Content warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault.
Anyone with any number of female friends, colleagues or family members would be aware that social media is currently awash with claims of #MeToo – a hashtag adopted by those who at some point (or, indeed, many points) have been sexually harassed, abused or assaulted. A truth not often spoken has emerged into the light: that the women of the western world are subjected, almost every day, to a culture that depicts and values them as prey.
While the decades-long rise of feminism has been essential to highlighting and combating this, it’s the revelation of producer Harvey Weinstein’s terrifying catalogue of abuses that has made the conversation unavoidable – and not just within the film industry. However, it’s far from the only dilemma that the old model faces, as box office returns continue to plummet and marquee studio blockbusters are howled into infamy. The dinosaurs are going extinct, and it looks like they are taking their entire world with them.
Although those two points might seem unrelated, it is without question that the Weinstein scandal is indicative of the old Hollywood model’s most toxic byproduct – a masculinist power structure that chews up and spits out women, first objectifying them for the gratification of audiences and then sexually degrading them. The predatory producer has long been a quiet truism of Hollywood, as synonymous with blockbuster cinema as it is with the porn industry. And the long overdue outing of toxic figures of male power may be the linchpin that finally helps to dismantle an entire subsection of the creative and fiscal economy that has grown fat, self-congratulatory and morally bankrupt.
One writer from The Guardian compared Weinstein to Roman emperor Caligula, a notorious “madman” who likewise “instilled fear in his retinue”. But a more fitting comparison may be that of Nero, successor to Caligula’s successor – a Bacchanalian nightmare who engaged in Clockwork Orange-esque cruelties, and was immortalised by the myth of his playing of the fiddle as the seat of his empire burned.
Now, Hollywood is burning, yet the glamourous purveyors of the old ways continue their song and dance, applauding themselves as the flames rise higher.
Here’s Looking At You, Kid
“If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around… this is where they’re made.” – Georges Méliès, Hugo.
The abuse of women is not the only Hollywood problem leading the conversation. Earlier this year, as Damien Chazelle’s La La Land swept awards nominations, it became the poster child for cultural appropriation and lack of representation. Its tale of two young lovers torn between their star-spangled careers and their relationship bore two unsightly stains – its treatment of race and its treatment of gender.
What swathes of people celebrated about the movie was simultaneously indicative of its core issues. It harkened back to a “simpler time”, the often cited Golden Age Of Hollywood when men were men, women were women, and films were whimsical and grand. But in doing so, it brought its values screaming into the modern age.
La La Land was ultimately bested (in the most humiliating fashion) by Moonlight – a story of gay people of colour crafted by and starring predominantly black Americans – but rather than celebrating this achievement, Hollywood and its press lauded the generosity of spirit displayed by the gracious defeated. Host Jimmy Fallon said on the night, “I think they should get to keep it. Why can’t we give out a bunch of awards?” The gesture would have fit, as the entire grotesque spectacle exists by the hand of the industry and for the industry. No one pats Hollywood on the back more than Hollywood does.
Putting diverse and original storytelling behind self-aggrandisement is a longstanding tradition in both awards distribution and production modelling. Movies about movies or Hollywood win big – La La Land, Birdman, Hugo, Argo, and The Artist among them – and a great deal of Best Picture winners are biopics about straight white men. The notion that movies with female protagonists or people of colour are a tough sell to a global audience is only now beginning to shift, and you better believe the Oscars are rarely the first to champion a pressing issue; they are, at best, two decades behind.
After all, imagine the coup de grâce that could have been, had 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts Of The Southern Wild beaten Jennifer Lawrence to the Best Actress gong in 2012; had Silver Linings Playbook not carried the day.
Coincidentally, Playbook’s director David O. Russell is another white male creative known to be physically, mentally and verbally abusive to women on his sets. He remains a Hollywood institution because he works within the system – and because there are so many just like him.
Here There Be Monsters
“If you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change. The devil changes you.”
– Max California, 8MM
Perhaps the masturbatory nature of Hollywood’s self-reflection would be less depressing were it still not so blatantly celebrating and employing criminals – men who have spent their entire careers accumulating enough wealth, power and influence to make people overlook their crimes and suspect their victims guilty of deceit.
Weinstein’s abhorrent behaviour is merely the tip of the iceberg. To whit, three current members of the Academy are alleged of multiple substantiated acts of sexual assault, domestic violence or rape – Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson. The often-nominated and awarded Woody Allen stands accused of raping and molesting his 7-year-old daughter, and continues to release a film a year. He shares this with Bryan Singer, the X-Men director allegedly embroiled in a string of incidents involving the rape of adolescent boys. These men are referred to as outliers, lone wolves, but lest we forget in 2016, Elijah Wood spoke to the Sunday Times of the paedophilia problem as endemic within the industry.
There’s a pervasive culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse.
