The industry’s silence has historically shielded the men who make movies, including the old studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer to whom Mr. Weinstein has often been nostalgically compared. In histories, these old-studio chiefs are genteelly referred to as womanizers, a polite metaphor for conduct that ranges from time on the casting couch, another odious euphemism, to what sounds a lot like prostitution. According to the historian Scott Eyman, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — the studio that bore Mayer’s name and boasted that it had more stars than there are in heaven — had a supply “of what were known as ‘six-month-option girls’ to be passed around the executive offices.”
If this seems, well, normal it is because this tawdry glimpse into the industry — with its powerful men and passed-around girls — is deeply embedded in its history, its lore and its very identity. It’s the old yet evergreen story of the dewy young woman who comes to Hollywood, does a screen test and maybe signs a contract. The company dyes her hair blonde, feeds her pills and puts her on a diet or under a plastic surgeon’s knife. The lucky ones become Marilyn Monroe (or the It Girl du jour); the luckier ones get out alive. Others remain passed-around girls. The old studio system is gone, but the attitude that exploitation is part of the price for being in the business — hey, it’s Hollywood — endures.
One paradox of Mr. Weinstein’s career is that while he emerged in the independent film world in the 1980s — positioning his earlier company, Miramax Films, as the David to the mainstream’s Goliath — he helped build a media giant that came to resemble an old-fashioned Hollywood studio. In an age of drab bean counters, Miramax had moxie and mystique. Importantly, it had a stable of publicity-ready female stars like Ms. Paltrow and rock-star male auteurs, most notably a favorite of critics, Quentin Tarantino. Sure, Mr. Weinstein might sometimes swing at someone, literally, but in Harveywood misdeeds were soon overshadowed by box-office tallies and savvy public relations.
Peter Biskind, a former editor at the film magazine Premiere, tried to investigate Mr. Weinstein back in 1991, but writes that Miramax threatened to pull its advertising, adding, “the next thing I knew, Harvey was writing columns for Premiere and I was his editor.” Over the years, Mr. Weinstein’s grip on soft-bellied entertainment news media remained firm partly because it was mutually advantageous. And, as he rose, he supported women who supported him. In 2007, he presented a Crystal Award — given by Women in Film — to Renée Zellweger, a star of Miramax titles like “Chicago.”
Given the revelations about Mr. Weinstein, it may seem surprising that his companies also offered actual opportunities for women, including directors like Jane Campion (“The Piano”) and older actresses like Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”). This wasn’t progressive; it was evidence of a shrewd embrace of old-studio-style product diversification. In some ways, it is because Mr. Weinstein and his brother, Bob Weinstein, released different kinds of movies and didn’t pour all their resources only into formulas — and male-driven superhero movies — that they gave women opportunities.
Jenni Konner, the co-showrunner for the HBO series “Girls,” has said that the revelations about Mr. Weinstein are a tipping point: “This is the moment we look back on and say, ‘That’s when it all started to change.’” I hope she’s right. One problem is that the entertainment industry is extraordinarily forgiving of those who have made it a lot of money, as Mel Gibson can tell you. It might glance at the fallen comrade on the floor, but only so it can step over the body en route to the next meeting. And if that comrade somehow gets on his feet again, the industry will ask if he has a new project. This forgiveness is often ascribed to the familiar line that the only thing the business cares about is money.
Money often serves as a rationale for some of the industry’s noxiousness, including its sexism and racism: We can’t hire women, blacks, etc., because they don’t sell. Outsiders tend to see the industry as liberal, and while insiders do promote progressive causes, the business hews to a fundamental conservatism. This conservatism shapes its story recycling, its exploitation of women (and men) and its preservation of a male-dominated, racially homogeneous system. Despite pressure, including from the likes of Ava DuVernay and Lena Dunham, the industry resists change. Those in power don’t see an upside in ceding it.
Although the allegations against Mr. Weinstein may not prove to be the necessary tipping point, they are part of growing feminist pressure to change the industry. Activists inside and outside the entertainment bubble are calling out its biases — and showing how those biases affect employment, which in turn affects representations and audiences. (According to The Los Angeles Times, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — spurred to action by the American Civil Liberties Union — began contacting female film and TV directors in 2015 to see what issues they’re facing.)
I hope real change comes soon, especially for the women working in the industry who each day are forced to fight sexism just so that they can do their jobs. I hope change comes because the movies need new and different voices and visions, something other than deadening, damaging stereotypes and storybook clichés. And I hope change comes for those of us who love movies. I’ve spent a lifetime navigating the contradictions of that love, grappling with the pleasures movies offer with the misogyny that too often has informed what happened behind the camera and what is onscreen. The movies can break your heart, but this isn’t the time only for tears. It is also the time for rage.
Continue reading the main story