A big part of a producer’s job is getting people to do things they don’t want to do. I thought about this when the open secret about Harvey Weinstein and his treatment of women broke. Everybody has a Harvey story. Mine is unlurid but revealing. I was attending a reading of a new musical for Broadway and afterwards I was introduced to Harvey. I felt a familiar wave of something when he shook my hand. Hard to place but located in my youth somehow, something primal. ‘I invested in your show,’ he grinned. ‘Ah. I can only apologise,’ I replied, referring to the failure of my play Enron on Broadway. I sensed he liked me.
And so it proved. And though I can’t say I liked him, I recognised him, and it can be hard to tell the good from the familiar. High-powered men tend to be conspiratorial by nature: that’s how they become powerful. Deliberate isolation masquerades as trust – an immediate sense of being both inside and outside something. (‘All these people think this but we – you and I – we know that it’s this.’) Often competitive, they are frequently keen on working with young women, who can be pleasing company whom they don’t feel the need to destroy. At least not intentionally.
After hearing my thoughts on the reading, Weinstein declared me bright and said he needed help with a movie he was making. It needed a new voiceover. He and another writer were going to work on it over the weekend. Watch a cut in his office, throw some ideas around. It was going to be fun. I should come. I was free and in town and intrigued. Is this how it worked? Is this how movies are made? My polite sounds became unintended commitments and when my agent found out, he was concerned. ‘When you work for Harvey, it should be a real meeting, in your capacity as a writer. This is a bad idea,’ he warned. I insisted. I insisted because I had implied I would do it to his face. I thought it would be bad form to go back on my word to Harvey Weinstein. I did not want to offend. A familiar feeling.
I was sent the script and the book the film was based on within hours. I read both in a night. The next day, at the office, Harvey never showed up. He was driving upstate as I thrashed out an uninspired voiceover with an incredibly experienced playwright for a presumably fired writer’s film in an office staffed by attractive young women. The women all wore a strange combination of intimidating smarts and flinty fear. Expectations were high and rewards low. We would pitch sections and Weinstein would declare which were good, and which were not, then ring off. Afterwards I was expected to keep working on the project even though I had no time or inclination. The tactics were bullying. The room’s walls were covered with framed photographs of Harvey meeting famous people. Something I remember seeing in footage of Donald Trump’s office and O.J. Simpson’s house. And maybe somewhere else, a long time ago.
After my first play opened in London, when I was 22, I was approached by a much older legend of new writing in the theatre. He said we should meet for dinner. He liked my play. I cautiously agreed. When I mentioned it to others, they seemed either concerned or confused. The man had ‘a reputation’, in both senses that men achieve this. Dinner seemed strange. Did he want to commission me? In which case, why not a meeting?
I realised that I didn’t know what the dinner signified. Had I unintentionally agreed to a date? I worked to change it to a meeting, which was eventually arranged for the end of a working day. The meeting was fine. I declined drinks afterwards and I was not commissioned. But my abiding memory of it was that he had a picture of himself on the wall behind him. I remember my gaze flicking between the two during the meeting: the man, the version of the man, the man. Throughout the next 15 years of my professional life, this man – like others – was referred to as a ‘lech’, sometimes jokingly, often by people who had employed or would employ him.
Here I pause. I’m filled with a feeling I know well. I want to reassure you. I’m talking you through my thought processes, my reactions, my point of view. I’m not outing this man. Why am I reassuring you of that? I don’t want you to think me indiscreet, vicious, uppity. I don’t want you to think I’m so sure of my attractiveness that I would assume that he was making some sort of play for me. I don’t want to brand someone as predatory because of gossip and jokes. I don’t want to hurt anyone who loves him. All the feelings that hold women back from mentioning these things.
But there’s another guilty feeling. Fucking name him! Do that bold favour. Name the showbiz AD who was rumoured to audition, inebriate and touch up young men before turfing them out of his limo at 4 a.m. Or the darling of edgy new writing who asks actresses what colour knickers they are wearing just before they go on stage. I feel bad about this hinting too. It’s withholding, teasing, giving you a bit of something but not as much as you’d like. I am failing to deliver. Maybe I am even letting you down. This is also a feeling I know well.
