Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Frontline: “Weinstein” (WGBH, PBS, BBC, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 10:30 p.m. I watched an episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline dated March 2, “Weinstein,” about Harvey Weinstein’s long history of sexual … whatever? “Misconduct” doesn’t sound strong enough to cover what he did, neither does “harassment,” and “abuse” comes closer but still doesn’t cover the creepiness of what he did to various women, ranging from inviting them to his hotel room, stripping himself naked and asking them to massage him to out-and-out rape, in a 35-year career of sexual predation that according to Frontline’s program, began at the very start of Weinstein’s film career, on a 1981 film called The Burning that marked one of his few creative credits (he co-wrote the original story with the film’s director, Tony Maylan, and Brad Grey, later a major agent, and Harvey’s brother Bob co-wrote the actual screenplay with Peter Lawrence) and was described by Paula Wachowiak, who worked as an intern on it and became one of Harvey’s first victims, as “a gory film about a guy that comes back for revenge and murders the people at the camp.” Wachowiak recalled that during the production she had to go to Harvey Weinstein’s room to get him to sign some paychecks for the cast and crew, and “he was standing there, and he had a hand towel around his waist. I handed him the folder, and he dropped the hand towel. And all the while, he’s asking me questions about checks. And he, at some point, sat down on the bed and he plopped the folder on his lap. And then he started saying, ‘What about this one?’ And he’s pointing. And I’m not going to look down, so I say, ‘Which one is that, Harvey?’ Then he said, ‘I have a crick in my shoulder.’ He said, ‘Could you give me a massage? Could you rub it out for me?’ And at that point, I looked at him and I said, ‘Harvey, I don’t think that’s in my job description.’” 

It’s fascinating that the pattern of Harvey Weinstein’s subsequent depradations began that early, when he was a young independent producer in New York and had no way of knowing that within a few years he’d be the much-loved and much-feared production chief and co-owner of Miramax Studios (the company Harvey and Bob Weinstein named after their parents, Miriam and Max) and he’d be launching the careers of major directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. He had no way of knowing when he so bizarrely hit on Paula Wachowiak that he’d one day have so much power and prestige in Hollywood he could literally make or break people’s careers, and between that and the huge amount of money he had at his disposal and the high-powered law firms and P.R. firms he could hire with it, he would make himself literally untouchable. The accounts of actresses, interns and assistants he hit on have a depressing similarity to them — though this show doesn’t contain the bizarre incident that’s been reported elsewhere of Weinstein becoming so overcome with lust for some woman at a dinner party at his home that he literally took out his cock and jacked off into one of his potted plants (“so if you’re ever at Harvey Weinstein’s home for dinner and you’re offered fresh basil, don’t take it!” Stephen Colbert joked) — and perhaps the most bizarre case they did depict was the sad tale of actress Sean Young (that’s right, a woman named Sean). Young had already started to make a name for herself in films like Blade Runner when, in 1992, Harvey Weinstein hired her to act in a film called Love Crimes. She played a butch, hard-nosed prosecutor who is kidnapped by the serial rapist and sadist she’s been trying to catch, and he holds her against her will and turns the tables on her — which quite frankly sounds like a very revealing plot line in this context! Harvey made his usual graceless approach on her — “I was sitting in “Harvey’s office after the picture. And this is the only time this has ever happened to me. He pulled his thing out. And my response was, ‘You know, Harvey, I really wouldn’t be pulling that thing out because it’s really not pretty.’ And I got up and I left” — and as a result her career plummeted (though at least she kept working — her page shows a steady list of credits, even if on relatively cheap and uninspiring projects) and she never again got to work on a Weinstein-produced film or on much of anything involving the “A”-list. 

Another victim, Zoë Brock, was a successful model who wanted to branch out into acting: in 1998 she went to the Cannes Film Festival and Weinstein offered her a ride, then lured her to his own hotel — the Du Cap, well away from the festival — saying there would be other people there at a party. When she realized there wouldn’t be, that Weinstein had tricked her into going into his room and she “very unwillingly let him maneuver me into his bedroom” and then hid out in his bathroom to keep him from raping her, while he pounded on the door, “I screamed at him, ‘Put your [deleted] clothes on, you naughty [deleted] boy!’ And I meant it. And it worked. I came out of the bathroom and he was apologizing. And he started to cry. And he said something that I have never forgotten and I never will for the rest of my days, in between his tears, ‘You don’t like me because I’m fat.’” As Harvey Weinstein rose up the Hollywood food chain, first building up Miramax until it was a major independent studio, then making a ton of money selling it to Disney, then despairing of Disney’s corporate influence and leaving to start the Weinstein Company with his brother Bob as business partner and finance guy (repeating the pattern of a lot of the other companies that became major studios: Jack and Harry Warner, Harry and Jack Cohn of Columbia, Walt and Roy Disney), he not only continued his depraved assaults on women’s bodies and their dignity, he set up the studio until it became a virtual pimping machine for him, not only recruiting young, nubile females with dreams of movie careers either in front of or behind the cameras but systematically paying them off if they complained and forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA’s) to make sure that he could buy their silence and never have to worry about them exposing (pardon the pun) him as the vicious, predatory creep he was. 

