The story of Harvey Weinstein is about appetite meeting power. It’s one reason why out of fear of a Caligula becoming emperor, you don’t have emperors. Weinstein sat at the center of a web of business and political power — a position that could put anyone beyond justice. That’s undemocratic. In an idealistic sense, it’s un-American. It’s why law and culture have to oppose any concentration of power in anyone’s hands.
Weinstein, probably the greatest single movie producer of the last 30 years, stands accused of sexually harassing, abusing and raping women. The descriptions of his alleged behavior — in the New Yorker and New York Times — suggest the classic symptoms of a psychopath: risk taking, clever manipulation and a lack of shame.
In a recording reportedly made as part of a police sting, Weinstein can be heard threatening and begging an Italian model to enter his hotel room. She refused. Based on various accounts of other alleged incidents involving Weinstein, had she given in, she may have been made to watch him shower or engage in a sexual act — behavior other women have publicly recounted — or potentially have been accosted with physical force.
There was no affection in the encounters that women have alleged; it is said Weinstein would often behave as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Some victims allege that he got off not on the sex but the power. As the villain says in “The Stepford Wives,” a movie about men murdering their wives and replacing them with robotic sex slaves, powerful people do this sort of thing “because we can.”
Meryl Streep once famously summed up Weinstein’s authority by describing him as God; she now calls the reports of his behavior “disgraceful.” And there’s a temptation when talking about any kind of Hollywood scandal to see it — dismiss it, even — as a “Hollywood thing,” typical of a place that is at once glamorous and seedy, titanic and small.
Didn’t the movie moguls of old abuse their stars? Certainly. Isn’t the casting couch infamous in Hollywood? Surely. I once lived there and never ceased to be amazed by the awe in which people who made largely bad films were held by actors desperate to be in the movies. You did feel at times as if you’d stepped into an alternative reality.
Conservatives sound almost delighted with the scandal because it proves everything they ever suspected about liberal hypocrisy. But they love Hollywood, too, even if they don’t admit it. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief adviser, was a Hollywood producer. The President himself appeared in a couple of movies before getting his big break on TV’s “The Apprentice.”
If Republicans don’t make as much money as Democrats out of Hollywood, they probably get more votes by attacking it. Hollywood and Washington exist in a constant, contested relationship.
When Weinstein’s behavior first became public knowledge, he wrote a statement pledging to enter therapy — as if he was the victim — but also to direct all his energies at defeating the National Rifle Association. And that tells you everything you need to know about the craven, shameless duplicity of so many professional culture warriors. They use partisanship as a smokescreen.
Christian conservatives will ignore the President’s well documented affronts and attitudes toward women because, well, he’s on their side. Weinstein desperately tried to avoid becoming a social pariah by reminding the Democrats that, for all his faults, he was one of them.
Now conservatives demand that Hillary Clinton face some sort of punishment for associating with Weinstein as if, as with her husband’s infidelity, she was sort of responsible for what he did. Politics distracts from the simpler, more important moral questions. Weinstein is a straightforward case of a rich man being tolerated for too long.
My time in Hollywood taught me that movie people are often mad and egotistical, definitely, but every bit as vulnerable as the rest of us. In those moments when Weinstein allegedly humiliated his victims, they suddenly ceased being the stars we objectify and revealed themselves as full human beings: reacting with terror in most cases, resistance in a few.
Read their accounts, and you’ll see that Weinstein matters not because it’s a Hollywood story but because it’s an everyday story that happens in every part of our deeply flawed society.