In his acclaimed crime fiction novel The Black Dahlia, James Ellroy chronicles the real-life 1947 murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, and the seedy backdrop of post-war Hollywood against which it occurred. His narrator, Bucky Bleichert, an LAPD ofwficer, says of the victim: “We know Betty was movie-struck and promiscuous, and that she bragged about being in a movie last November, so my bet is that she wouldn’t turn down a role on the casting couch.”
It was perhaps a fair bet. Back then, the casting couch – a euphemistic term denoting the trading of sexual favours for career advancement – was the worst-kept secret of Tinseltown’s booming film industry. Seventy years on, we might expect times to have changed. But if the Harvey Weinstein scandal has shown us anything, it’s that they have not.
On Sunday, the Oscar-winning producer behind countless A-list careers and a string of blockbuster films was fired from his own company following a series of sexual harassment allegations against him, stretching back to 1990. For decades, he had been paying off his accusers and had reached at least eight settlements with women, two company officials told The New York Times.
Some women have now gone on the record with their stories. Actress Ashley Judd has described how, two decades ago, she was invited by Weinstein to the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, where he allegedly had her sent up to his room and asked if he could give her a massage or if she could watch him shower. Actress Rose McGowan, who reportedly reached a $100,000 settlement with Weinstein in 1997 following an episode in a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival, has broken cover since the newspaper’s exposé, and appealed to others to do likewise.
“Ladies of Hollywood, where are you?” she wrote on Twitter. “Ladies of Hollywood, your silence is deafening.”
The silence, according to some, also smacks of hypocrisy, given many of the industry’s leading lights were only too keen to use their platform to condemn President Trump after the infamous “Grab them [women] by the p—–” tape was leaked this time last year. .
Weinstein himself is one of the most high profile donors to the Democrats, having given almost $1m in his own name since 2000. Like many fellow members of politically progressive Hollywood, he supported Hillary Clinton’s bids to become the first female president of the United States. In January he joined in the Women’s March at Park City in Utah. Behind the scenes, however, he was allegedly busy setting back the cause of equality quite some way.
Since The New York Times piece, television anchor Lauren Sivan has alleged that while working for a New York cable channel in 2007, Long Island 12, Weinstein cornered her in the hallway of a Manhattan restaurant closed to the public and masturbated in front of her. After she had rejected his attempt to kiss her, he had allegedly said: “Well, can you just stand there and shut up.”
Shut up many women did. At least in public. A Los Angeles-based source, who has met Weinstein on a number of occasions, claims: “In Hollywood, everyone’s always known about Weinstein. There was constant talk about him staying in various LA hotels and having women come to meet him there, conducting all his meetings from hotels instead of offices. To anyone who’s ever lived or worked in Hollywood, this is the least surprising story ever.”
Some time ago, she says, Weinstein was reputed to carry around with him a “box of tricks” containing various paraphernalia, chief among which was Viagra. The lid may have just been lifted on his conduct, but to many an insider, the likes of Weinstein have been hiding in plain sight. The roll-call of actresses who’ve spoken out against casting-couch culture undoubtedly represent a fraction of the true number who’ve experienced it.
Alison Brie has previously described how she was asked to remove her top while auditioning for a minor role in HBO series Entourage early in her career. Thandie Newton has detailed how a director “had a camera shooting up my skirt and asked me to touch my t*** and think about the guy making love to me in the scene,” during a casting audition early in her own career, which she later discovered he was showing to friends after poker parties.
Others have spoken of the pressure to flirt, to wear skimpy or revealing clothing or to perform sexual favours at auditions. Not all have done so publicly, but a forum set up by American actress Meissa Hampton in 2015, called S#!t People Say To Actresses, gave those who wish to remain anonymous a space to share their horror stories. A recent post reads: “I once met with a director who said he ‘preferred’ actresses who would be willing to sleep with him because the character was very sexual, so if the actress was willing to go to bed with him, he would know that she could carry the part.”
So is the Weinstein scandal the latest sign that the culture of silence is starting to shift? Sivan, when asked why she was going public now, wrote on Twitter: “For those asking why I waited? You try telling that story 10 years ago. Only possible now because of women with bigger names far braver than me.”
But although each high profile figure who speaks out makes it that bit easier for everyone else, calling out sexism in Hollywood is by no means a given yet.
“Part of the reason people are remaining silent is that a certain percentage of them will have readily gone along with this culture and don’t want that to come out,” says my LA source. “The amorality in Hollywood is such that people will readily flirt with those in positions of power or offer themselves up if they think it will get them somewhere.”
Moreover, there is no doubting how huge a figure Weinstein has loomed in the industry: the co-founder of Miramax, his credits include films such as Pulp Fiction and The King’s Speech, and he’s even been made an honorary CBE in recognition of his contribution to the British film industry. In 2012, Meryl Streep referred to him as “God” when accepting a Golden Globe for her role in the Weinstein Company-produced film The Iron Lady. Yesterday, she came forward to condemn his alleged “abuse of power” as disgraceful.
Judi Dench, who was so grateful to Harvey Weinstein for her Hollywood success in Mrs Brown, Shakespeare In Love and Philomena that she had ‘JD loves HW’ fake tattooed on her bottom, released a statement yesterday confirming she “was completely unaware of these offences which are, of course, horrifying and I offer my sympathy to those who have suffered, and wholehearted support to those who have spoken out.”
Yet much has been forgiven of talented men in Hollywood: witness how Roman Polanski’s career has flourished, despite his admission to the statutory rape of a 13-year-old in the 1970s. There is a sense among some that certain figures are unassailable.
Claudia Eller, the editor of film industry journal Variety, told The New York Times: “Part of the reason is that Hollywood always protects its own… and there is still a lot of fear.”
In other words, there remains a question mark over whether Weinstein’s career is truly over. And if it’s not, well, who would want to alienate a man with such reserves of power?
“The culture won’t change overnight,” says my source. But the floodgates have opened. Weinstein issued a lengthy statement last week, acknowledging he’d caused “a lot of pain” and requesting “a second chance”. And yesterday reports emerged that he had sent a last-minute email to agents and studio executives, begging for their support. He wanted, he wrote, to go to counselling and to ‘resurrect myself with a second chance”.
Hollywood loves a story of redemption. But McGowan, at least, is in an unforgiving mood. “I raise my sword to all who fight for truth and justice,” she declared on Twitter. “We will prevail.”