As they move to enforce new standards of conduct in the post-Weinstein era, governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have been promising not to become, as their president John Bailey said in October, “an inquisitorial court.” But they might find it harder to keep from looking like a movie-land version of “The Harper Valley PTA.”
That was a story-song—as those old enough to remember, or to frequent Willie’s Roadhouse on satellite radio, will already know—written by Tom T. Hall and turned into a hit by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968. (Barbara Eden starred in the eponymous 1978 film.) In its lyric, one Mrs. Johnson gets incensed when her daughter comes home from Harper Valley Junior High with a note reprimanding Mom for bad behavior. “It’s been reported you’ve been drinkin’, and runnin’ round with men, and goin’ wild,” says the letter. No long-suffering Hester Prynne, Mrs. Johnson shows up that very day at a meeting of the Harper Valley PTA, and confronts her accusers, one-by-one with a catalog of their sins. “Well, this is just a little Peyton Place,” she declares. “And you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites!”
Hokey stuff. But there’s a caution in it for the Academy, whose various boards and executive councils—not to mention the general membership, now approaching 8,500 —are populated by mere mortals who, at one time or another, may have violated new behavioral standards so broadly drawn, they could make the Hays Code look easy. “There is no place in the Academy for people who abuse their status, power or influence in a manner that violates recognized standards of decency,” says the dictum recently sent to members by the Academy chief executive Dawn Hudson. It continues: “The Academy is categorically opposed to any form of abuse, harassment or discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion or nationality.”
With input from experts from Harvard, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Stanford, among others, the behavioral rule was devised by a task force headed by Academy secretary David Rubin, in his bylaws-mandated role as head of the membership and administration committee. An enforcement policy is yet to come. But that’s where an accused Mrs. or Mr. Johnson might have some fun. If the same task force had been organized in 2010, after all, it probably would have been led by John Lasseter, the Disney chief creative officer and nine-year Academy governor who was then secretary –and has recently taken a professional leave in the face of sexual misbehavior claims. In 2011 and 2012, the secretary was Annette Bening, who is married to Warren Beatty, who has not been shy about acknowledging that he used to casting process for Bugsy –of which he was the star and a producer–to lure Bening into a close encounter. He describes it in an interview with Peter Biskind for the book Star. Bening’s agent didn’t want her to meet Beatty at a restaurant near his Beverly Glen office. “He thought I was just going to make a pass at her. And it turned out he was right,” says Beatty—who was then what Biskind describes as a “locker room buddy” of James Toback, who has also been contending with recent harassment claims.
Once the finger-pointing starts, who’s to say where those violations of “recognized standards of decency” will end? Is one governor perhaps known for mistreating assistants, and by no means for engendering the now-required “supportive environment that fosters creativity”? Has another official been accused of tolerating the sexual harassment of one subordinate by another in the past? Was yet another surreptitiously recorded years ago while behaving badly?
And will similar missteps, both real and imagined, become a moral quagmire for a group whose members are suddenly expected to be not just talented, but good?