Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: It might be too on the nose for Hollywood to give movie treatment to the stunning downfall of Harvey Weinstein, but how’s this for a fortuitously timed movie package just now being shopped? Remember Susan Fowler, the Uber engineer whose blog post about sexual harassment within the juggernaut Silicon Valley ride-hailing service exposed a toxic culture of sexism and sexual harassment that eventually led to the ouster of seemingly untouchable CEO Travis Kalanick? She has pledged her life rights to a movie pitch – working title Disruptors — that will be written by Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures screenwriter Allison Schroeder. Former Disney exec Kristin Burr is producing what is being described as a potential Erin Brockovich meets The Social Network. Verve, which reps Schroeder and Fowler, has just sent the package to studios.
Fowler’s story is subtler than the drama unfolding in real time about Harvey Weinstein, but there is connective tissue. It reflects the course correction that is taking place in corporate cultures, finally giving women redress from suffering the slights of men and being afraid to kill their careers by complaining. Fowler detailed how, after joining Uber, she became part of a team. Her manager quickly sent her a string of messages about the open relationship he had with his girlfriend, and how he wasn’t having as much luck as she was in finding sexual partners. Fowler took this as a blatant attempt by her superior to get her to sleep with him. She took a screen shot of his come-on and reported him. Only to be told by HR that even though this was harassment, nothing would be done. The manager was highly regarded, it was his first offense; her choice was to forget about it, be reassigned or stay put, even though the manager, who knew he had been reported, might give her a poor performance review. Reassigned, Fowler wrote she later found out that manager was openly propositioning female team members. She also discovered and wrote about a sexist corporate culture where women saw their performance evaluations retroactively downgraded when it suited male managers. The long-term result was that for her, even getting to work at an exciting company in a charming city like San Francisco wasn’t enough to keep her and other women from finding other jobs. Staying in that male-dominated culture was untenable. Fowler’s blog post prompted an internal Uber investigation that saw over 20 employees fired, and finally cost Kalanick his CEO post.
Peter, this movie doesn’t have all the graphic accusations of ham-handed propositions allegedly made by Weinstein, who fell as precipitously as did Uber’s Kalanick. This Uber movie seems worth telling onscreen. Do you think anyone will make a movie about what just transpired in Hollywood over the past four days?
BART: The story you cite is very relevant for this reason: Whistleblowers hold the key to defeating sexual harassment. Victims have to come forth and tell their stories. And companies that harbor a locker room mentality – Fox News as well as The Weinstein Company – have to live up to their responsibilities. This is all the more difficult when Donald Trump himself champions “locker room” chatter. But here’s the good news: Companies that have looked the other way on sexual harassment are paying a heavier price than ever before. Look at the outrage over Harveygate. Or the problems Rupert Murdoch is facing in the UK in his efforts to control Sky – the regulators are disturbed by the legacy of Roger Ailes at Fox News.
The tales being told by the whistleblowers are alarmingly similar to the anecdotes related in countless memoirs written by or about movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe. It’s as though Harvey studied the clumsy come-ons of the Louis B. Mayers or Harry Cohns – pathetic pleas for geriatric sex. The great Roddy McDowell, who grew up with starlets at the old MGM school, used to recite story after story to me about how studio producers and executives came on to the teenage girls. And many of them submitted while others had to guts to slam the door and walk out. Roddy admired the rebels. Clearly the rebels are needed today. And so are tough rules and tough regulators.
FLEMING: I was in London when all of this unfolded. New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey achieved a level of top-shelf journalism we rarely see in this gotcha clickbait period we live in right now. The opening anecdote by Ashley Judd painted a picture of what it must be like for a young woman to be crudely propositioned and have to weigh the consequences of saying no. Add to that quotes from former Miramax exec Mark Gill, and revelations about eight hush-money payouts. Weinstein denied everything – even as he acknowledged needing help –and said he would sue NYT. I didn’t see anything actionable at all in that article. Just a lot of courage displayed by Judd, Gill and those journalists who called Weinstein to task. The stories that have followed have been just disgusting. Do people really behave that way?
BART: There are many disturbing elements to Harveygate but one argument used in his defense struck me as especially off-putting: He argued that he was a product of the ’70s and, as such, had developed behavior patterns that supposedly were appropriate for that era – habit patterns he was unable to change. Well the ’70s take the blame (and credit) for a lot of things, but I don’t buy the argument. Having been around in that period (and having worked at three studios) I don’t think that the manners and mores of that moment were essentially that much different from today. But the consequences carry vastly more weight.
Was the casting couch a busy place then? Yes, but alas it’s just as busy today. In Victoria Wilson’s great book on Barbara Stanwyck, Harry Cohn is quoted as declaring: “Stanwyck is not an actress, she’s a porcupine” (Barbara fiercely rejected his advances). Sexual harassment in various forms is as prevalent and pernicious today as it was at that time. In some ways, however, the ’70s were a healthier scene and Harvey should have observed that. The newcomers in the industry were so consumed in exploring new ideas and exploiting new opportunities, that they were too busy to exploit one another. There was tremendous energy in pre-corporate Hollywood but, sure, sex, drugs and rock-n-roll also had their predatory components. But the sexism and sexual harassment that pervades today seems somehow more organized and premeditated. And at the environment of Fox News it apparently was officially condoned from the top. So, Harvey, the important thing you learned in the ’70s was how to put together damn good movies. The darker things you brought to the table are still present today. But you should have learned how to deal with them by now.
