In early August 2013, Fox Searchlight arranged for me to see a newly completed film that The Hollywood Reporter was considering as the cover story for our upcoming Toronto Film Festival issue. No one I knew had seen the movie, nor had anyone said anything about it, good or bad, so I was stunned by what I saw, and above all by a young actress making her feature debut.
The movie was 12 Years a Slave, and the actress was Lupita Nyong’o. That year, she was the first person we approached to be on THR‘s Actress Roundtable, and we seated her in a place of honor, right next to Oprah Winfrey. Watching her progress from being a complete unknown to an Oscar winner was one of the great joys of my time as an entertainment journalist, and I remember thinking how marvelous it must be for her to suddenly meet with such a response, to be pursued by everyone in the business at such a young age.
It never occurred to me there was a dark side to that pursuit. Reading her op-ed in The New York Times last week, when she revealed the systematic harassment she’d experienced at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, shocked me and revolted me, just as I’m sure it did hundreds of thousands of others.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve read, mesmerized, as one story after another has come tumbling out about Harvey (it says a lot that everyone still insists on calling him by his first name), followed by others about Amazon’s Roy Price and, this weekend, about the director James Toback. But none of those stories hit me as hard as Nyong’o’s. Perhaps that’s because I recall her so clearly from the roundtable; perhaps it’s because her lengthy account goes into such excruciating detail about Weinstein’s moves; perhaps it’s because there’s something especially insidious about subjecting a newcomer — she was still a student at the time — to this deplorable treatment. (It makes me terrified for the teenage girls in THR’s Women in Entertainment Mentorship Program and what they might face if they enter our industry.)
Reading Nyong’o’s story, I asked myself: was there anything I could have done to save her or others from finding themselves in such a situation?
The truth is, many of us knew something bad was going on, and failed to speak up. But what did we know, and when? I’d heard rumors of Weinstein hitting on women, rumors of assistants tasked with procuring other women for him, though no one that I knew personally told me anything specific; and I also knew from personal experience about his bullying behavior. But I didn’t chase those stories, nor did I mention Weinstein by name in a column in July when I recalled my own unpleasant encounter with him at Cannes.
I would never on any level equate being berated by Weinstein with what Nyong’o or his other accusers must have gone through; but I discovered what it was like to be threatened face-to-face by a powerful and extremely large man, and, even if I laughed it off, deep down inside I felt worry and fear.
“A few years ago,” I wrote, “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 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 fucking bunch of tabloid hacks!’ he yelled. ‘What the fuck 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 fucking 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 shrewd Hollywood player would have done — he gave his version of the story to a rival trade paper, which ran it the same day as ours, with a sugar-coated spin.”
Over the past few days — days that have rocketed by, leaving shards of moral debris littered across the industry’s floor — I’ve asked myself why I didn’t name Weinstein and write more about him.
In part, it’s because there was much to admire, and I felt it would be unfair to put the focus on his less savory side alone. I believed — and still believe — he was the most singular, most pivotal and most influential person in the film business over the past 25 years, though I know others will question that. There are those who note he ruthlessly edited some great artists’ films; directors such as James Ivory and James Gray, having worked with him once, have vowed never to do so again. There’s also a school that argues Weinstein just scooped up lots of movies, saw what stuck and abandoned what didn’t. But to me he was an exceptional force, promoting an exceptional kind of filmmaking.
That’s one reason I didn’t mention his name. And yet there were others, too, and I’m not proud of them.
To some degree they stem from the history of this publication. Not so long ago (in fact, as recently as 2010, when we became a weekly magazine), The Hollywood Reporter was a daily trade paper, and as with all trades, the wall between editorial and advertising was more porous than it should have been. Nobody ever came out and told me or my colleagues, “You can’t run this.” But a sort of self-censorship was inevitable; we’d tiptoe toward an invisible line, and never quite cross it. That changed radically in 2010 with new editors and it’s remained that way ever since.
But the most profound reason I didn’t delve deeper lay elsewhere: in a false romanticization of Hollywood’s past.
I grew up entranced by mythic stories about the larger-than-life figures who dominated the business of yore, the Louis B. Mayers and Harry Cohns and Jack Warners. Looked at from a distance, they were glamorous, charismatic pioneers, emblems of a time when the studios were empires dominated by these individualist emperors, swashbuckling daredevils untrammeled by today’s corporate culture. Admiring these men for their courage, I overlooked their flaws. Longing to find modern-day equivalents, I turned a blind eye to their successors’ sins.
I’m not alone. Throughout the entertainment industry, others have blinkered themselves, just as I did.
For too long, we’ve accepted misbehavior in many and varied forms. There’s the producer who has a collection of phones at hand, one always ready to hurl at a terrified aide. There’s the executive who berates his staff so badly that they routinely go home in tears. There’s the filmmaker who insists his assistant drop by his home to pick up his underwear and throw it in the wash. There’s the studio head famous for having once said, “If you don’t come into work on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.”
That’s abuse, too, make no mistake about it. And yet we’ve put up with it. An industry that accepts yelling, throwing objects, asking employees to do ridiculous things and work impossible hours is one that creates a perfect petri dish for sexual harassment.
They’re linked because abuse and sexual harassment are both forms of dehumanization, and the dehumanization of women is part of a larger problem still: a dehumanization of anyone without money or power.
It’s horribly ironic that Nyong’o, who came to fame in a movie about the most dreadful form of dehumanization in American history, should so recently have been the victim of another kind. No more. If we want to end one sort of dehumanization, we must end the other, too.