HOLLYWOOD — I ran into Harvey Weinstein at the Vanity Fair Oscar party last year. He should have been in his element, dominating and manipulating the Oscars, using the statuettes as a golden lure for young actresses, swanning around as a rare avatar of good taste and champion of roles for older women in an industry consumed with comic books and teenage boys.
But he was acting disjointed, talking smack to people from The New York Times.
Maybe with his sixth sense for great stories, he somehow knew he was about to become one of the most scorching stories in Hollywood history, with an ending echoing that all-time classic of female empowerment and great shoes, “The Wizard of Oz.” As with the Wicked Witch of the West, all Weinstein’s power and malevolence would go up in smoke when an ill-used woman (or in his case, 84) finally fought back.
The melting of Harveywood, the fervid hunt for other predators and the pulling back of the curtain on Hollywood’s big little lies about sexual assault, harassment and sexism are making for a fraught awards season.
This is a town built on selling sex, beauty and youth. At the Oscars, actresses who have paid a fortune to dermatologists and surgeons will still vogue on the red carpet as they do the Roger Ailes twirl in gowns and jewels that they are paid handsomely to model.
“It’s a perfect confluence of two industries historically built on the objectification, fetishization and peddling of women — fashion and Hollywood — and both are fighting for their reputation and relevance right now while still hanging onto their codependence, hoping the moment we are in doesn’t subsume a pretty damn good business relationship,” said Janice Min, former editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “How far can this moment really go without completely endangering and questioning everything Hollywood has held dear?”
Time’s Up, after all, was born at CAA, the agency dominated by white men who, their despoiled clients charge, served as a conveyor belt to the Weinstein hotel suites.
This moment, with women feeling triumphant about finally shaking up the network of old, white men who run Hollywood in a sexist way, is a bit of an illusion, since the entertainment industry has been taken over by an even more impenetrable group of younger, white men from the tech universe, which has an even more virulent bro culture. It’s like gasping with relief as you climb up to the mountain peak, only to discover that it’s actually a much bigger mountain.
“Netflix is No. 1, spending 8 billion on original scripted television content and Amazon is No. 2, with 5 billion,” said Scott Galloway, author of “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.” “Hastings and Bezos are the new studio chiefs, the new kings. Amazon could create the next ‘Game of Thrones’ and monetize it by selling paper towels.”
On the surface, there are a lot of promising signs for women. There’s the new Anita Hill-led Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equity in the Workplace, which is looking into a technology system that would allow women to share information on predators. The guilds have written new sexual harassment guidelines. Some companies are making employees sit through seminars where, as one top entertainment boss told me, they learn that “you can tell a woman her dress is beautiful as long as you do not comment on what’s inside the dress.”
This is a noted improvement in an industry where, for decades, men felt no qualms undressing in front of female executives, asking job applicants to take off their tops and bringing in pea shooters to aim at the cleavage of female producers.
Yet many women here fear that the reckoning is merely a therapy session, or that “it’s just Kabuki,” as Min said. “When people talk about who will take over for Bob Iger when he eventually retires, no woman is ever in the mix. And so shouldn’t we be questioning why that is and how do you start grooming women for those jobs?” Even when a woman gets to be a studio chief, there’s a man above her helping make the final decisions for the biggest budgets.
The Oscar telecast is trying to keep out most of the politics — viewers don’t like it — but they tried to have a symbolic moment by asking Ashley Judd, one of Weinstein’s first accusers, to be a presenter. That, however, got overshadowed by news of publicists plotting how to steer their clients around Ryan Seacrest, a host of the E! red carpet show, who has been accused of sexual misbehavior.
Men are quaking. Business here has been on pause for months. As one male executive at the heart of the hive complained: “Men’s heads are on sticks with blood pouring down their faces. Whatever happened to the fun boy-girl game?” A game, after all, that Hollywood made famous with dazzling directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.
Physically abusive behavior will be curtailed, for sure. Men will think twice before coming out of showers exposing themselves. “So much of Hollywood is about what’s perceived to be cool,” said a top male producer. “And it’s no longer perceived as cool to be a pig. Everyone here wants to win, but the way of winning will no longer include being a bully.”
But an instant fix for sexism is wishful thinking. “All the stuff that allowed these guys to be protected is so subtle and baked into the cake, it’s really hard to unravel it,” one top woman at a major studio told me. “Men are doing a head fake, saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, of course we want to fix it,’ while what they’re really thinking is, ‘How do we get out of this looking like we do something without doing anything?’ Men like to say, ‘We choose the best people,’ but the best people are always white men. The only place they think that they need women is as babes in films. As long as men have power over women, they’re going to try to have sex with them.”
But I’m sanguine for this reason: Men only give up their grip on power when an institution is no longer as relevant, like when they finally let women anchor the network evening news. And Hollywood, as we knew it, is over.