FLEMING: There are several projects in the works about the boorish male-dominated culture of Fox News, and I wrote recently about Amazon Studios picking up the Escape Artists-produced Linda and Monica, the Flint Wainess Black List script about the friendship between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp that led to President Bill Clinton nearly being tossed out of the White House. What is interesting is how things have changed. Remember how harshly Tripp was judged back then, down to how John Goodman played her in those Saturday Night Live skits? Would a whistleblower nowadays be depicted as anything other than courageous, even if she was informing on a friend who didn’t want the scandal?
BART: The media attention accorded Harveygate has stirred this inevitable question: Why wasn’t all this disclosed years ago? In some ways the situation is reminiscent of the David Begelman affair of the ’70s when the Wall Street Journal exposed the Columbia studio chief’s thievery. The expose was a rude reminder that the Hollywood press had been too soft on the studios. Has the media in recent years been too soft on the issue of the casting couch? The answer is probably “yes,” but again, exposes of sexual misconduct are dependent on the courage of one or two key sources coming forward. There have been many stories about sexism and sexual harassment in the media, but the New York Times deserves credit for persuading several key sources to tell their stories. Their impact has been formidable.
FLEMING: NYT, which shied from the story in previous years, was well suited to brave a potential lawsuit and the work here was as good and important as that Begelman expose. We are in an exceptional moment where you can be quickly exposed and ended by this viral court of public opinion. But people asking how this sexual harassment could have gone on so long forget the same question was asked about Jerry Sandusky at Penn State or the pedophile Boston Catholic priests bared in Spotlight. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of dogged journalists finding a little luck, liked some slipped internal documents baring payoffs, or getting an Ashley Judd to speak on the record. As for the idea that we were all supposed to know this harassment was going on, I didn’t know. I rarely see the volcanic, baser sides of people in Hollywood. You hear things, you inquire and things are denied. Usually it is about a phone being thrown at an assistant; rarely does it cross into the vile sexual territory bared by those NYT reporters. It is rare to get the corroborations needed to get these stories past the lawyers. The NYT reporters kept up the stellar work today, baring memos between the remaining members of the board of directors, and Harvey’s brother Bob (who became chairman when his sibling was dismissed last night) that illuminated the maelstrom going on within that company right now.
As for Weinstein himself, he was clearly in denial about the seriousness of the allegations, and made every possible wrong PR move to spin it. That included hiring feminist lawyer Lisa Bloom, who explained away his boorish behavior clumsily and then abruptly quit when more testimonials cropped up and she realized going on like this could drag her down. Weinstein meanwhile claimed he would take down the NRA; it rang hollow, like he was trying to change the subject on an issue nobody else was done with. It all served the purpose of pouring gas on a raging fire. Mindful that more of these incidents could be made public – actress Rose McGowan is said to be writing a book, and what will she say? — the company had to let him go, kicking and screaming and unable to get the industry to save him. The TWC investors thought they had a way to cash out awhile back when ITV wanted to buy the TV company. That prospect vanished after the police complaint filed by an aspiring actress. The hope now is to sell half that TV company, and there are series lined up with big talent. The board isn’t messing around: The Weinstein Company is now trying to expunge all evidence of Harvey’s name in programming and, as my colleague Nellie Andreeva revealed today, by changing the company name.
BART: The media has raised this question about Harveygate: Why aren’t important producers and agents and corporate CEOs rushing to denounce Harvey? Here are some answers: What’s at risk for a CEO who denounces sexual harassment, then learns of incidents in his own company that he has failed to act upon? Corporate danger lurks everywhere on this issue. Then there’s another issue: A lot of people truly like Harvey Weinstein for reasons that are being suddenly ignored. He is a brilliant man; he can be abrasive in business meetings but he can also be charming and insightful. Yes, he has bullied some filmmakers about their cuts, but I have witnessed incidents in which his edits have vastly improved films – perhaps saved them. Then there’s the political dimension: The voices of the “hard right” are using Harveygate as an excuse to link progressives with sexual excess. The New York Times conservative op ed columnist, Ross Douthat, managed to tie Harveygate to Chappaqiddick to Hugh Hefner in arguing that “liberal men” propound a form of “sexual individualism” that translates into harassment. His weird essay is titled “the Pigs of Liberalism.” His advice: ”If liberals want to restrain the ogres in their midst, a few conservative ideas might be helpful.” Really? I’ll consult the White House on that.
FLEMING: Several reasons many have been reluctant to condemn Weinstein. Hollywood is not a town known for courage: remember when George Clooney and Bryan Lourd tried to get other studios to sign a petition of support for Sony after the hack attack, and nobody would? I suspect people didn’t answer the call to knee-jerk condemn Harvey, nor vouch for his character, because they wanted to see what else surfaces. Me, I have had my run-ins with Harvey over the years, but the rough edges have been smoothed over. I have found him to be engaging, smart and encyclopedic in his knowledge of films, which he has shown in occasional columns he has written for Deadline. He probably has more Oscars on his mantel than anyone around and a force for social change and liberal causes in his political life. All that threatens to become a footnote; this scandal could become his defining moment even though he has not been charged with a crime. The stories are abhorrent and unless his Gawker-killing attorney Charles Harder challenges his accusers in court, Weinstein might see more tawdry testimonials surface before we move on to the inevitable next scandal.
The bright spot here is that in no reputable industry will sexual harassment be tolerated as a deep dark secret anymore. Others who’ve misbehaved in this fashion in Hollywood should be in a cold sweat right now. It only took four days from the publication of that NYT story for a Hollywood heavweight like Weinstein to be dismissed.