Movies

Ty Burr

How women finally toppled the notorious Harvey Weinstein

Harvey Weinstein.
Benjamin Norman/The New York Times/file
Harvey Weinstein.

Harvey Weinstein has been creeping on women — that’s a tactful way to put it — for almost three decades. So why is the king only now being chased from his throne?

Because the self-perceived perks of powerful men in general and movie moguls in particular never change. But times do.

The storm cloud over the head of the longtime film producer, founder of Miramax, and president of the Weinstein Company finally broke on Thursday, with the publication of a long-in-the-works New York Times investigation detailing multiple allegations of sexual harassment and unwanted physical touching by Weinstein of women in his employ. Eight cases were revealed to have been settled by Weinstein’s lawyers over the years. According to the Times, dozens of former and current Weinstein employees confirmed knowledge of inappropriate conduct.

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The article led off with actress Ashley Judd, who told of being invited to Weinstein’s Beverly Hills hotel room 20 years ago for what she believed would be a business breakfast meeting but quickly turned into a frightening game of Dodge the Harvey. He was in a bathrobe; he wanted to give her a massage; would she like to watch him shower? The article gets more damning from there.

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A separate but similar story from The New Yorker has yet to be published, but the Times bombshell had an immediate effect. Weinstein sent a rambling statement to the editors apologizing for past behavior “that has caused a lot of pain” and announcing he was taking a leave of absence from his company. The Weinstein board was reported to be meeting to decide whether more long-term measures were necessary. It’s very possible, even probable, that after 30 years as the rough-edged hustler prince of Hollywood’s independent wing, with six best picture Oscars and any number of humanitarian awards on his shelf, Harvey Weinstein’s reign is over.

But why now? Why not years ago? Weinstein has long been notorious, if not celebrated, for his hard-charging ways, and you don’t have to stretch very far to picture him as a grabber. He’s “Harvey Scissorhands,” the producer who takes movies away from directors and chops them into what he believes is a more commercial shape. He’s the street-smart marketer who some say singlehandedly created the modern Oscar marathon with its coarse machinations and manipulations. He’s always been proudly vulgar about the business while maintaining a sophisticated taste in projects and a sterling record as a political progressive. He’s a genius bully and he makes great copy.

All of which marks Weinstein as a direct descendent of the studio heads from Hollywood’s storied past, almost every one of whom embraced the casting couch as a side benefit of doing business. Some of them, like Jack Warner at Warner Bros. or Harry Cohn at Columbia, were aggressive in pursuing starlets on their payroll. Others, like the moralistic Louis B. Mayer of MGM, kept their affairs relatively discreet.

At least one, Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox, consciously set his studio up as a personal hunting ground. It was well known in the 1930s that the mogul had a bedroom off his office on the Fox lot to which he would retire with a different actress from the lower ranks for a daily “afternoon nap.” This license came with the job, or so Zanuck believed, and he was the boss.

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From the boss, this attitude — that the women were there for the taking — trickled down to the troops, and it could get ugly. In July 1937, 17-year-old Patricia Douglas was raped after she and other MGM extras were sent to a boozy sales convention to “entertain” the exhibitors. (She was told it was a casting call). When Douglas filed suit, the studio smeared her in the press and bought off witnesses and lawyers to crush the case. No one heard Douglas’s story for 65 years. There are plenty of stories we’ll never hear.

So when Weinstein began his mea culpa to the Times by writing “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” he was referencing the aftershocks of the counterculture sexual revolution as he and many men perceived it.

But he was also implying that this is how it always was in the movie business. It’s the businessman’s prerogative to sample his wares, and if you’re a movie mogul your wares are people, the stars and starlets you own. The days of contract players and Zanuck’s little room off the office may have been gone but the transaction was the same: The women (the men told themselves) wanted something, and the men wanted something and the exchange was equal, not a bruising lesson in power, predation, and patriarchy. Not groping. Not harassment. Not rape.

Somewhere in the past few years, the ground has started to tilt under people like Harvey Weinstein. Just a little, but each tectonic shift brings more dirt out from under the couch. The stories and traumas kept quiet for years — because who would believe the word of a nobody against a lionized man? — have begun to be vomited up against Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others. The blame-the-victim game remains in full force but so does a newfound sense of safety in numbers among an older generation used to harboring its secrets and self-hatreds. There’s more solidarity, too, among a fresh generation of women (and men) who have each others’ backs on social media and in real life. People are more willing to listen and believe. It’s a start.

But that doesn’t really let anyone off the hook, does it? For three decades, Weinstein behaved in sleazy, apparently predatory ways to any number of women, and almost no one publicly called him on it. He seems to have bought some of his victims’ silence and the silence of other victims he didn’t have to buy, because he held all the cards.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Times story, my critical colleague Glenn Kenny tweeted that “everyone in the film world, and the film journalism world, has somehow, at some time, enabled Harvey Weinstein. We’ve no business gloating.”

He’s right, of course. Everybody knew Weinstein was a monster — the women who worked for and around him, obviously, but the men as well — and a caul of industry silence protected him. As one of those women, Rebecca Traister, wrote in New York magazine this week, it may only be because Weinstein, at 65, is perceived to finally be losing power in the movie business that the stories are finally coming out.

But that sends the message that you only get caught when you start to weaken, which, needless to say, is the wrong message. Too many people in the industry miss those old moguls — their chutzpah and cojones; their crass, sharp eye; their ability to get movies made (or in Weinstein’s case, re-cut). Harvey was their direct descendent in achievement and strutting attitude, and as long as the stories were bigger than life and the movies were profitable, award-winning, or good, no one wanted to hear what he did after hours.

Which is exactly how he got away with it. And why too many men who aren’t named Harvey Weinstein still do.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.