(IMAGE: “The Storming of the Bastille” by Jean-Pierre Houël, from the Bibliothèque nationale de France/WikiCommons)
Power is perception. That’s obviously simplifying a complex concept, but from a broad, historical perspective, it’s not far afield of the truth. The two most momentous political revolutions of the past several centuries – French and Russian – did not turn on a change in tactics, technology or even culture. They turned on a change in perception. Once the people were convinced that the monarch in question – whether King Louis XVI or Tsar Nicholas – was damaged goods, the jig was up. Nothing would hold them back from tearing down the vestiges of power and replacing them. When French revolutionaries stormed the prison and armory complex known as the Bastille on July 14, 1789, it was a symbolic act. Only seven prisoners were held inside at the time, and there was no practical reason to attack the fortress other than that it was an emblem of power and oppression.
The Bastille, of course, was not the first such instance of perception undermining power – Shakespeare’s plays are rich with warnings about pride and the relationship between power and hubris, almost always couched in a historical context. It’s the central theme of both Julius Caesar and Othello and plays a large part in Richard III, Macbeth and King Lear. Oblivious to the fragility of his power and the inevitability of his fate, Caesar says of himself in Julius Caesar, Act I:
“Such men as he be never at heart’s ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves, and therefore are they very dangerous. I rather tell thee what is to be feared than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.”
Which brings us to Harvey Weinstein. The precipitous fall of the man who single-handedly resurrected the independent film industry, who forever changed the way Oscar campaigns were designed and run, whose larger-than-life persona and pugnacious management style echoed the bygone generation of moguls who built Hollywood, whose power to make or break careers was considered so absolute as to make him untouchable, has sent shock waves through the movie business. Given Hollywood’s historic tolerance for bad behavior – anything that shocks this town warrants attention.
As with past Hollywood scandals, it’s going to take time to sort through it all and figure out where we actually emerge on the other side. Most of us want to believe we will end up in a better place – but we’ve had that hope before. It’s incumbent upon everyone – the people who make movies, write about movies and watch movies – to maintain the pressure – not just to insure that we never go through this again, but to insure that our daughters and sons never go through it at all.
this is about the victims, the tireless dreamers – men and women – who for generations have been lured like the children in Stephen King’s IT into a sewer of exploitation and abuse by reprobates posing as dream merchants.
At the risk of evoking Mark Antony, my aim here is not to further bury Harvey but to hopefully provoke some self-reflection and soul-searching. There’s no point in rehashing the horrifying revelations from the New York Times piece that set events in motion, nor the more recent New Yorker piece that further magnified Weinstein’s reported grotesqueries. My colleague Ray Greene has curated a superb chronology of the entire Harvey Weinstein affair here, to which I would refer anyone looking to get a handle on the avalanche of events that are still compounding at this very moment. These are still the early days of a scandal that promises to deepen and broaden over the coming months, and there is undoubtedly much, much more to come. Lest we allow ourselves to be consumed with the tawdry and the sensational, it’s important that we maintain some perspective.
We should remember that this is about more than Harvey Weinstein; there remain far too many predators still lurking in Hollywood’s boardrooms, agencies and executive suites whose predations must continue to be exposed until they are weeded out and policies implemented to prevent their kind from ever again having sway in the corridors of power. But most importantly, this is about the victims, the tireless dreamers – men and women – who for generations have been lured like the children in Stephen King’s IT into a sewer of exploitation and abuse by reprobates posing as dream merchants. Whatever we do going forward, it should serve their interests; whatever enables them to heal and receive justice, whatever insures that we build a better industry for future generations – we must do.
I grew up hearing far too many salacious stories about Hollywood figures of yesteryear. My father had worked in the studio system as a speech and drama coach, and had witnessed a good deal of bad behavior. These were not stories recounted at dinner parties for the amusement of guests, but stories shared privately with me whenever he perceived that I was becoming unduly seduced by the illusion of Hollywood glamor, as he once was. Still, hearing something secondhand is never as powerful as witnessing it firsthand.
