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Opinion Hollywood’s harassment scandals prove that ‘Entourage’ is basically a documentary

Here's why "Entourage" may be a cautionary tale of sexism in Hollywood. (Video: Jayne Orenstein, Alice Li and Alyssa Rosenberg/The Washington Post)

NoteThe original version of this piece ran on June 5, 2015, when the “Entourage” movie arrived in theaters. We’re updating it to reflect recent events in the entertainment industry, which only make its point more painfully relevant.

When it was alleged in October that Harvey Weinstein, one of the most defining figures of the modern movie business, had for years paid settlements to women who accused him of sexual harassment and assault, my thoughts turned immediately to “Entourage.”

The long-running HBO series about a rising movie star and his posse couldn’t be more different from the high-end films Weinstein turned out, which were precision-engineered to win Oscars. But between 2005 and 2007, “Entourage” featured a riff on Weinstein, Harvey Weingard (Maury Chaykin), that nailed Weinstein’s air of dominance and menace. Harvey Weingard doesn’t sexually harass or assault anyone during his run on the show. But he uses his bulk, his physical grotesqueness and his frighteningly violent temper to bully the normally-assertive men on the series into submission. Harvey Weingard is one of the very few people super-agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, who has himself been accused of sexual assault by multiple women) seems to genuinely fear. If “Entourage” didn’t expose Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual depredations, it painted a very clear portrait of just how Weinstein maintained his position in Hollywood for so long.

“Entourage,” has curdled in critical opinion like Avión tequila getting sour in the sun. And I come today — despite the “Let’s Hug It Out” T-shirt in my desk drawer — not to defend “Entourage,” not exactly. Everything the show’s critics say about it is true. The utter refusal of “Entourage” to make its four core characters grow in any particularly meaningful way stripped the show of small-d drama long before it went off the air. The house style, which includes a preference of introducing the characters’ more disposable sexual partners nipple-first, makes the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which has its own share of upskirt shots, look like the vaguely Catholic family drama it’s always aspired to be. Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) is a truly terrible actor.

But I started watching “Entourage” shortly after it went off the air and after I started writing about the entertainment industry full-time as the culture editor at ThinkProgress. And binging on the show at the same time that I began reporting on Hollywood’s woeful record of both on-screen and behind-the-camera diversity was illuminating. The same people who hate “Entourage” often tend to be strong proponents of the idea that Hollywood is a wretched hive of sexism and racism, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone acknowledge that those two ideas produce a useful synthesis. If “Entourage” is an obscene portrait of white male entitlement, lifestyle porn for gross bros everywhere, it’s because Hollywood is, for a certain class of men, precisely this sort of wonderland. And especially as sexual harassment and sexual abuse scandals continue to rock Hollywood, “Entourage” seems overdue for a critical reexamination, not so much as a Hollywood buddy comedy, but as a scathing documentary account of the entertainment industry’s sexual culture.

“Yes, it smacks of a certain kind of misogyny, but it’s reflective of what actually exists here,” Franklin Leonard, a former agent and the founder of the script-writing competition the Black List, told me in 2015 when “Entourage” came up during a more general discussion of diversity in the entertainment industry. “As much as it is detestable, it is weirdly valuable as [an illustration that] this is what the world is like.”

My posse on “Entourage” was never Vince, an actor who keeps failing upward despite his obviously modest talents; Eric (Kevin Connolly), Vince’s best friend, who rises from managing a fast-food restaurant to running Vince’s career; Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), Vince’s obscene, rage-a-holic half-brother; and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), a sponge who dries out — and correspondingly shrinks in size — over the course of the series.

It was the crew of women who had to put up with their nonsense and that of Ari. There was Shauna (Debi Mazar), Vince’s publicist, who was constantly irked by Vince’s sloppiness and Eric’s laxness in managing him and deeply disgusted by Drama and Turtle. But her low-level contempt for the gang never kept her from making money off them or doing her best work on Vince’s behalf, no matter how little effort he put out in return. We had Barbara Miller (a brassy, composed Beverly D’Angelo), who became Ari’s business partner after he started his own agency, generally observing Ari’s tantrums with the kind of bemusement parents reserve for talented but frustrating children. I sympathized with Melissa Gold (Perrey Reeves), subsumed in classic Hollywood fashion into her husband’s identity and known as Mrs. Ari, rather than her own name, for much of the series. A former actress whose personal wealth makes many of Ari’s schemes possible, Melissa’s efforts to negotiate a marriage that is at least minimally satisfying provided some of the best, most poignant scenes in the series and brought out the best in Piven.