And that’s not to mention the dizzying number of the industry’s highest earners who have also beaten, harassed or exerted their influence over women; the list includes Michael Fassbender, Johnny Depp, Lars Von Trier, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, James Cameron and both Ben and Casey Affleck. Were one to correlate the number of awards held by these men and the number of allegations against them, as Nick DeSantis of Forbes did for Weinstein, the results would be harrowing.
Then there’s the pervasive culture of silence surrounding sexual abuse. Women have feared (with good reason) for their careers and their physical wellbeing after speaking up about their traumatic experiences. Some who’ve spoken up, like Rose McGowan, have found themselves silenced or victimised further. Their male colleagues have either shared the fear of retribution, failed to see the true nature of the accused, or quietly abided by abuses of power.
In a panel interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Judd Apatow noted that in regards to sexual assault in the industry, “There’s a culture of paying off people … They set up a power dynamic that is very difficult for people to figure out what to do about, and that’s why it lasts for decades, because it’s a perfect system.”
Seth Rogen said of Weinstein that people would make excuses for him: “He’s old school and stuff like that, and there is kind of like a wink and an acceptance of that kind of behaviour.” And producer Amy Pascal said, “I don’t think that he’s an outlier and I think that’s probably why a lot of people haven’t spoken out… people really believed that they’d get hurt.” It’s worth noting that, perhaps one might have unfortunately grown to expect, Pascal was the only female present on the panel.
This culture of defending and empowering the abusive to do as they please is coming to light in all its gruesome dimensions – but while we continue to celebrate Jared Leto’s ‘commitment’ to frightening his female co-star in Suicide Squad, or champion Casey Affleck for his ‘brilliance’ knowing full well he traumatized his employees on I’m Still Here, nothing will truly change.
Show Me The Money
“I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘OK, I’ll be part of this world.’”
– Ed Tom Bell, No Country For Old Men
Fortunately, through this illumination of Hollywood’s dark side and the cracking of its mirror, the shine is starting to rub off. Stories that have long been suppressed are coming to light and survivors of assault and abuse are finally – finally – beginning to have their day. But simply acknowledging the issues the industry faces is far from enough to make them change anything. The old ways have to die before the new can prosper, and thanks to a dogged adherence to tradition, that slow demise has already begun.
This sickening is being communicated in the only language Hollywood considers universal: money. Audiences now have access to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Letterboxd that both the public and the production studios have access to, and audiences listen – which directly impacts box office.
Simply put, money talks.
When punters grow tired of whitewashing, poor efforts at adapting bestsellers, and trailers that spoil the major moments of an upcoming release, they don’t just tell their friends; they tell everyone. (Likewise, those dissastisfied with studio goings-on have a tendency to leak the deets.) The gap between critic and audience has also narrowed thanks to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, and their consensus on film quality is shifting in kind – which again directly impacts box office. And film is now more accessible than ever thanks to streaming services like Netflix, who are funding their own productions.
Take The Mummy, for example, Universal’s ill-fated attempt to launch their Dark Universe franchise as a rival to Warner Brother’s comic book moneymaker. The Tom Cruise-helmed dribble not only landed a paltry 12 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but is looking to cost the studio US$95 million in global box office.
Why? Because it was hated by audience and critics alike. Because an inexperienced, disposable director was placed at the helm. Because studio meddling and Cruise’s own controlling behaviour led to a tonally confused mess of a film. Because the film’s traditionalist structure, reflecting the best-seller model espoused by Blake Snyder in Save The Cat!, has become so clichéd that any punter can predict a Blockbuster’s every dramatic beat just moments after the film has begun. Because the budget was not spent on script development, but on extended special effects sequences. And because the studio never cared about the story they were telling; just the units sold.
So why, when there are much more damaging stories being unearthed about the excesses of America’s industry, is it important to talk about the failure of The Mummy? Simply put, money talks. The studio’s gamble resulted in a catastrophic loss that is the cinemagoer’s victory.
Men like Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have never had to change, because their benefactors have never demanded it of them. On the contrary, they’ve been complicit in their misdeeds. But as the criminal deeds of these men are brought to light, the cracks in their mode of production are also beginning to shine.
Men like Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have never had to change.
For too long, Hollywood has coasted on former glories, never having to strive for its self-appointed accolades, indulging in nostalgia at the expense of new stories and storytellers. This machine is broken, and must be repaired, if not replaced; and it’s vital that cinemagoers remember the balance of power is in their hands. After all, we feed the machine with our attendance, our word-of-mouth advertising, our defence of problematic creatives.
After this scandal, the Weinsteins of the world can no longer be allowed to hold the seats of power, and as the old models prove increasingly unprofitable, those who foot the bill will become less forgiving. There are those who believe that great men should be granted their vices, and it’s our job as discerning consumers to loudly proclaim them wrong. Only then will the new golden era of cinema rise – once the ashes of the old have cooled.