At the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, the most telling books on Darryl F. Zanuck – The Zanucks of Hollywood: The Dark Legacy of a Hollywood Dynasty by Marlys Harris, and Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Last Tycoon by Leonard Mosley, for instance – were listed as being “in use” somewhere in the Academy.
Whether the group is planning a tribute or a reckoning is hard to say. But someone is taking a close look at a long-deceased producer and executive who may be giving the Academy governors heartburn as they prepare for a hastily convened Saturday meeting to review the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse claims.
Zanuck, who was mostly associated with 20th Century Fox before his death in 1979, was also closely tied to the Academy. Three times, he won its Thalberg award for achievement in producing, including the inaugural award, in 1937. He was never president of the group, but he served on its governing board. And over time, he became a benefactor. The Herrick, a research library, has at least three collections of Zanuck papers and memorabilia – a trove that could prove invaluable as curators begin devising shows and exhibits for the (eternally) under-construction movie museum.
But Zanuck, who was in and out of Fox several times through the decades, also carried baggage that will make Saturday’s examination of Weinstein’s membership an extraordinary test for the Academy. To be blunt, Zanuck, as a studio chief and otherwise, abused women in a way that makes Harvey Weinstein – even if all the many accusations prove true – look like a piker.
Over at the Beverly Hills public library on Friday, Harris’s Dark Legacy book was still on the shelf. In it, any interested reader could learn that Zanuck – governor, benefactor, three-time recipient of a lifetime achievement award – went through contract actresses like tissue paper. “He was not serious about any of the women,” wrote Harris. “To him they were merely pleasurable breaks in the day – like polo, lunch, and practical jokes.”
Actresses were routinely summoned to a small part of his large, green-paneled office suite, in which he kept the casting couch. This was hardly a secret. As Harris wrote: “Anyone at the studio knew of the afternoon trysts.” Gossips said the studio shut down for a half-hour at 4 p.m. every day, while Zanuck had his way.
In the early 1980s, a Fox rep, conducting a private tour of the studio’s Century City lot, matter-of-factly described subterranean passages which, he said, were used by actresses who didn’t want to be seen on their sex trips to and from Zanuck’s office. The Underground Railroad, this was not. In fact, Zanuck’s record of harassment leaves something of a Confederate monuments problem at Fox today: Can anyone offended by Weinstein’s behavior feel entirely comfortable in Fox’s beautifully appointed Darryl F. Zanuck Theater? Or should it perhaps be renamed for an executive or producer who treated women better?
As for the Academy, it will be fascinating to see how the governors – fresh off the #Oscarssowhite controversy – handle the history problem. Will they ignore the long record of abuse by Academy-connected players like Zanuck? Or will they dive in, perhaps making sexual misbehavior this Oscar season’s dominant theme?