It was the early ‘90s and I was barely out of UCLA film school when an acquaintance, a freelance production manager, offered me a job as a production assistant. It wasn’t much – just a weekend unit for a feature film that was shooting primarily out of state, but needed a few scenes shot in Los Angeles. Of course I said yes. It was work on a set and it paid $250. That’s all I needed to know.
As it turned out, the “Los Angeles Unit” was basically a sham created by one of the producers to build himself a directing reel. None of it had to be shot in Los Angeles, much less as a separate unit. The producer in question had simply carved it out of the regular schedule and awarded it to himself. Along with that imperious act came an imperious attitude – condescension, verbal abuse, physical intimidation. It was humiliating, to me and to others, but none of it was especially shocking – until the last day. As we were wrapping the final location on UCLA’s Sorority Row, I observed and overheard the producer in question and another member of the crew flirting with one of the sorority sisters. Had this been a random pick-up in a bar, it would simply have been sleazy and tacky. That it was taking place between a married Hollywood producer and a young female college student made it all deeply disturbing. After the flirtation ended and the girl returned to the house, the married producer and the crew member had a high-fiving bro moment after which the producer quipped: “Oh, yeah! She knows how the game is played.”
In that one, stomach-churning moment, I experienced the fatalistic realization of so many previous generations that this is simply how the business is. It wasn’t for me to try and change it. Who was I but a powerless production assistant? In the end I wasn’t even paid my $250. What’s the point of imagining you can change the entrenched behaviors of people who can’t be bothered to meet a payroll? Did I really want to wreck my career before it had begun? I had no power. These people had all the power.
Some years later, I crossed paths with the producer again. He had long since fallen from grace and his hoped-for directing career had never materialized. It was at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica during the annual American Film Market, in the hotel lobby where film buyers and sellers from around the world rub elbows in a foul-smelling fog of sweat, sleaze and avarice. I spotted him instantly from across the lobby – after all, he still owed me $250. Moments later, in the corner of my eye, I caught him in a double-take of me. He knew he recognized me, but couldn’t place the face. Was I someone he should remember? Someone important? Someone with power?
Power… is perception.
The past few years have been a period of painful but necessary transition for the movie business. Already struggling with a changing technological and business environment undermining much of its established foundation, Hollywood has been forced to confront an array of deeply engrained racial, sexual, political and cultural prejudices. Many have been called out and confronted. Others need to follow. A new awareness and sense of responsibility is taking root. More needs to be done. Part of this is of necessity – the days when powerful press agents could control the flow of information and cover up their clients’ indiscretions or keep secret the nature of their sexuality are long gone. In the era of social media, transparency isn’t just an ethical obligation – it’s common sense. The old ways, however, die hard and their most ardent practitioners will not go down without a fight. Harvey Weinstein is no lone wolf. Such incidents as have been reported this past week are shocking only because of the names involved and, frankly, because they’ve actually been reported at all. The proverbial Hollywood Casting Couch existed long before Harvey and even in the wake of his fall it will persist for the very simple reason that we – all of us – have accepted it.
How do I know that? Simple. Because it’s the proverbial Hollywood Casting Couch. The practice of trading sex for career advancement – the depravity of the powerful exploiting the vulnerable – became so engrained and accepted that it was given a name, a euphemism, which became part of showbiz vernacular.
When we gave the language permission to euphemize the sexual exploitation of the weak, we tacitly accepted the practice.
That’s not to say such acceptance wasn’t understandable. When confronted with a Sisyphean problem – such as my PA experience – acceptance is typically the only rational path forward. Until we realize that power… is perception.
We... need to insure that we do not miss this opportunity to learn, to educate, to heal and to fix, once and for all, a broken system that has been handed down, from generation to generation, degenerate and injurious, for far too long.
What we should take from the Weinstein affair is a realization that no one who still clings to the old ways is untouchable. Not Louis XVI, not Tsar Nicholas, not Caesar, not Harvey Weinstein, not whatever nameless predator is desperately hoping Harvey is the sacrificial lamb that saves the flock. The moment to storm the Bastille is now.
