In October 2009, Kater Gordon’s writing career came to a sudden end. In the space of a year, she went from Matt Weiner’s personal assistant on “Mad Men” to his Emmy-winning co-writer of the season finale. Then, less than a month after standing next to Weiner on the Nokia Theatre stage, she was fired. Or, as a show insider put it: “Matt has reluctantly decided that their relationship has reached its full potential.” That awkward rationale highlighted the “Mad Men” narrative: It was Weiner’s show, and his whims were law.
“Mad Men” continued for six more critically lauded seasons as Gordon faded from the news cycle and from the industry. Now imagine that story in 2017, with Gordon coming forward with her sexual harassment accusations against Weiner. Her story would have legs; he would be forced to deal with the charges, Peak TV be damned. All of which suggests we’ve begun the essential work of dissembling Hollywood’s all-powerful Midas myth, the narrative that protects powerful men better than any NDA.
Whether it’s Weiner, or Matt Lauer with 23 years on the “Today Show” (and a $25 million annual contract), or John Lassester at Pixar, or Harvey Weinstein and The Weinstein Company, their singular identification with their business entities provided these men with a measure of protection. Thanks to their rare combination of creative talents and moneymaking acumen, it’s the auteur theory with a bankroll.
When the first round of allegations against Lasseter hit, an initial report alleged that actress and screenwriter Rashida Jones left “Toy Story 4” because of “unwanted advances” from Lasseter. Jones refuted that story, but she and her creative partner, Will McCormack, added an important clarification: “We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences… it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”
Even for Jones, an established talent from a Hollywood family, the Pixar environment was one that didn’t welcome her, to the point that she left her own cherished project to get away from it.
Hollywood is obsessed with crafting narratives, both on- and off-screen, and few are as appealing as the singular craftsman, the one person who can make a movie, a television series, or a studio successful. Weinstein was long heralded as an Oscar rainmaker, while Lasseter has been the face and brain of Pixar for decades. Other accused talents like Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey wielded their considerable influences over young talents, from hopeful actors who looked to Spacey as a mentor on both stage and screen (the Old Vic Theater, where Spacey served as artistic director 2003-2015, is currently looking into 20 complaints) to rising comedians eager to share their work with C.K.
These men were viewed as unique talents and industry heroes who demanded, and deserved, tremendous respect. However, Hollywood is built on communal and collaborative productions and the Midas-touch worldview is woefully outdated. Worse, it’s allowed predators to flourish under the guise of being indispensable.
Even in its earliest years, Hollywood was in love with the idea of the self-made man (and it was almost always a man) taking the town by storm. The golden age was driven by the talents of studio heads like Sam Goldwyn, Jack and Harry Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, Adolph Zukor, and Jesse L. Lasky — talented strivers who ruled the industry and made it their own.
But that slice of history instilled one hell of a self-fulfilling prophecy into Hollywood thinking. Start telling people that a show or movie or business can’t possibly exist without the skills of this person, and people start thinking it’s true. Once established, it becomes Hollywood lore. What will we do without Weinstein, or a creative genius like Lasseter, or a talented actor like Spacey?
One possible answer: Who cares? The real loss belongs to people whose talents were quashed by a toxic system built on hero worship, creating another cycle in which absolute power corrupts absolutely. When so much of the industry relies on these Midas men, both for their output as well as for feeding the mythos of a self-made star, they’ve had the power to bend the world to their wills.
By Hollywood’s own estimation, their transgressions created acceptable losses. “One Tree Hill” star Hilarie Burton said she refused to audition during pilot season after being harassed by series creator Mark Schwahn; the young actresses that James Toback allegedly targeted for “auditions” were driven away from their dreams. These women couldn’t hold a candle to the men’s own careers.
It’s the kind of story that Hollywood loves to tell, the sort that would make a pretty good movie. But like corrupt banks, these people become too big to fail, knowing — or at least, expecting — to be bailed out by the same system that emboldened them to act perversely in the first place. After all, how could an industry choose to cut down the singular minds behind some of its biggest successes? Pull at one string, and more will certainly unravel. And it’s true: Other perpetrators surface, massive projects die, companies crumble. It’s the new cost of doing business with sexual harassers.
After leaving “Mad Men,” Kater Gordon never returned to Hollywood. These days, she’s focused on a different endeavor, though one inextricably tied to the industry she left behind: she’s forming a nonprofit to help victims of sexual harassment.