Five Painful Lessons from the Weinstein Scandal

Harvey Weinstein at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (Reuters photo: Eric Gaillard)
Let’s not move on to distant and more politically convenient scapegoats just yet.

We’re in week two of the Weinstein scandal, meaning that the story is no longer on the front pages and is now becoming a convenient cudgel for a lot of oddly distant causes: “Zionism.” “Patriarchy and capitalism.” The “toxic masculinity” in American culture.

Let’s not let the conversation stray too far from what’s already clear, and worthy of further scrutiny. There are five key points we must never forget.

One: “Everybody knew.” If not everyone, then an exceptionally wide range of people in the movie business knew about Weinstein’s predatory behavior and chose to avert their eyes. On his Facebook page, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg wrote a brutally honest portrait of life during the early days at Miramax Films, a heady combination of glamour, fame, wild parties, beautiful people . . . and a not-really-hidden knowledge that the wealthy man at the center of the Bacchanalia demanded sex from actresses in exchange for starring roles.


Not that he was raping.

No, that we never heard.

But we were aware of a certain pattern of overly-aggressive behavior that was rather dreadful.

We knew about the man’s hunger; his fervor; his appetite.

There was nothing secret about this voracious rapacity; like a gluttonous ogre out of the Brothers Grimm.

All couched in vague promises of potential movie roles.

(and, it should be noted: there were many who actually succumbed to his bulky charms. Willingly. Which surely must have only impelled him to cast his fetid net even wider).

But like I said: everybody-[expletive]-knew.

Think about how many Hollywood movies in the past three decades celebrated courage, whistleblowers, and doing the right thing in the face of adversity. The odds are good that some of the people who wrote, directed, and starred in those films knew about Weinstein and did nothing.

Perhaps everyone in Hollywood knew because everyone had experienced some variation of Weinstein’s behavior. While every profession has its share of creeps and weirdos, it is difficult to imagine a man in another business culture thriving for decades while demanding sex in exchange for favors from every attractive woman he meets. As John Podhoretz observed, “There’s a ‘casting couch,’ there’s no ‘insurance-adjustor couch.’” The practice of asking for sex while casting roles is apparently common enough for Equity, the United Kingdom trade union for actors, to declare in a manifesto, “No sex act should be requested at any audition.” In most workplaces, the moral and legal troubles that stem from doing this are so blindingly obvious that the rule never has to be said out loud.

Two: The people in the best position to stop him chose to enable him. Weinstein apparently sought and obtained a contract provision that barred the Weinstein Company from firing him in the face of code-of-conduct violations such as sexual harassment; he was to be fined instead. This is, to put it mildly, highly unusual. Very few employees in any other profession would have the nerve to ask for such a provision, much less the leverage to obtain it.

Some entertainment-industry employment lawyers contend that this provision blows up the company’s claim that it didn’t know about the conduct, and that the language might even put the company at legal risk, as it suggests that the company condoned the conduct. The contract negotiations would have been the perfect opportunity for Weinstein’s partners to confront the fact that his behavior was inexcusable and intolerable. Instead, they insist they believed Weinstein had only a series of consensual affairs.

Three: Hollywood has a watchdog press, but it’s facing the wrong direction, protecting the powerful from the comparatively powerless. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the New York Times and The New Yorker reported most of the allegations against Weinstein; the specialty publications have a much more symbiotic relationship with the industry’s movers and shakers. They can’t adequately cover the industry without access, and their access dries up if they cross the wrong power player.

The Huffington Post offered an ugly portrait of former Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart:

Bart, who at his height was one of the most powerful chroniclers of the film industry, was an eager and useful co-conspirator. Interviews with former reporters and editors at Variety describe him as one of Weinstein’s greatest protectors.

. . . One said that Bart would pull people off the Miramax beat if the coverage was too harsh. “He definitely was doing Harvey favors,” said the employee. “All the coverage was just golden.”

Another said that publicists would threaten reporters looking into negative stories about Miramax by saying, “All right, well Harvey’s just going to call Peter then.”

. . .

Said a third former Variety staffer: “He had certain sacred cows, and one of them was Harvey Weinstein.” After a while, they said, reporters just learned to self-censor on the subject of Weinstein. When they didn’t, Bart just tweaked the stories to his liking.

Bart also insists, despite his status as one of the best-connected reporters in Hollywood, that he never heard about Weinstein’s sexually predatory behavior.

Four: Some men were willing to stand up to Weinstein, but lacked the power, influence, or leverage to make much difference. One of the common responses to cases of egregious male behavior is a call on good men to do more to prevent, deter, or punish it.

For what it is worth, People offers a heartening story of actor Brad Pitt finally standing up to Weinstein:

“Brad threatened Harvey,” says the source. “He got right in his face, poked him in the chest and said, ‘You will not ever do this to Gwyneth [Paltrow] ever again.’”

The source adds that Pitt “made it clear there would be consequences” if Weinstein tried anything again, and “described it as giving Harvey a ‘Missouri whooping.’” (Pitt grew up in Springfield, Mo.)

But it’s clear that Pitt’s threat didn’t dissuade Weinstein from engaging in similar behavior with other actresses. It is also worth noting that Paltrow and Pitt went on to work with Weinstein on other films after this exchange.

Filmmaker Michael Caton-Jones told BuzzFeed of a clash with Weinstein over casting an actress for B. Monkey. Weinstein pushed for Asia Argento. Caton-Jones vehemently objected, openly expressing his suspicion that Weinstein’s libido was driving the decision, and Weinstein fired Caton-Jones as director. Caton-Jones told Variety about the experience, but the allegations never saw print.

Argento says Weinstein raped her in 1997, around the time the movie was being distributed

The ‘good men need to do more’ argument is a bit of a logistical cop-out.

The “good men need to do more” argument is a bit of a logistical cop-out, as most good men aren’t in a position to see, intervene, or truly deter the behavior. Sexual predators usually attempt to isolate their intended victims in part because they fear retribution from other men. The world is full of boyfriends, husbands, fathers, and brothers who violently object to attempts to sexually exploit their loved ones.

As Philip Klein observes, men who are not creeps generally dislike hanging around with creeps. Talk of “toxic masculinity” right now feels like an effort to shift responsibility from Weinstein himself to all men, regardless of how they individually treat women.

Five: Liberal politics can serve as a fig leaf to cover up unacceptable behavior. The horrid stories about Weinstein aren’t that different from the sordid accusations against President Trump. But only one of the two figures had been warmly embraced by those who contend they care the most about women’s rights. Weinstein was a huge donor to the Clintons, funded a gender-studies professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name, donated $100,000 to Planned Parenthood’s most recent gala, and produced a documentary about sexual assault. He seemed to think this bought him immunity, and it’s easy to wonder if it did.

Back in January, Weinstein joined the local branch of the Women’s March at the Sundance Film Festival. At an annual event, where Miramax and the Weinstein Group are familiar presences, think about how many people in attendance must have known or at least heard about Weinstein’s predatory behavior. But as far as anyone can tell, no one confronted him about it, and everyone kept their focus on the big bad creep in the White House. Everyone held their tongue about the irony of denouncing Trump as being bad for women while marching alongside a serial predator.

If nothing else, as president, Donald Trump will always be subjected to relentless public scrutiny for how he treats women. The question is, how many more Harvey Weinsteins are out there, scrutinized by no one?


The Hollywood Conspiracy of Silence

Hollywood’s Diseased Culture

Weinstein’s Creepy Contract


The Latest