To be sure, Hollywood is no stranger to attacks – politicians, censors, religious leaders and cultural mandarins have all launched broadsides at one time or another which power brokers have simply swatted away like biplanes buzzing about King Kong’s head. What’s different now is the attacks are coming from within – from the artists and creators who have finally, at long last, had enough. Those with the courage to step forward are to be commended and supported. Others still live in fear of reprisal and desperately need the support – legally and emotionally – to come forward and bring the abusers to justice. When the weak perceive that the powerful no longer have the means to do them harm – then and only then will they be set free because power… is perception.
This is not to suggest that changing perception is an easy task, nor that there aren’t serious practical hurdles to clear first – legal hurdles in particular. It’s been over five years since Corey Feldman came clean on the childhood sexual abuse he and his late friend and colleague Corey Haim suffered at the hands of grown men, one of whom he says raped Haim when he was just eleven years of age. He is, however, unable to “name names,” he says, because statutes of limitation have expired and the risk of lawsuits favors the abusers. For anyone who has never been trapped in the justice system, it’s easy to call that a cop-out – but asking victims of sexual abuse to endure years of costly litigation, including humiliating depositions and threats of countersuits as a means to achieving justice is effectively asking them to be victimized all over again. For perception to change, laws and statutes need to change with the full force of the Hollywood community brought to bear to make it happen.
I was in high school when I read Indecent Exposure, the first of many bestsellers to capitalize on Hollywood scandals (which all sit on my shelf like volumes of the Talmud). The book, for the uninitiated, is a cautionary tale that is relevant to current events on many levels. In 1977, when Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson received a 1099 for a $10,000 payment from Columbia Pictures he never received, it tipped off an investigation that exposed studio chief and former agent David Begelman as a forger and an embezzler. This created a rift in the studio’s board and when all was said and done, both Begelman and Columbia CEO Alan Hirschfield were gone, and Cliff Robertson was blacklisted.
All over $10,000.
That a third of the Weinstein Company’s board resigned over the decision to sanction and eventually fire Harvey from the company he co-founded is evidence that despite changing attitudes on the ground floor, the culture in the suites is still deeply entrenched in the past. There remain many who place a premium on loyalty above all else. We should not assume that the culture that once punished Cliff Robertson for doing the honest and decent thing in standing up to power will not also attempt to punish those like Ashley Judd for similarly refusing to back down. Since the Weinstein stories broke, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Asia Argento, Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette and others have added their stories to the narrative and their voices to the chorus for change. We must heed their call. How this affair is handled, how the individuals involved are treated, will be closely watched by those who have not yet decided whether the risk in coming forward is worth it.
We, as a community of filmmakers, filmgoers, film lovers, for the sake of our industry, for the sake of our art, for the sake of our friends, co-workers, family members and just common decency, need to insure that we do not miss this opportunity to learn, to educate, to heal and to fix, once and for all, a broken system that has been handed down, from generation to generation, degenerate and injurious, for far too long.
Both the French and Russian Revolutions failed to stop at the toppling of their monarchs, so great was their animus toward tyranny. Both quickly descended into an orgy of regicide, mass murder and vengeance. Both nations suffered greatly for their missed opportunities and quickly fell back under the pall of oppression.
The current moment furnishes us an opportunity to learn from the past, a rare chance for Hollywood to reinvent itself. Storming the Bastille need not devolve into vengeance and retribution lest we miss a crucial chance to seize the higher road of justice and redemption. As we expose the fragility of power and empower the vulnerable to step forward, those responsible for upholding the old ways will face whatever justice society elects to mete out. Our task is to replace the old ways with new ways, to give victims a path forward and to give future generations a better path in – heralding a new culture that rewards decency, exalts talent, honors integrity and rightfully earns the trust and respect of filmgoers. The measure of our success will not be found in the rubble of the Bastille but in what we choose to build in its place.