When Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced film producer accused of rape and sexual assault, was led into a New York courthouse in handcuffs, there were cheers from many of his alleged victims and activists in the fight against sexual harassment.
There were also cheers from those who just liked watching Weinstein being brought low. Among stars, management and executives — people at his status-level, in other words — he wasn’t a well-liked guy. He was often abrasive and nasty, given to volcanic outbursts of anger, hard to deal with.
But among the lower-castes — assistants, production staff, that sort of thing — he was the perfect embodiment of the Powerful Hollywood Monster. He was imperious and abusive and he treated those on the low-end of the salary scale like inconveniently placed piles of garbage.
Watching him perp walk his way into a downtown Manhattan courthouse to be charged with serious crimes must have been richly satisfying to office assistants, waiters, and parking attendants all over the world.
It is true, as we all now know, that Hollywood is a touchy-grabby-rapey kind of place. Powerful men like Weinstein have, from the beginnings of the movie business, enjoyed a kind of feudal right to mount, or make a sloppy attempt to, anyone they fancied. That was until about nine months ago when it all came to a noisy and messy stop.
The men in management who have marauded their way through casting lists, office cubicles and hotel suites know they’re on a list somewhere — and they know that the next phone call or item in an entertainment industry blog could be about them. The smart ones are making quiet apology tours, visiting the women they’ve abused (at least, the ones they remember) and trying to put things right. The dumb ones are hoping this will all blow over.
But you can make your employees miserable in a lot of ways, many of them totally non-sexual. You can be an irrational tyrant, a screamer and a thrower of objects, an abusive and reprehensible boss — and the whole time keep your penis safely tucked away.
It is those types — and there are hundreds in the entertainment business — who are walking around nervously, uncertain where this is going. ‘I’ve never ever touched anyone, seriously, never,’ a movie producer and financier told me last month as we walked our dogs together. ‘But am I a tough boss? OK, I’ll cop to that. Is that illegal now?’
I’m not 100 per cent certain — I haven’t done a project with my friend, I don’t know how his business operates — but it’s safe to say that the phrase ‘tough boss’ is a darkly comic euphemism. My guess is, my friend is a screamer.
Does he have something to worry about? Could be. Just as the movement was gaining momentum last autumn, word came that a prolific and (more importantly) profitable TV producer was being tossed out, after complaints about ‘workplace activity’. This was followed by the announcement that another producer was also being fired for unspecified workplace irregularities. Both dismissals were accompanied by lurid online descriptions of nasty, ugly boss behaviour, but curiously neither one mentioned anything sexual. A friend, who is close to one of the producers, was baffled. The guy, he insisted, isn’t lecherous. He’s just an outrageously mean bastard who enjoys terrifying his staff, which is not, as of this writing, illegal. Especially in Hollywood.
Awful bosses all over Hollywood are worried. What is being hinted at, over salad lunches or after-work smoothies, is that some studios are using the current climate as leverage during contract negotiations. The two TV producers who were dismissed for unspecified and non-sexual workplace behaviour, it has been noted, were in the middle of negotiating pricey new studio deals. Studio lawyers may have found the ultimate bargaining chip.
It could all backfire on the studios, of course. One of the producers is demanding a lot of money to go quietly. His lawyers are suggesting — quite rightly — that reprehensible workplace behaviour, foam-flecked scream sessions, and hurtful verbal abuse are standard and acceptable ways of doing business in the entertainment world. In the absence of any grabbing or rubbing, what this amounts to is a wrongful termination lawsuit, and those can be even more expensive than a richly negotiated contract.
For now, then, it’s probably only the rapists and sexual harassers who will be brought to justice. The rest of the abused staff will have to wait for their day in court.