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Harvey Aftershocks: Hollywood’s Battle Against Sleaze Fatigue

Veteran screenwriters and producers tell us why the fall of Harvey Weinstein could finally mean real change for Hollywood.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 10: Director/Producer Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain and Sony's Amy Pascal at Columbia Pictures 'Zero Dark Thirty' Premiere at Dolby Theatre on December 10, 2012 in Hollywood, California. Kathryn Bigelow Jessica Chastain Amy PascalColumbia Pictures 'Zero Dark Thirty' Premiere Hollywood Los Angeles, America.

Director/Producer Kathryn Bigelow, Jessica Chastain and Sony’s Amy Pascal

Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

With Harvey Weinstein gone, the entertainment industry operates under a new ruler: The gut check. He’s now a punching bag to represent abuse by powerful men, but now the real work begins. What about everyone else?

“Harvey is aberrant, to be sure, but no anomaly,” veteran screenwriter and USC professor Howard Rodman wrote me in an email. “He’s a rapist, but not the only rapist in our industry, and not the only serial predator by a very long shot.  If we use his evident and overweening guilt to exculpate the rest of us, this will be for naught. What’s needed is a sea change. And maybe — just maybe — its time has come.”

Weinstein’s predation has a very, very long tail; new stories arrive daily, with the Los Angeles Police Dept. now opening an investigation into an alleged rape in 2013. “It’s been such crazy couple of weeks,” producer Christine Vachon told my UCLA Extension film class this week. “I’m sure everybody is faced with a little bit of sleaze fatigue, every day another horrible story, and it’s stunning.”

It’s a scandal unlike anything Hollywood has seen, but — when this story broke, already Harvey was no longer a macher. Now his power has been stripped and he’s not a potential employer, or political donor, or celebrity wrangler, or ad buyer. “The reason the whistle was blown on him was he wasn’t so powerful,” Vachon said. “Finally it was safe to come forward.”

Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein

Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein

Picture Perfect/REX/Shutterstock

So what does that mean for those who are still very much in power? “The same five white men are still in charge of everything,” said one white agent who represents important actors and filmmakers. Or as screenwriter Scott Rosenberg pointed out in his viral tone poem of a Facebook post:

So, yeah, I was there.
And let me tell you one thing.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing:

Everybody-fucking-knew.

Nevertheless, the industry is putting a lot of effort into making statements that suggest that change is coming. The expulsion of Weinstein from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on October 14 included a statement: “The Board continues to work to establish ethical standards of conduct that all Academy members will be expected to exemplify.” Two days later, AMPAS president John Bailey underlined that sentiment with an email to the membership that paralleled the courage of victims who spoke out with Maria Falconetti’s brave performance in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Since the decision of the Academy’s Board of Governors on Saturday October 14 to expel producer Harvey Weinstein from its membership, I have been haunted not only by the recurring image of Falconetti and the sad arc of her career (dying in Argentina in 1946, reputedly from a crash diet) but of Joan’s refusal to submit to an auto de fe recantation of her beliefs.

Recent public testimonies by some of filmdom’s most recognized women regarding sexual intimidation, predation, and physical force is, clearly, a turning point in the film industry — and hopefully in our country, where what happens in the world of movies becomes a marker of societal Zeitgeist. Their decision to stand up against a powerful, abusive male not only parallels the cinema courage of Falconetti’s Joan but gives all women courage to speak up.

[snip]

It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry. The Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court, but we can be part of a larger initiative to define standards of behavior, and to support the vulnerable women and men who may be at personal and career risk because of violations of ethical standards by their peers.

Similarly, the Producers Guild of America began proceedings to remove Weinstein’s membership, and announced an Anti-Sexual Harassment Task Force “specifically charged with researching and proposing substantive and effective solutions to sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. The PGA calls on leaders throughout the entertainment community to work together to ensure that sexual abuse and harassment are eradicated from the industry.”

Kathleen Kennedy and Dawn Hudson.

And in her keynote address at the October 16 Elle Women in Hollywood event, Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy — an Academy governor and PGA member — attacked the industry’s sexist ways and proposed an industry-wide commission to develop a secure system to report abusive behavior, and a zero-tolerance policy for those who abuse.

There has been change in Hollywood — if at a glacial pace. In 1961, Rodman’s mother was not only a single working mom; she graduated from NYU film school “when no women went to film school,” Rodman wrote. “When she graduated she wanted to be a director, but what even was an American female director in 1961 — Ida Lupino? Maya Deren?”

Even being an assistant director was not an option; “there was already one female AD in New York, so that slot was taken,” he wrote. “(No one imagined there’d ever be a need for a second one.)” So she became a script supervisor — the production job women could hold.

“Most of the time she was the only woman in a room full of 50-60 men,” he wrote. “Can you imagine the daily navigation? This one you must never flirt with. This one you have to flirt with if you want to get anything out of him. This one is incompetent so you have to do his job without ever letting on that he’s not doing it himself.”

Of course, that’s no longer the case; while women still struggle for equity as directors, no one startles to see a female AD. “I have to believe that if this could happen below the line, we can do it above the line too, and yes, in our lifetime,” he wrote. “It’s of the essence.”

writer/director Robin Swicord

Writer-director Robin Swicord

Daniel Bergeron

Director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) is another industry veteran who’s witnessed and experienced sexual harassment, and she’s well aware that there’s more where Harvey came from. “Harvey represents the most egregious example of a predator thriving among us,” she wrote in an email. “Yet there are other powerful men in the business, still unnamed publicly, who are guilty of similar behavior.”

Harassment and discrimination are ordinary, she said; so is blackballing for those who speak against it. “It is not safe (in fact, career-ending) to be the lone voice speaking out,” she wrote. “The collective ‘boys club’ ethos that’s embedded in our profession would have created an instant backlash against any of these women if they had gone public with their assault: ‘She’s crazy,’ ‘She’s just trying to blackmail him and get a settlement,’ ‘It’s sour grapes,’ ‘A woman spurned, uh oh, watch out, she could turn on you.’ We have been part of the culture of silence that has allowed bad behavior to continue, uncorrected.”

This is why social media marks a crucial sea-change that made it possible for single, vulnerable women to feel part of a collective of strong women who feel supported and heard. As Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow emailed the New York Times: “The democratization of the spread of information can finally move faster than a powerful media mogul’s attempts to bury it.”

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