Weinstein has become a public monster overnight. But he’s not a monster, he’s a man. Today’s monster is yesterday’s ‘character’. And I could easily have liked him (it’s important to say that you can be harassed by people you like). Hollywood is run on charm as well as tantrums. There are elements of machismo that are glorified as an eccentricity of showbiz power. The flare-ups of big producers and agents are legendary, portrayed with great accuracy by Kevin Spacey in the 1990s movie Swimming with Sharks. Ex-assistants will exchange war stories with the relish and nostalgia often reserved for remembering a classic Broadway production.
In the arts, professionalism can be interpreted as a sort of inauthenticity, and those who can’t control themselves are seen as more ‘instinctive’. To be dangerous is to be artistically daring, particularly for men. Sometimes I wonder if being in the ‘feelings business’ pushes weak men to over-compensate with swearing, stunts and sexual conquest.
One of my early assistant jobs introduced me to a real character, a warm, grounded and important artistic figure with addiction issues. Part of the job was putting him in a cab at a certain point so he didn’t get so inebriated that he’d insult the crew. ‘You’ll meet gay directors who won’t show much interest in you,’ he told me (he was broadly right) ‘and straight directors who will try to sleep with you’ (he was broadly right). Despite the inappropriateness of the comment, and the hilarious/depressing omission of the idea that a director could be female, it was useful to me to see the inevitability of the patterns, and to want to avoid them. I didn’t always succeed.
‘Showbusiness’, ‘the casting couch’ – the phrases have a grubby glamour. And what gets hidden is that there are personal vulnerabilities and emotional truths disclosed in artistic work, and those can’t help but be bonding. There’s a sort of mental mating that can spill over. But that’s not what we’re discussing. We’re talking about power, the abuse of power, the power of abuse. But if we’re not honest about what this gets mixed in with, we can’t expose the problem.
There will be plenty of women who will never speak out about Weinstein. Some because of non-disclosure agreements, but some because of their own confusion about their consent. And the shame of that. ‘Surely that’s infantilising, consent is consent,’ I hear. Well, perhaps. But it’s worth watching Michael Fassbender’s convincing performance in Fish Tank for a masterclass in abusing someone you are supposed to protect. When you pursue, intimidate, bully or seduce someone you employ, you are breaking a trust and showing an inherent lack of respect.
Younger, less experienced employees are looking to you to define what their role is, how they should be, whether and how they matter. When you teach them that the way they matter is in how attractive they are to you and the ways they can bolster your sense of power, you don’t only abuse your position professionally and personally, you also alter their sense of self. Men and women new to the industry are incredibly vulnerable to the view and approbation of someone powerful and respected. And their sense of what is and is not appropriate is smashed for their whole professional life. On top of that, there is emotional work in managing a powerful person’s advances. It’s work that many male artists never have to think about. To reject the proposition is to court resentment, to accept it is to compromise your position, to reject but maintain cordiality is a constant balancing act, to submit and then end the assignation is a mess of rumour and secrecy. People find out. And when they do, guess who gets punished.
This is the reason the unseating of Weinstein is meaningful. Powerful abusers are often strangers to consequence. Everybody knows. Nobody speaks. It is only because Weinstein’s influence has waned that women felt able to voice the truth without fearing for their livelihoods. And it is now that we can hear the unusual silence of men. Shamefully, it has never occurred to me to expect male colleagues to say or do anything about their friends’ more shabby behaviour. I have never seen that happen, not once, in my entire life.
Some men’s silence is to protect their careers, but others’ silence is the fear of hypocrisy, knowing they may be guilty of something similar. It’s time to redistribute some of the shame and responsibility women feel around this. It belongs to those men, and their silent friends. Because if, as a boyfriend once put it to me – ‘status is to women what beauty is to men’ – do straight men acquire power partly in order to appeal to women? The professional intimidation and pursuit of women might seem an extension of the natural means of persuading them into bed. When women become powerful, not only do we threaten men as competitors, we also threaten their ability to intimidate and abuse us. It’s a double affront.
When the Weinstein story broke an older male writer said to me: ‘Jesus, if they’re going to go back through every casting couch encounter, we’ll be here for ever.’ Well, I say, as a younger woman: we’ve got time.
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