Sex and Power in Hollywood

In my younger days, I worked in Hollywood for a bit. Long enough to understand how the system works, and to also realize that I wasn’t going to succeed there. Consequently, to a few people in my life, I’m the go-to expert when Hollywood scandals go mainstream. And thus, I attempt to explain how the ongoing Harvey Weinstein-Kevin Spacey-James Toback sexual harassment story came to be. Why working in Hollywood is so different from working in other industries.

First of all, Hollywood is not a meritocracy. While there are many talented actors, writers, and directors working in the entertainment industry, there are many more talented people who fail. And for every Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep, there’s a beautiful person who was cast or hired for a reason other than their talent. Which means the gatekeepers in Hollywood, whether they be in front of the camera or behind it, have a disproportionate amount of power over people. Essentially your very livelihood is often dependent on the whims of somebody higher on the ladder. It’s not enough to be good at your job, and in certain situations, being good at your job can actually be a disadvantage.

Second, there are people in Hollywood who have abused their power, and not suffered any consequences as a result. But what is unique about Hollywood is that these abusers were embraced decades ago in a way that encouraged others to perpetuate that abuse to later generations of employees. The casting couch and similar behaviors weren’t considered to be ugly truths of the industry, they were spoken in glamorous terms as the dark side of the fame and fortune that millions wanted to achieve. That the expression “casting coach” even has a name and a commonly understood meaning illustrates the unspoken acceptance of trading sex for opportunity over the years.

Now imagine those who followed. Imagine a Patient Zero chart leading from an abusive progenitor whose behavior was demonstrated to be a reasonable path to success in a world where ability isn’t enough to succeed. Those who follow the abusive star or executive often carry on in his image, either intentionally or not, creating a cycle of ongoing abuse. It becomes an adult version of fraternity hazing, where an assistant gets shit on by his boss, rises within the business to become a boss himself, then takes the opportunity to shit on his assistant as well. See the Kevin Spacey film “Swimming With Sharks” to see a now-ironic, non-sexual depiction of Hollywood power behind the scenes.

To me, one of the most striking things about the initial Harvey Weinstein reports was that among his victims were Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Asia Argento, each a second generation entertainer. Presumably none of these women were instructed by their famous fathers to expect to be harassed by powerful executives, yet they nevertheless stepped away from their horrible experiences and said nothing. While it’s entirely reasonable for an aspiring actress to feel they are unable to report abuse from a Harvey Weinstein, these three women had connections to more powerful people than themselves and still remained silent. On some level they understood that “this is how things work in Hollywood.” It’s evidence of unspoken truth that is pervasive in the entire system.

The final aspect of the Hollywood system of abuse, I believe, is that Hollywood has long celebrated extreme behavior by its brightest stars. Whether it’s attributed to hedonistic celebration at the height of success, or transgressive behavior by artists who don’t fit neatly into polite society, Hollywood has always demonstrated a willingness to look the other way when its denizens act badly. From Charlie Chaplin to Roman Polanski, to Woody Allen and Mel Gibson, Hollywood has not only been willing to continue working with people accused of doing bad things, they’ve often promoted the controversy that their work causes. They make money off of bad behavior.

Some would say that these are simply business decisions, that if a Mel Gibson movie can make you money, you should produce it. But in a world where talent isn’t enough, there is no actor, director, or executive who can’t be replaced. Even with a mindset that certain auteurs are essential to the artistic execution of a film, there is absolutely no reason to think that producing a Roman Polanski movie is the only path to business success. People who choose to work with bad people have other choices. You don’t have to produce every script that Woody Allen writes. There are other good scripts out there.

The reality, I believe, is that the Hollywood talent and executives who choose to work with pedophiles and rapists do so because it gives them an opportunity to act out themselves. They get to be rebellious, to challenge the status quo, without actually committing any crimes themselves. On some level they know they are supporting the depraved lifestyle of horrible people by continuing to do business with them, but they also know that they can excuse those decisions by claiming artistic achievement or pointing at the corporate bottom line. The very decision of whether or not to work with a sexual predator is exciting in and of itself. Imagine taking a lunch meeting in a public place with Bill Cosby. Wouldn’t that be a good story to tell your friends about?

In the end, no matter how much attention the recent sexual harassment stories attract, the pattern of abuse in Hollywood will continue on, until the decision makers decide not to do so. Whether it comes in the form of production money or work refusal, the pervasive system of abuse will live on until those who are opposed to it take action. Hollywood won’t change until Hollywood decides to change.