And, most of all, there was Dana Gordon (a magnificent Constance Zimmer). Ari’s last girlfriend prior to his marriage, Dana began the series as a vice president at Warner Brothers. And while she appeared in slightly less than a quarter of the episodes on “Entourage,” Dana’s career provides an important parallel with Ari’s. Where Ari’s affection for and faith in Vince tend to influence his judgment, and not for the better (a trend that continues into the “Entourage” movie), Dana learns early that she can’t let her history with Ari get in the way of her career. After his indiscretion gets Dana fired from Warner Brothers, she begins a steady march up the corporate ladder, eventually landing her old boss’s job as head of the studio.

From that point on, she avoids some of Vince’s biggest disasters, passing on his horrendous biopic of Pablo Escobar and spotting his drug problem before Ari can bring himself to acknowledge it. And when they briefly rekindle their romantic relationship in the final season, Dana encourages Ari to return to Melissa when she realizes that he’s still in love with his wife. Maybe it’s supposed to be a heartbreaking development, but it’s a liberating one, too: Dana is the rare female character on “Entourage” to find a way to have Ari Gold in her life without making her happiness dependent on him.

These women don’t dominate “Entourage,” but there are enough of them, and their perspective is given enough weight that their presence doesn’t feel purely coincidental. (The “Entourage” movie itself hinges on a film investor’s sexual obsession with a young actress and shows Jessica Alba leveraging a director’s sexual harassment of her for a greenlight of her passion project.) Shauna, Barbara, Melissa, Dana and, later, Amanda Daniels (Carla Gugino) and Lizzie Grant (Autumn Reeser) can keep up with Ari, obscenity for obscenity and penetrating insight for penetrating insight. They’re neither prudes nor scolds, and they make it consistently clear that they think the male characters’ behavior is often either disgusting or pitiable.

What it’s not is necessarily unrealistic. If you think Vincent Chase is a mediocre actor and the fact that he keeps working seems inexplicable, there are plenty of white men in whom Hollywood keeps investing, despite their failures to turn in either transcendent performances or undeniable box office results, and much to the consternation of critics who would like to see women and people of color get a fraction of those opportunities. The relative lack of women and people of color in directorial or executive roles at either studios or agencies? If you read this blog on a regular basis, I don’t have to tell you how bad the numbers are.

A plot where Vince ends up living next door to, and dating the operator of, an upscale Hollywood brothel? Heidi Fleiss, the Hollywood Madam, may be out of the game, but other people seem to have filled the hole she left in the market. One of the formative stories of my early years as a critic was covering executives’ willingness to defend Charlie Sheen even after his history of alleged violence against women, including sex workers.

And if the way Ari talks to his staff seems jaw-dropping, it’s worth revisiting a 2008 article about the culture of Hollywood agencies, including that of “Entourage” inspiration Ari Emanuel. As Michael Cieply reported at the time:

In April 2002, an agent named Sandra Epstein sued Endeavor, alleging, among other things, sexual harassment and pointing out that at one point she had been the lone woman among a dozen male agents.
According to court papers, Ms. Epstein ultimately settled her claims for $2.25 million. But not before underwriters at Lloyd’s of London, Endeavor’s insurer, canceled the agency’s employment practices policy, provoking a second suit by Endeavor against Lloyd’s and a law firm the insurers had been paying to represent the agency.
In depositions and court filings in the second suit — ultimately settled under undisclosed terms — Ms. Epstein and other Endeavor employees described office escapades that included rampant pot-smoking, obscene hazing at corporate retreats, sexual frolics on desks, and one agent demanding that his assistants book prostitutes for him.
Mr. Emanuel, the filings said, allowed a friend to operate a pornographic Web site out of the agency’s quarters. Also, according to Ms. Epstein’s filings, Mr. Emanuel made antigay and racist remarks — accusations he disputed at the time.

