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People like Harvey Weinstein have stayed in power not just because of rape culture, but the layout of Hollywood at large.
I got my first chance to meet Harvey Weinstein this summer, at the Cannes Film Festival’s screening of Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River. The encounter, at the time, felt precipitous to me, but looking back it seems it was even more so. There are a few features still set to come through the pipeline, but it’s likely Wind River will be the last commercial success produced by The Weinstein Company powerhouse. As of Thursday, October 26, plans have fallen through for the company to receive a cash infusion, from the private equity firm Colony NorthStar, and financial ruin now seems inevitable.
Though it was only five months ago, Harvey Weinstein was the antipode of the pariah we see him as now; he was easily the most powerful man in Hollywood. I was among the first into the Salle Debussy, in anticipation of the new film, but found Weinstein already there, evidently having access to a back door. He was seated at the front row of the upper mezzanine, talking animatedly on Bluetooth as held to his tuxedoed knee a large bag of ice. He looked not unlike Tony Soprano shortly after performing a hit. His wife, Georgina Chapman, was among the last in the theater, arriving ten minutes later with a full glass of champagne and a massive white dress snaking behind her up the red carpet. They didn’t do much catching up as the house lights dimmed. Uma Thurman, who came in shortly after the regular audience as part of the jury for Un Certain Regard, caught his eye and waved sweetly, no doubt in deference to the career he helped her make for her in Pulp Fiction and the two Kill Bills.
I was at the time an intern for the American Pavilion, a members-only cultural center set up on the beach behind the theaters, which runs a program annually taking around two-hundred college students to work and learn at the festival. The Weinstein Company, a major sponsor of the Pavilion, always picked some of the more experienced interns each summer to help supervise meetings on Harvey’s yacht, and though I was merely manning the Pavilion coffee booth, I’d become good friends with one of these lucky few, a guy named Christian. For the herd of interns, Weinstein rumors were our lifeblood, gossip with an emphasis on the surreal.
Nothing was normal about Harvey Weinstein’s status, his role as kingmaker, or the aggression with which he did business.
While I never heard the claim of sexual harassment or assault during my two weeks there, the rumor mill endowed this producer with all the traits to support his habit – aggression, and entitlement that come part and parcel with positions of extreme power. I heard that he needed his temperature set exactly (hard to do on a yacht); that after lunch-meetings interns should take caution with leftovers, since Harvey licked what he didn’t touch; that if you were under him you weren’t allowed to speak or look directly at him.
Christian, who was able to form his own impressions, dismissed most of the outlandish stuff, though the powerlessness to speak felt inherent in his lowly position.
“He’s just a normal guy,” he’d tell colleagues when they asked, in defiance of rumors that had, in turn, made Christian something of an intern celebrity. But that wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear – nothing was normal about Weinstein’s status, his role as kingmaker, or the aggression with which he did business. Anyone who said otherwise was kidding themselves.
In this way, when the news broke of Weinstein’s numerous accounts of sexual misconduct, allegations going back years and confirmed by the testimony of women ranging from Angelina Jolie to Zoe Brock (as well as evidence from a 2015 NYPD sting operation), it was surprising and it wasn’t. The astounding number of women who have come forward because of this man baffles the mind in a double bind – it’s hard to imagine that so many could have been violated under a veil of silence, and harder still to imagine that veil lifted after all this time.
Wrapping my mind around a history of sexual abuse by someone who dominates others for a living wasn’t hard, just severely troubling. But it’s another thing entirely to try and understand the culture of Weinstein’s workplace and way his industry allowed him to be so successful despite his consistently abhorrent behavior.
To me, this has been the most difficult part of the story, learning just how he pulled off his long career of unsolicited sexual acts, including rape. Too often we still think of rapists as predators slinking under the cover of darkness, but the reality is that many of these serial assaulters act not just in daylight, but in the spotlight.
The #MeToo campaign has, in part, generated a response to Weinstein’s fall from grace with an interest in outing other powerful sexual predators, and in the wake of his leave of absence, the head of Amazon Studios, the editorial director of Vox Media, the publisher of Artforum, and a major celebrity chef have all stepped down from their companies due to sexual misconduct claims. Each of these men had used the system they helped create to their advantage and didn’t act alone. Hearing Weinstein’s associates recall helping him to get women of interest alone in a hotel or boardroom gives a much less tactile meaning to the phrase “behind closed doors,” and it makes me wonder now, as I’m sure Christian has, what violating acts my friend may have unknowingly abetted.
Too often we still think of rapists as predators slinking under the cover of darkness, but the reality is that many of these serial assaulters act not just in daylight, but in the spotlight. The #MeToo campaign has, in part, generated a response to Weinstein’s fall from grace with an interest in outing other powerful sexual predators, and in the wake of his leave of absence, the head of Amazon Studios, the editorial director of Vox Media, the publisher of Artforum, and a major celebrity chef have all stepped down from their companies due to sexual misconduct claims. Each of these men had used the system they helped create to their advantage and didn’t act alone. Hearing Weinstein’s associates recall helping him to get women of interest alone in a hotel or boardroom gives a much less tactile meaning to the phrase “behind closed doors,” and it makes me wonder now, as I’m sure Christian has, what violating acts my friend may have unknowingly abetted.
We still think of rapists as predators slinking under the cover of darkness, but the reality is that many of these serial assaulters act not just in daylight, but in the spotlight.
Understanding how and why these men were able to act with impunity for so long is difficult, but the answer lies not with Hervey Weinstein, but The Weinstein Company. Like I said before, TWC is in major financial straits and getting close to declaring bankruptcy, which only speaks to its founder’s power. Harvey was The Weinstein Company, and investor’s trust in it was limited to their trust in him. Those complicit in his routine degradation of women knew that to out him meant their jobs too, and sealed the fate of all their coworkers. Watching the Weinstein Company crumble now, I don’t feel bad for those who let Harvey get away with this, but I blame a culture and industry that let them think his behavior could go on, unchecked, forever.
The film world is a fascinating place for this all to play out, as it is for any interpersonal issues because it’s a system in which all power, no matter how inflated, rests squarely on the perceptions of the consumer. This is true of businesses in general, but horrifying practices can be concealed most other places by an insulation of disinterest, whereas interest and intrigue are Hollywood’s bread and butter. In the media and beyond, consumers spoke out against what they saw, but it’s going to take a systematic change to prevent it from happening again. Hervey Weinstein got the license to act not just through rape culture, but the film industry itself, which lauded on him all the power he then abused.
I’m young, and in many ways still very idealistic about the magic of filmmaking, but this isn’t an industry I want to work for if power can be so thoughtlessly concentrated that way again, to the point where we incentivize turning a blind eye to violence.
As is, I now know to worry when the powerful get cavalier. Back in Cannes, after Wind River combusted into end credits and Taylor Sheridan got his ovation, a few of us interns ended up bottlenecked next to Weinstein as we streamed out the exit.
“What’d you think of the movie?” he asked some of the boys, unimaginably nonchalant. Later, it made sense that he was in search of feedback from his target demographic, but in the moment this felt like a question from God. This was apparent to both parties. Harvey Weinstein knew exactly who we were, the underdressed unhandsome adolescents, and exactly the level of worship us interns gave. “Oh it was great,” my friend Saul shakily replied for us. I hadn’t thought so but knew, given the circumstances, that dissent wasn’t something he would take, or even know how to hear. I did my best to attempt a nervous nod.
“You sure you didn’t fall asleep?” Harvey Weinstein responded with a cracked smile. Clearly, he wasn’t waiting for an answer. He stepped in front us and exited first, leaving our calls of “No, no,” behind him in the warm night.