard similar “little voices” over the past decades. At what point did they decide to keep quiet?

It should surprise nobody that the entertainment industry has maintained the boys’ club ethos that Phillips wrote about decades ago: Hollywood is still hopelessly overpopulated by straight, white men.

Things are no better here in Australia. Last year, Deakin University researchers including Professor Deb Verhoeven carried out social network analysis of films submitted to the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards between 2006 and 2015. The study found that about 40 per cent of male producers worked exclusively with men in other key creative roles, such as director or screenwriter.

These men – even those who, like Whedon, consider themselves to be feminists – are notoriously reticent to address the bad behaviour of their colleagues. Many reports regarding Weinstein’s fall refer to his behaviour as an “open secret”; the fact it remained secret suggests colleagues were more concerned with maintaining their ties to a powerful industry figure than fostering ethical workplace behaviours. Tattling on Weinstein might mean your movie’s Oscar hopes go down the drain.

To those women who work towards liberation from retrograde gender roles, this is a wornout trope: male allies who are unwilling to turn their Tinder bio claims about feminist politics into concrete action.

Consider Whedon’s so-called feminism. He famously gave a speech at a women’s rights non-governmental organisation Equality Now event in which he recounted a journalist’s query as to why he wrote so-called strong female characters. Until his former wife’s allegations, his triumphant closing line was regularly aired as proof of his feminist bona fides: “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

But Whedon rarely backed up his rhetoric with action; his feminism was only ever performative. His television shows and films were populated by female characters, but also stuffed with questionable sexual politics. He flip-flopped when it came to fans’ desire to see more women in the sequel to his blockbuster superhero film The Avengers. When The Avengers: Age Of Ultron finally premiered, we were treated to just one extra female Avenger, when there have been dozens in the comic books.

Surely a true ally would have stood up to Marvel Studios and used as a bargaining chip the fact his Avengers had made billions for the studios. He could have said, “Let me diversify the cast, or I walk.” But Whedon, like so many before him, wasn’t prepared to truly speak out. Instead, that falls to the women – such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Judd, McGowan, Phillips and many others – whose careers are bruised if not completely destroyed by their decision not to remain silent.

This is the sad song of contemporary feminism: burnout for the women who speak up, endless “cookies” for the men who offer little more than lip service.

It’s bittersweet to admit that women and other marginalised people don’t seem to be able to shatter this status quo: if we are truly to conquer the Stone Age behaviours of men such as Harvey Weinstein, we need their fellow straight, white men to intervene, to demand a different standard.

There is some hope. In other industries, including tech and academia, some men have pledged not to appear on “all-male panels”, dropping out in order to make spaces for women, people of colour and other diverse voices. But this is still at the polite edge of what is necessary.

The allegations that rocked Cinefamily were set in motion, in part, by a male employee who had witnessed his superiors’ sexual harassment of female co-workers. William Morris was an assistant programmer at the cinema house, and complained in writing to his superiors. But the story still leaves much to be desired: though he quit when he felt his former bosses’ harassment had been glossed over, many in the business, including Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, spoke out in support of those at Cinefamily who’d been accused of misconduct.

Further allegations against Weinstein will likely emerge as others are emboldened to share their experiences. If there is a silver lining to these awful revelations, it’s that Hollywood may have reached a tipping point when it comes to the type of “open secrets” that have been commonplace for decades.

As for Weinstein, his statement to the Times carried with it a pathetic footnote: he had been developing a $5 million program for female directors at the University of Southern California, named in his late mother’s honour. In the closing words of his statement, Weinstein wrote of the scholarship: “It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.” USC this week rejected the endowment.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "No Hollywood ending". Subscribe here.

Clem Bastow
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.