Indeed, one of his victims, actress Jessica Barth, did tell someone — her friend, comedian Seth McFarlane — and McFarlane responded when he hosted the Academy Awards and joked as part of the program, after the Best Actress nominees were introduced, “Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” Apparently Barth thought that would “break” the Weinstein story and attract reporters to investigate the truth behind McFarlane’s joke, but the Weinstein machine managed to keep the kibosh on the story. When talented investigative reporters like Ken Auletta of The New Yorker tried to report on it, Weinstein and his people had done such a good job buying or intimidating everyone into silence that they couldn’t find the on-the-record sources needed to publish the story. What producers Jane McMullen, Leo Telling, Nick Verbitsky and Lucy Osborne don’t make clear on the program is that Harvey Weinstein’s curtain of secrecy really began to slip when his record as a producer did, too. His legendary rages and feuds with directors on the set — he had a way of showing up and literally screaming at the people who were making his latest film and, instead of giving them constructive suggestions and notes, demoralizing them — led to the Weinstein Company either not getting the best projects or, when they got them (as with the movie Grace of Monaco, a biopic of Grace Kelly starring Nicole Kidman and directed by Olivier Dahan, who’d just made the successful Édith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose), getting into so many squabbles that ultimately a film that was supposed to be a major theatrical release ended up on the Lifetime cable channel because Weinstein and Dahan couldn’t agree on a final version of the movie. (It did get released in Europe because Dahan’s contract gave him final cut in Europe but not in the U.S.) Though the writers of this documentary evade the point, I’m convinced that one of the reasons Harvey Weinstein fell from grace so fast was that a string of box-office failures eroded his base of power in Hollywood; instead of the great hot-shot who was supposedly saving the cause of sophisticated, adult-oriented filmmaking even though he was a boor himself, he was just another failing producer with a reputation for abruptly changing projects, sending in people to rewrite and reshoot films their directors and actors considered finished, and in one case (Kate Winslet’s 2008 film The Reader, directed by Stephen Daldry) abruptly canceling production with four days left to shoot, thereby denying Winslet the chance to act key scenes she and Daldry felt were crucial in delineating the character she was playing. 

The Frontline film also touches on Weinstein’s contributions to liberal political candidates and causes — something that got seized on by the radical Right when the scandals surrounding him broke and they were able to claim that this type of sexual assault wasn’t exclusively the province of Right-wingers like Fox News head Roger Ailes and star Bill O’Reilly — though it doesn’t clearly state just how much of liberal Hollywood and the Democratic party were on the hook, financially, to Harvey Weinstein and thereby had a vested interest in keeping his misdeeds secret for fear of derailing the gravy train. It does mention an auction fundraiser Weinstein put on for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) in 2015, in which there was a dispute between Weinstein and AmFAR over the proceeds, and when AmFAR hired attorney Tom Ajamie to investigate where the money had gone, Ajamie recalled, “During the course of our investigation, we had to interview people. We would say to them, ‘Why did it go here, why did it go there?’ The response we would get would be, ‘Well, before we get into that, do you know that Harvey Weinstein rapes women? Do you know that Harvey Weinstein is a sexual predator?’ Now, we had no proof of that, but this is what we were hearing, and it was very disturbing.” Ajamie said Weinstein himself summoned him for a meeting. “He said to me ‘Tom, you’re spreading rumors about me raping women’,” Ajamie recalled. “And my response was, ‘Harvey, I’m not saying that, the community is saying that about you.’ And at some point, he got very angry and said ‘You better be careful, Tom, because I’ve investigated you and you’re not so clean, so be careful.’” Weinstein tried to get Ajamie to sign a non-disclosure agreement similar to the ones he’d extracted from the women who’d been his actual victims, and when Ajamie refused and the meeting ended, “I saw a very sad and desperate man who was now sticking his fingers in various parts of the dike and trying to prevent the water from leaking out and the entire dam from falling and crushing down on him.” Frontline’s production “Weinstein” inevitably leaves a lot unsaid — after all, the filmmakers had only an hour-long time slot to work with — but even in this truncated version of the Harvey Weinstein story there’s room for both anger and sadness: anger at what Harvey Weinstein did to women and how long he got away with it, sadness that a potentially great man who made a major contribution to American culture was so pathetic in his personal life he had to resort to this sort of creepy behavior to satisfy both his sexual urges and his even more poisonous lust for power.