“Circle the talent.”
When times get tough — when a reporter or newbie or “civilian” dares to challenge the behavior of a Hollywood eminence — the impulse is to close ranks around who has more power, money, fame and, perhaps most crucially, talent. In an industry whose chief products are works of novelty and imagination, it’s creativity that’s prized and mythologized most highly: that ineffable, unquantifiable artistic gift that makes someone unique and seemingly indispensable to the entire enterprise.
Did a star lash out at a clumsy boom operator on a film set? Circle the talent, fire the crew member. Does a director have a drug problem that’s endangering an entire production? Circle the talent and quash the exposé. Is a movie mogul serially abusing young women and enlisting his employees as accomplices? Circle the talent and lie, ignore, attack, move on. They’re worth it, goes the rationalization. No one else can do what they do.
It’s the same impulse that drives celebrity worship: that attraction, even adoration, audiences feel toward those possessed of exceptional charisma and physical attractiveness. Hollywood certainly loves its stars but reserves some of its awe for behind-the-camera operatives as well, those brilliant writers and directors — mostly male, cut in the heroic mold of John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — whose “touch” can rescue a floundering script or turn a workmanlike film into a genuine work of art. It’s the same auteur worship that takes over Cannes every year, when a revered filmmaker can deliver a subpar film and still be greeted with awed standing ovations and fawning pats on the back.
Inflating mediocre work is one thing. Protecting pathology is another. Harvey Weinstein, who now faces mounting allegations of sexually assaulting and exploiting young women over nearly 30 years, has always been propped up by a phalanx of publicists, lawyers and enablers; he’s earned a reputation as a practiced bully in his own right. But power and intimidation obscure the nuances of Weinstein’s status as that rare executive who achieved auteur-like creative status in his own right, projecting a starlike aura that was partly based on his own Barnum-esque persona, but also on subtler gifts that made people believe only he could do what he did, so well and so profitably.
Weinstein’s instincts — his ability to anoint actors and filmmakers as the Next Big Things, his nose for turning movies into events — made his first studio, Miramax, a cultural force of nature in the 1990s, when to attend the premiere of “Pulp Fiction” or “Kids” was to be at the precise center of the hip, young universe. In 1992, he launched a brilliant whisper campaign urging viewers not to give away the shock ending of “The Crying Game,” catapulting a modest indie thriller into a must-see pop phenomenon; he made similar marketing hay from tussles with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board and trips to Capitol Hill, where he leveraged public-policy debates on mental health and transparency in adoption to burnish “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Philomena.”
Hollywood has always made Oscar-bait movies, usually big-screen epics, socially important “problem pictures” or sturdy biopics. But, with such plummy literary adaptations as “The English Patient” and “Emma” — movies whose tone and bona fides were completely at odds with the boorish, possibly criminal behavior Weinstein is alleged to have been engaged in — he turned awards movies into a reliable, audience-friendly genre.
And, at a time when the industry was largely turning its attentions to comic books and special effects, he fashioned them into a viable business model. Thanks to the free advertising of their stars’ appearances on red carpet and at congressional hearings, small and midrange movies actually stood a chance of making money. Weinstein’s Oscar campaigns could get brutal, but they gave Hollywood a potentially lucrative alternative to the comic-book spectacles it had pinned its future on. As the director Paul Feig told the Washington Post in an article published on Thursday, Hollywood is a business, “and all business, all corporate culture, is going to make excuses for the person who is making them a lot of money.”
But Weinstein’s importance transcended money and power: He allowed an increasingly corporate industry to convince itself that it could still make art.
In recent years, it’s become clear that the man who once disrupted the movie industry has been disrupted himself, his uniqueness threatened by the natural evolution of technology, competition and social norms. As his financial and corporate powers have waned, so has his mystique, with his awards-season dominance being usurped by such boutique distributors as Sony Pictures Classics and Fox Searchlight, as well as such shrewd, zeitgeist-y upstarts as A24.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers and stars Weinstein once so assiduously cultivated are now flocking to Netflix and Amazon — even, heaven forfend, premium cable. Harvey Weinstein is no longer the sole proprietor of turning little-movies-that-could into juggernauts.
And as his industry has changed, so has the outside world, where women are claiming the power to call out the kind of predatory behavior that was rationalized and overlooked for so long. In addition to trauma, guilt and shame, the movie business is now left to contend with the wages of their idolatry, however artistically high-minded. Which “genius” actor, comedian, director or producer are they protecting now, and at what human cost? Circling the talent always means turning your back on someone, whether it’s an expendable apparatchik, an innocent victim or your own best self.