Last week, Academy Awards producer Jennifer Todd told the New York Times, “The Oscars should be a spectacle. Fun and funny and great performances…It should also be a giant commercial for the movie business, which we all need to keep going.” And Channing Dungey, president of entertainment at ABC, which broadcasts the Oscars, suggested that she wanted to strike a balance between letting the message of Time’s Up have “its moment” and ensuring that it “doesn’t feel like it overshadows the artists and films being honored … I would love for every award recipient to not feel like they have to acknowledge it independently.”
These are understandable impulses from people who are in the Oscars business: It’s easier to sell a glitzy Hollywood spectacle than a self-criticism session on sexual harassment. But getting back to glamour before the rot has been fully excised is a tricky proposition. An episode of “Frontline” devoted to disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein that airs two days before the Academy Awards demonstrates just how far the entertainment industry has to go in reckoning with its complicity.
As most of the reporting on sexual harassment has justifiably done, the “Weinstein” episode of “Frontline” focuses on the testimony of Weinstein’s alleged victims. But some of the most searing interviews are with men who used to work with Weinstein, and who are clearly taking hard looks at what they knew, what they were willing to acknowledge to themselves, and what they did or didn’t do to stop Weinstein and protect the people around him. Their willingness to be candid about the choices they made shows just how much other players in the industry have left to do.
For Paul Webster, who ran production for Weinstein’s Miramax Films from 1995 to 1997, Weinstein’s willingness to cross lines in other areas of his life was a warning sign. Webster tells “Frontline”:
I knew I was making a deal with the devil. I knew he was a bully, I knew he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted, I knew he had a volcanic temper, I knew he was a dangerous character. But I knew he was at the epicenter of where I wanted to be….My memory is that I was fully aware that Harvey was a serial womanizer. But it didn’t take too much brainpower to put it together that a man who was so abusive and bullying in every aspect of his life would bring that abuse into the sexual arena…I think we were all enablers. We were all complicit…I never thought about doing anything about it. I know that I prevented my assistant being called to the Savoy Hotel late at night, I said ‘No, you can’t go.’ So obviously, I was aware.
Tom Prince, who was vice president of physical production at the Weinstein Co., became suspicious about Weinstein’s behavior when he was asked to approve what he saw as unusual expenditures for minor movie roles that could have been cast locally.
On every production, I would get a phone call or an email saying we have to fly this actress to the movie set….This was a mandate from Harvey. It was a company that was completely and utterly ruled by Harvey, and Harvey was a dictator….Clearly there was something more than the actresses’ acting abilities involved in us flying somebody and spending $20,000 on a role that could have cost $2,000.
The “Frontline” episode raises plenty of other questions about the actions of people who worked at Miramax and the Weinstein Co. and elsewhere in the industry.
In some cases, the “Frontline” report suggests that higher-ups failed to comply with efforts to rein in Weinstein’s behavior. Zelda Perkins, who worked as Weinstein’s assistant at Miramax, told “Frontline” that she tried to find ways to hold Weinstein accountable after one of her colleagues told Perkins that Weinstein had attempted to rape her. The two women sought a settlement with the company that would mandate therapy for Weinstein, new human resources policies and procedures to protect Miramax employees and a requirement that Disney, which purchased Miramax in 1993, would be informed if Weinstein entered into any other sexual misconduct settlements. “Frontline” doesn’t answer how well Miramax lived up to its end of the bargain, whether Disney executives learned of any other settlements, and if so, what Disney did with that information. But those are inquiries well worth pursuing.
It will also be revealing to see the results of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s lawsuit against Weinstein and his brother Bob; Schneiderman has alleged a “pervasive pattern of illegal activity” intended to cover up Weinstein’s reported sexual misconduct at the Weinstein Co. In his interview with “Frontline,” Schneiderman suggested that Weinstein’s 2015 contract renewal, which instituted a series of financial penalties Weinstein would have to pay if he settled additional sexual misconduct suits, was “essentially monetizing this pattern of abuse.”
And though “Frontline” deals with this question only briefly, whether Hollywood talent agencies failed to protect their clients from Weinstein, or even legitimized the hotel room meetings Weinstein is alleged to have used to set up his victims, remains a critical point of investigation.
Maybe audiences will accept a “giant commercial” for the products of the movie business on Sunday night. But “Frontline” is a powerful reminder that it’s far too soon to rehabilitate the industry that created them.