Bart & Fleming: Should Leslie Moonves Continue To Lead CBS After Devastating Sex Harass Allegations?

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Leslie Moonves

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

FLEMING: On the next-to-last day of July and the onset of the summer dog days, we should be talking about Tom Cruise’s remarkable physical performance in the summer tour de force Mission: Impossible – Fallout, or how Cruise and The Equalizer 2’s Denzel Washington brought back fond memories of when the star system ruled movies, with audiences reliably turning out to see their next films. But we are in a different moment right now. My question to you: Given Ronan Farrow’s devastating airing of decades-old sexual harassment accusations against Les Moonves that strayed creepily close to Harvey Weinstein territory in encounters described by actress Illeana Douglas and five other women, does Moonves deserve to stay in his job as one of Hollywood’s most powerful chief executives? Some might say that Moonves’ allegations don’t sink quite to the level of the accusations against Weinstein, but then again, Moonves is the CEO of a blue-chip, multi-million dollar publicly traded company, which Weinstein was not. Others might cite the curious proximity of these revelations to Moonves’ boardroom feud with Shari Redstone, but it looks from here like Moonves has no one to blame but himself. This stuff read pretty bad. Peter, should CBS resist the quick guillotine routine employed by Disney, which today saw the entire cast of Guardians of the Galaxy demanding the studio to reinstate director James Gunn, who was ousted quickly because of old loathsome tweets? Moonves’ alleged indiscretions are even older, but based on actions, not words?

BART: I do not like to be uncomfortable, and there are several aspects of this dialogue that make me acutely uncomfortable. First, we have a rush to judgment. The careers of people who have made extraordinary contributions are being put under a cloud – often a terminal cloud – by those who demand instant verdicts. Even when subsequent investigations “clear” an individual, that is not enough to satisfy the jury  — even fair-minded jurors like yourself, Mike.

Second, I am uncomfortable that these accusations date back many years, even decades.  It isn’t just that memories are fuzzy or that the instinct for revenge helps makes them fuzzier. Here’s the bigger problem: Standards of behavior have changed over the years, as David Rhodes, the able President of CBS News noted the other day. People are behaving differently – and are expected to behave differently.

Let me get personal. When I first got into the movie business a generation ago I was appalled by the standards of behavior of that moment.  Were executives coming on to women? Of course. Were women lined up to implore me to introduce them to Bob Evans, Warren Beatty or Jack Nicholson, all of whom I was now working with day by day?  The lines were formidable, and the women knew what they were letting themselves in for.

Was I personally aware of these ‘issues?’  Of course I was. I remember when a talented producer named Julia Phillips questioned me on the phone as to why I wanted to meet her alone in my office. She was pitching me an expensive sci-fi picture at the time. My reason for the request: I had seen her in a restaurant and noticed that part of her hair had been burned off, so I wanted to ask her confidentially, person to person, if she had been free-basing.  We finally had our one-on-one meeting, and she admitted to her narcotics problem. It was a friendly meeting, with no sexual overtures  (she later wrote in her memoir that I had turned her down because I did not trust women to be producers; in fact, I didn’t trust free-basing women).

The professional standards of Hollywood were shabby in extreme in the ‘60s and ‘70s and much of the ‘80s.  But look back even further: The moguls who put together the Motion Picture Association of America were a scandalous group of characters who established their group to fight the labor union movement and to suppress the bad image of the industry that their personal behavior had created.  Now, of course, the MPAA has established standards of behavior and have set about to judge the morals of their professional  members.

None of this is intended to excuse the reprehensible behavior of those power players who have abused their positions. On the other hand, I think it is important to accept the fact that times change and I think it is important to consider issues in that context.

FLEMING: I say Moonves has to go — with a big if. If the CBS board and the law firm it hired to investigate corroborates these findings, particularly the accusations made by Douglas, he cannot lead CBS into this next chapter where it is fused with Viacom. Of course, I don’t how seriously to take the internal investigations that have cleared Ryan Seacrest and more recently Chris Hardwick. Are they predisposed to take the side of the alleged scoundrel? After Seacrest wrote an ill-advised victory lap column in THR after E! cleared him, his alleged victim came roaring back right in the days before Seacrest’s Oscar red carpet gig. Trade journalists were calling reps of every piece of talent scheduled to walk the red carpet to see if any would talk to Seacrest. We learned last Friday that after Hardwick was okayed to return to work, the ex-girlfriend whose unnamed social media allegations got him suspended did not take part in that internal investigation. These cases hardly seem like absolution.

Because law enforcement officers have been about as underutilized as Tom Cruise’s stuntmen, in the Seacrest and Hardwick cases and those in Farrow’s article last Friday, these she said-he said allegations are impossible to definitively verify. But Farrow, who has become the #MeToo movement’s most lethal mogul-slayer in take downs of Harvey Weinstein, New York Attorney General Eric Scheiderman and now Moonves in a Pulitzer Prize-winning run when he is just turning 30, makes a compelling case for a pattern of abusive behavior in his most recent story.

My own take: a gatekeeper who preys on the beautiful and pure ambition and energy of young people looking to enter an industry, and twists that to satisfy their sex drive, doesn’t deserve to be a gatekeeper. They deserve banishment, when called out. I don’t know that I am able to give a pass because it was from a different era. It is appalling and boorish behavior, and so unfair for a woman there to be evaluated on talent to be marginalized as a potential conquest. Numerous men here have claimed they did not use being rebuffed as a reason to hurt the career of the women who said no. Weinstein argued that, until Peter Jackson made a compelling argument to the contrary. He said that while Weinstein still held sway over The Lord Of The Rings, Weinstein told Jackson that Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino were nightmares to work with and shouldn’t be considered for roles. Jackson was appalled to find that those actresses were among the dozens of women who told Farrow and/or The New York Times that they rebuffed aggressive harassment by Weinstein and were threatened with banishment.

Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

If you believe Farrow’s reporting, Moonves did a similar thing. I don’t see Moonves’ wife’s defense of her husband to be persuasive. Douglas and the other women say their CBS trajectory was halted after they told Moonves no. This is squishy territory, but since Chen’s ascension came from jobs on CBS airwaves — the network run by her husband — would that have happened had she spurned Moonves at the beginning of what turned into marriage? It’s hard to say why people get jobs. The roles I best remember Douglas playing were Joe Pesci’s girlfriend in Goodfellas and the victim of Robert De Niro’s Max Cady character in Cape Fear. Both were directed by Martin Scorsese, who in The New Yorker article was described as Douglas’ boyfriend. Was that a factor?

But that isn’t the point here, how opportunities are dispensed in a business where hiring is based on intangibles, and where nepotism runs rampant. This is simple: if Moonves used his perch as gatekeeper to satisfy his sexual appetite, send him packing. And that is the reason that Weinstein will soon be in a criminal courtroom and why Louis C.K. should never manage any women, ever, after he admitted to masturbating in front of the female writers he supervised and thinking it was okay because he asked permission, first. It seemed appropriate when Netflix exec Cindy Holland said last weekend that Aziz Ansari will be able to make more episodes of his Master Of None show. He was disgraced by a social media description of a sexual encounter that read more like a bad date than anything else. Also, and he did not hold sway over his accuser as a gatekeeper the way that Weinstein and Moonves did. There has to be a way of grading this creepiness, because we’re going to see these guys attempt a return, at some point.

BART: So let’s get to Les Moonves:  I do not pretend to having intimate knowledge of the incidents described in Farrow’s article, but  I have had scores of encounters with him – business meetings, journalistic interviews, friendly lunches – and have found him to be meticulously gracious and considerate.  It’s a discomfiting reflection of the times that his activities would now be assessed by a board of directors, some of whose members were selected by Sumner Redstone, whose own moral behavior has been subject to critical examination. So there we have it: Sumner becomes an ex officio judge; the MPAA, founded by scoundels, establishes a moral code.

Does anyone out there see why I’m uncomfortable?

FLEMING: I was surprised that Farrow’s New Yorker article hit me as hard as it did. Douglas’ story wasn’t exactly a secret. For months, our reporters tried to get her to tell it while we looked into the rumors on Moonves that have been out there since Weinstein was fired after the exposes  by The Weinstein Company board last October. She only wanted to tell her story to Farrow, and that was certainly her right, and that remarkable young man certainly made the most of it. The rumors were so prevalent, it seemed surprising that Moonves signed on along with other Hollywood powerhouse executives to spearhead a Commission on Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace, chaired by Anita Hill. Should Moonves withdraw from that braintrust?

BART: There’s another shading to the Moonves case that is worth consideration. The basic interactions of the film and TV world involve an emotional subtext that is worth pondering.  When a submission is made, months, perhaps years of preparation are involved. The same is true when an actor goes after a part. Suddenly a decision is made:  a positive response can forge a career. A turn-down can send an artist onto a downward curve of depression.  These aren’t normal business meetings. These are emotional slug fests.

Once again,that doesn’t mean that bad behavior is to be forgiven. On the other hand, recollections of these encounters can be altered with time.  I remember an occasion when a filmmaker (a famous one) played back a meeting between us that took place some years earlier.  I had turned down his project, but his recollections of our conversation bore no relation to mine.  Emotions, I felt, had simply altered the facts. He was still pissed at me.  For him, it had been an emotional encounter; for me it was a business meeting.

It’s all a sort of warfare.  War stories often change with time.

Bottom line: I have no idea how the ‘investigation’ of Moonves will turn out.  It would be my inclination to support the outcome.  At the same time, I would, once again, be “uncomfortable” if a great institution like CBS were forced to become a fiefdom of the troubled Viacom empire.

FLEMING: It would be disturbing indeed. Look at what happened when Redstone split these companies in two. CBS, under Moonves, built an exceptional company, this after he did the same thing at Warner Bros Television. Redstone put his estate lawyer Philippe Dauman in charge of Viacom and he killed everything that made it special, to buy back shares that lost half their value. It’s scandalous, what happened. Who knows if they can repair the damage and now they might have the upper hand in this merger. This somehow goes along with the current meanness in corporate Hollywood. Helped by Trump’s rollback of corporate taxes, these media companies are mostly doing great, and yet places like Sony – despite its stock hitting an all-time high – are in heavy layoff mode. Days before Lantern Capital took possession of the bankrupt Weinstein Company, TWC emailed most of the better paid remaining members of the staff, telling them their wages would end that Friday. Their health benefits expire tomorrow.  We already know that when Disney completes its acquisition of Fox, blood will flow on the streets of Hollywood like we haven’t seen in years as duplicative positions are eliminated and Disney cherry picks Fox’s film and TV divisions and discards or sells anything it doesn’t really need. Some of this is business, but it is soul sucking and just when you thought we were at the end of this bitter cycle, the biggest corporate executive yet is poised to take a fall, for behavior that took place around 1997.

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