The Decline of Hollywood's Bully Culture
The Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby accusations are just the tip of a changing climate that no longer tolerates bad behavior.
A few years ago, I was stuck in a hotel room with a Hollywood thug.
It was the late 1990s; this publication was still a daily trade paper, and a colleague and I had come to see him with an explosive story about the flight of senior executives away from his company. Now we presented our findings, and he wasn’t happy. He started screaming at us almost as soon as we entered the room.
“You f—ing bunch of tabloid hacks!” he yelled. “What the f— do you want this time?”
For almost an hour he harangued us, at one point getting down on bended knee to yell in the face of my fellow reporter. Spittle flew from his mouth. “I’m going to pick you up and throw you out this window!” he threatened. “I’m going to maim you and kill you. I’m going to buy your f—ing paper so I can fire you.” (I wasn’t sure if that last line was meant to be funny, but the ashen faces of two of his colleagues told me it wasn’t. They quit soon after.)
At the end of the meeting, we said we were going ahead with our article anyway, and the thug did what any other shrewd Hollywood player would have done — he gave his version of the story to a rival trade paper, which ran it at the same time as ours, but with a sugar-coated spin.
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Everyone in Hollywood knows someone like that.
Bullies and brutes, sociopaths and psychopaths seem to come here to roost, or else to the media world that’s Hollywood’s somewhat more legitimate cousin. For decades, both places have tolerated behavior that would be unimaginable anywhere else.
Now all this is coming into the open. With the flood of reports about Roger Ailes and Bill Cosby, a spotlight has been shined on a bully culture that needs to change.
Sexual harassment may be the worst aspect of this, but the bully culture includes a range of other behaviors that has been indulged in for too long — everything from screaming and shouting to more insidious forms of mismanagement such as setting serf-like work hours and, at the lower end of the professional spectrum, abominable pay.
21st Century Fox’s swift response to the Ailes allegations indicates that a tipping point has been reached, where inappropriate conduct is no longer something to be accepted with a shrug and a smile. In Fox’s case, it’s not just about whether Ailes did or did not harass a number of women; it’s also about whether he fostered an atmosphere of fear.
Fox has everything to lose if it doesn’t handle the matter right. If the company pushes Ailes out, it risks toppling the most profitable part of its empire, Fox News; if it keeps him, it runs the danger of hardening a corporate image that was severely battered by the phone-tapping scandals in London, when tabloid staffers illegally overheard others’ private conversations and even tapped into the voicemail of a murdered girl.
James Murdoch was overseeing the publications that allowed that to happen. The last thing he wants is to be besmirched by another scandal after having finally made it to the top of the powerhouse his father built.
It’s ironic that Fox, which handled the British situation so badly (under the News Corp. umbrella), has been so quick to act here. In doing so, it is lighting the path for a host of other companies that will probably soon face their own problems.
Because whatever happened at Fox is not isolated. If the Ailes and Cosby stories have caught on, it’s because they’re part of an ecosystem that has always preferred a wink and a nod to taking action.
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In the 1990s and early 2000s, I used to hear horror stories all the time. One well-known agent once threw his phone at an assistant, only he threw it so hard it went clean out the window. A top studio executive intimidated his staff so terribly that a lower-level executive kept a voodoo doll of him and would stab it on choice occasions. A media exec smashed two women’s heads together because he wanted to watch them kiss.
The entertainment and media business has always attracted more than its fair share of louts, with their untrammeled egos and boundless appetites — men (it’s almost always men rather than women) who don’t seem to follow the rules.
That’s partly because the rewards are so great. Where else can you become a multimillionaire overnight? The jackpot is so huge, it’s a magnet for gamblers and mavericks, with all the character flaws that inevitably accompany their more admirable qualities.
It’s also because of the way Hollywood came into being. The industry was created by outlaws fleeing the old world (or at least the East Coast establishment), all looking for a chance to make good. The men who created the film business believed in the American dream, without being the tiniest bit dreamy. They’d rip out your throat if it would help them.
Louis B. Mayer, who built the greatest studio in Hollywood history, with “more stars than there are in the heavens,” was perfectly willing to ignore his stars’ addictions to sex and drugs, while proclaiming that MGM was one big happy family. And Columbia’s Harry Cohn was a coarse brute loathed by almost everyone who knew him. Seeing the large crowds at his 1958 funeral, Red Skelton quipped: “It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.”
There was nothing to constrain these guys — not even the law, which frequently worked hand-in-hand with them to cover things up. And that helped launch a tradition of bad behavior that has lasted for decades.
But now it’s changing.
The women’s liberation movement added to the heightened consciousness about ill-advised behavior. And the corporate ownership of the studios and networks also constrained executive conduct.
But most important is the impact of social media, which has made it easy to expose anyone’s dirty laundry. In the old days, people could do whatever they wanted without worrying that it would become public. Today, anything can be recorded on a cellphone and tweeted to the whole world. There’s nothing to stop a juicy tidbit leaking, and the juicier it is, the faster it’s likely to spread.
“What would happen if the Heidi Fleiss story were breaking now?” one producer ponders, speaking about the Hollywood madam whose 1993 downfall became a news sensation. “It would completely change the landscape of the studios. Because everybody was in that book [the book of contacts Fleiss allegedly kept]. Clearly there were plenty of people indulging, and they managed to get away with it because nobody knew who they were.”
Only one executive got burned by the Fleiss affair, and that was because he called a press conference to deny his involvement — possibly the dumbest PR move in an industry with a history of dumb PR moves, given that nobody ever suggested he was guilty. Otherwise, Fleiss got in trouble while her clients kept their jobs.
“Now,” says the producer, “there’s a comfort level in going public, because victims know they can get their stories out. It isn’t that people respected privacy more in the past; it’s that they didn’t know how to make their disrespect public.” The way Cosby and Ailes allegedly acted, he says, “is the last vestige of that sort of behavior."
All this is striking the fear of God into bad boys’ hearts. It used to be the underlings who were afraid. Now it’s the people in power.
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