Opinion

Sunday 16 December 2018

Sarah Caden: Weinstein didn't invent casting couch but he's now chief villain

There are Harvey Weinsteins everywhere but the movie business seems keen to keep afloat by pinning it all on this one guy, writes Sarah Caden

Harvey Weinstein.
Harvey Weinstein.

Sarah Caden

Last Thursday, a clip of Gwyneth Paltrow on The Late Show with David Letterman appeared online. She was 26 in the clip, well established in her career, and was joking with Letterman about being on his show when she should have been spending Thanksgiving with her family.

Letterman asked Paltrow if she had been "coerced" to appear on the show and, Paltrow, laughing, saying to Letterman: "Do you count Harvey Weinstein as a coercer?"

"I do all my movies for Harvey Weinstein, that's Miramax for all of you," she explained, "And I'm lucky to do them there, but he will coerce you to do things."

Her Letterman appearance came four years after the sexual harassment that Paltrow last week alleged she suffered at the hands of Weinstein as a 22-year-old starting out in Hollywood. She had been summoned to a hotel suite, Paltrow revealed, for a meeting about an adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. There, Weinstein put his hands on her and suggested going to the bedroom where she could give him a massage - massages and the wearing of bathrobes recur in the Weinstein stories.

"I was a kid, I was signed up, I was petrified," she said last week. However, Paltrow not only turned down his suggestion, but went and told her then boyfriend Brad Pitt, a much heavier Hollywood hitter at the time and he confronted Weinstein. The producer then told Paltrow never to speak of it to anyone again. "I thought he was going to fire me," she said last week.

There it is, the conflict that any person will understand if they have had even the slightest experience of sexually inappropriate behaviour as a flexing of power. She was scared he would sack her and that her career would be finished.

So, Paltrow shut up, until the ball began rolling in the last week or so. When her Letterman clip surfaced, the point was made that perhaps, with her laughing "coercer" comment, Paltrow was unmasking the movie producer. Maybe.

Instead, perhaps, it was an acknowledgement of a deal with the devil. At 22, Paltrow's greatest fear had been that Weinstein would sack her. At 26, she was kidding around about him coercing her, but she was also counting herself lucky to be part of his machine and she was on Letterman to plug Shakespeare in Love, for which she ultimately won her Oscar.

Weinstein, as everyone has conceded in the past week, was great at winning Oscars. That's part of why everyone wanted to stay in with him. That's part of why everyone stayed silent. That's why he thought he could get away with it. And he was getting away with it. Sure, he paid a few settlements, but that was small potatoes when he was flying high. And silence feeds silence.

Since The New York Times and former actress Rose McGowan have gone public with allegations of rape, the complaints against Weinstein are like a flood, varying from "he also harassed me" through "I knew but couldn't say", to "I heard the rumours but that was all".

And all of those reactions from Hollywood can be summed up by what George Clooney had to say in an interview on the topic: "…there's an argument that everyone is complicit in it". Clooney said in the same interview that he knew Weinstein liked to hit on young women, but never knew anything about paying off, threatening or victimising young women.

As ordinary women all over the world outside of Hollywood recalled their "Weinstein" moments last week, the key features of the actions and the reactions were not that dissimilar. Predators did stuff because they believed they could get away with it and victims most often put up and shut up because they didn't want to make a fuss, suffer the consequences, seem like a fool, or even hope that anyone would believe them.

There's no minimising the effect of shame on a person's ability to report that a sexual assault of any great or small significance has occurred. And that feeds the fear that no one will believe or care that it happened, so you shut up.

Personally, two key incidents in my life still make me feel more embarrassed than indignant. An afternoon in my teens when I was walking down O'Connell Street and a gang of boys of the same age walked towards me and, as we passed, all grabbed my breasts. It was like being punched in the face, but then, one of them realised that he knew me from school. He was shocked, and I was even more embarrassed because I'd have to face him again. But I said nothing, then, or later.

Later in life, I interviewed a much older man in his home who continually returned the conversation to his sexual preferences, which ran to voyeurism. It went on and on and I never said shut up, not even when he said he found me attractive. I still berate myself for the experience, far more than I blame him. I only ever told my husband. And on the condition he tell no one else, obviously, and why, because what would the point?

What would be the consequences?

Clearly, for years, beyond a few payouts, the consequences of Harvey Weinstein's behaviour were, for him, negligible. Everyone saw that. The optics, for those who heard the quietest or loudest rumours, or who had first-hand experience, were that Weinstein was unharmed by his behaviour. But other were not.

Rose McGowan, the original voice in this scandal, says her career was fatally damaged by speaking out against Weinstein's alleged rape of her. English actress Kate Beckinsale said last week that he behaved in a sexually inappropriate way towards her when she was only 17 and that her rebuffing of him detrimentally affected her career. Further, Beckinsale discussed warning young actresses about his behaviour. Specifically, she says that she told a male friend to warn a young actress friend who had an appointment with Weinstein and the producer allegedly later contacted this man to tell him he'd "never be in another Miramax film". The actress was, according to Beckinsale, sleeping with Weinstein and had told him about the warning. Verbal abuse, threats and promises to ruin their careers were hallmarks of Harvey Weinstein's reaction to being rejected, apparently.

No wonder nobody talked.

Last Thursday, in a TV interview in the US, actress Jane Fonda said that not only had she heard the rumours about Weinstein over time, but that last year, Rosanna Arquette, one of the actresses who alleges rape and subsequent ruin of her career, told her what had happened to her. Fonda was ashamed, she said last Thursday, that she had done nothing with this information.

Fonda spoke in Weinstein specifics, but the septuagenarian actress was also saying that this is how it has ever been in Hollywood. She should know, she's been in it forever, but can we honestly say that such a suggestion is any surprise? The casting couch has been talked about since silent films. Also, our attitude to movie stars is that they are otherworldly people who, as a sort of perk to their blessed good looks and celebrity, are all off having non-stop good-looking sex with each other.

Last week, Rose McGowan lashed out at Ben Affleck after he expressed dismay about Weinstein, and after that came allegations from other women of sexually inappropriate behaviour and groping by the actor down the years. Again, this was hardly surprising. Not because of Affleck specifically, but in general, because it would be disingenuous to deny that we view ready availability of willing sexual partners as a weird perk of being a movie star. It's not right, but it's the case.

As everyone rightly condemned the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein last week, the hope was expressed that this scandal might serve not only to shake up the Hollywood system but the worldwide attitude to secrecy around sexual impropriety, harassment and assault. We'll see. The various reactions still speak of a certain degree of people tiptoeing carefully for fear of destroying their lives and careers.

There have been suggestions that Weinstein is only one predator and that the film business is filled with similarly harassing heavy-hitters. They may be quaking in their boots, wondering and worrying will they be next, or they may not. It could be the case that Weinstein - no longer the power broker he was when Gwyneth Paltrow was "coerced" into giving up Thanksgiving - was an expendable casualty who will take the hit for everyone.

Behind the scenes, it's possible that they're allowing Weinstein to be the scapegoat, while the system makes clear to anyone who wants to keep working - not the older actresses, not the women who were already pariahs - but those who are forging their careers, that this needs to be contained for the greater good. Weinstein is over, but the show must go on.

What remains to be seen is whether everyone continues dancing to what is an age-old tune and not just Weinstein-specific.

Sunday Independent

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