Ari Gold’s disgust about his assistant-turned-television-department-head Lloyd’s (Rex Lee) homosexuality is the perfect expression of the gap between many Hollywood players’ expressed liberalism and their business practices or actual behavior (think Brett Ratner’s rehabilitation about GLAAD after his use of an anti-gay slur). In the “Entourage” movie, a subplot involves Ari ducking Lloyd’s calls after Lloyd gets engaged. In the end, the opportunity for social positioning convinces Ari to overcome his queasiness about the quasi-parental role he’s come to occupy in Lloyd’s life: Ari and Melissa throw Lloyd a very big, very Jewish wedding at their home, and Ari walks Lloyd down the aisle.

If anything, the seventh season of “Entourage” — much of it written by Ally Musika, the woman who is credited with more episodes of “Entourage” than anyone other than Doug Ellin — is actually the most fantastical proposition offered up by the show. In it, Lizzie Grant, a promising agent with whom Ari was once close, decamps to work for his nemesis, Amanda Daniels, after Ari passes her over for a promotion in part to placate his wife, who was suspicious of their closeness.

Lizzie had, rather prudently, recorded Ari’s frequent tirades in both writing and audio, and for a while, contemplated suing him. During panicky meetings with their company’s lawyer (Rob Morrow), it was a delight to watch the malicious pleasure Ari’s partner, Barbara Miller, took in confirming everything Lizzie said about Ari — and everything Barbara had warned Ari could bring him down. “She felt she was looked over for a promotion she deserved,” the lawyer explains. “I would have given it to her,” Barbara tells Ari, with contempt. When the lawyer asks Barbara how Ari behaved around the office, she doesn’t bat an eyebrow as she tells both men: “He told me I’d look good with a ball gag in my mouth last week.”

Lizzie ultimately quits working for Amanda, deciding that “I don’t want to blackmail my way into a job,” and giving her copies of the recordings back to Ari. But when the tapes appear to leak on Deadline Hollywood, which was then the most-feared publication in the industry, Ari goes ballistic, launching a sexist, violent tirade at Amanda in a restaurant full of patrons, blaming her for embarrassing his family and losing him his shot at bringing an NFL team to Los Angeles. Amanda’s response is devastating.

“All I wanted to tell you was that I didn’t send the tapes. I discovered that my assistant — now ex-assistant — took it upon himself to do so,” she explains. “See, he worked for you once upon a time, and he had his own vengeance in mind. And as for the NFL, I’ve been trying to contact you, call you, email you, to get you back involved. But I guess you were too distracted thinking about my cleavage to think that I actually had something to offer you. See, they and I thought, despite all that had happened, that you could still be an asset to us. I don’t, anymore.” Amanda and Lizzie may have walked up to a dangerous moral cliff, but they backed off. The only person who ruined Ari’s life, even temporarily, is him.

And if “Entourage” punted plot-wise in the show’s final season and in the movie, in making sure that Ari, Vince and his friends rebound from the various low points they hit in season seven, that doesn’t strike me as so unrealistic, either. Ari Emanuel is co-chief executive of William Morris Endeavor, rather than permanently disgraced by his raunchy antics. Despite some improvements in diversity on television, and despite the panic that seems to have been induced in some of the industry’s power players, Hollywood hasn’t exactly made a collective, deliberate decision to purge middling white male actors or directors in favor of talented women. As long as the Vincent Chases of the world keep making money, the business that profits from men like him will continue to coddle them.

That’s a point the 2015 “Entourage” movie, which was otherwise terrible, made even more sharply. The action in that film revolves around the gang’s need to appease Travis McCredle (Haley Joel Osment), the entitled son of a wealthy movie financier who is backing Vince’s latest project, even as he pursues and harasses Emily Ratajkowski (playing herself). When Ari reveals the reason Travis has been making trouble with the project, his father (Billy Bob Thornton) says that he will continue to invest in the studio, though he insists that Ari be fired for humiliating Travis. It’s harder to think of a nastier, blunter illustration of the truth that’s been affirmed over and over since October: that Hollywood is willing to tolerate almost any behavior from men as long as they bring enough money with them.

I don’t exactly need reminders that the fight to make Hollywood a more equitable place is like scaling Everest without supplemental oxygen, ice axes or hired sherpas. But if I did, the truth at the core of “Entourage” would keep me going: The entertainment industry has enough to offer the Dana Gordons and Melissa Golds of the world to give them reason to stay and to give the business the resilience to absorb an enormous amount of criticism without sustaining catastrophic damage. The men in “Entourage” want to be our superheroes. But the women who survive them ought to be our real idols.