Harvey Weinstein’s Former Employees Reckon With What They Knew and What They Didn’t
Discussing who knew what about Harvey Weinstein has become a grim, un-fun Hollywood parlor game.
Harvey throttled someone. Harvey called an employee a fucking moron. Harvey threw the shoes, the book, the phone, the eggs. Harvey went to work with his shirt on inside-out and no one had the courage to tell him. If you fucking say anything to him, the assistant said to the other assistant, I’m dead. Harvey would eat the fries off your plate, smash them in his face, and wash them down with a cigarette and a Diet Coke. He belittled and berated: You can’t name three Frank Capra movies? What the fuck are you even doing here?He was funny; he was grotesque, a boisterous, boorish, outrageous, gluttonous caricature of a man, a Hollywood type. A “man of appetites”; a philanderer; a cartoon beast, surrounded by beauties. Years later, the people who worked for him—survivors, they called themselves, of Miramax and the Weinstein Company—still met regularly to tell stories about Harvey Weinstein. “I always thought it was interesting that a lot of people who left Miramax either ended up running shit in Hollywood or became social workers,” an alumna of the company told me.
Harvey stories have a new valence now, in the aftermath of revelations by the Times and by The New Yorker, and the term “survivors” must be reserved for those who have alleged intense sexual harassment, assault, and rape. (Through a representative, Weinstein has denied all accusations of non-consensual sex.) The stories aren’t funny anymore, because now we know the story behind them. Weinstein was not a philanderer, with inordinately, unaccountably attractive “girlfriends”; he was, apparently, according to the forty-some women who have come forward so far, including many of Hollywood’s most visible celebrities, engaged in quid-pro-quo harassment that, in certain cases, involved coercion and physical force. But, unlike Donald Trump, our show-biz President, a bully who has boasted of sexual assault and been accused of sexual misconduct numerous times, Weinstein is finally being condemned and punished for his treatment of women. (Trump denies all allegations of sexual misconduct.)
Workplace sexual assault, according to the feminist legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, is “dominance eroticized.” More than misplaced desire, she writes, it is “an expression of dominance laced with impersonal contempt, the habit of getting what one wants, and the perception (usually accurate) that the situation can be safely exploited in this way—all expressed sexually.” Among the many painful ironies of Weinstein’s public activities (the professorship in Gloria Steinem’s name that he helped endow, his support of Hillary Clinton), the one I find the most brutal and defeating is that he made movies with substantial and three-dimensional parts for women, and it was this rare commodity that he is said to have used to exploit the women who wanted those roles. Their desire for professional advancement demeaned them—even after he’d made some of them into stars. (He never let them forget it: who made them, who owned them.) There were rumors, yes, of the did-she-or-didn’t-she variety. Because the actresses were ambitious, they were seen as “ambitious,” and his predation went on, hiding in plain view. No one ever asked, Did he? That was the given, and it is only now that the abuse is being called by its true name. The company’s reputation for artistic integrity and highbrow fare was a disguise that Harvey Weinstein wore, his version of the black-ski-mask cliché.
Terry Press, the president of CBS Films, told me that Weinstein’s legendary bullying contributed to the silence within his company. “I worked at DreamWorks for ten years,” she said. “It’s a private company. No one threw an ashtray at someone’s head. Nobody called someone the C-word in a meeting. I consider many people at the Weinstein Company to have suffered some sort of Stockholm syndrome. You’d say to them, ‘Hello, in the real world this is actionable.’ In a private company, the owners dictate the culture. If you go to meetings and someone’s physically accosting an employee, the message it sends is, It’s a free-for-all, no rules and no decorum.”
In the past two weeks, discussing who knew what and when has become a grim, un-fun Hollywood parlor game, playing out on social media, at dinner parties, over drinks. The screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who benefitted from Weinstein’s largesse and support for the better part of a decade, in the heyday of Miramax, recently posted a screed on Facebook (since taken down or made private), addressing his own complicity and that of “You, the big producers; you, the big directors; you, the big agents; you, the big financiers. And you, the big rival studio chiefs; you, the big actors; you, the big actresses; you, the big models. You, the big journalists; you, the big screenwriters; you, the big rock stars; you, the big restaurateurs; you, the big politicians.” He writes, “You know who are. You know that you knew. And do you know how I know that you knew? Because I was there with you. And because everybody-fucking-knew.” They didn’t literally know about the rape, he writes, but “We knew something was bubbling under. Something odious. Something rotten.” Judd Apatow wrote on Twitter, “Sell that company for scrap.” A few days later, speaking at an industry luncheon hosted by Variety, he expanded on his remark. “And what about his staff? People say, ‘Did they know?’ Of course they knew.”
But many current and former Weinstein Company employees have come forward in recent days to insist that, in fact, they didn’t know. This week, several employees at the Weinstein Company’s New York office drafted a statement defending themselves, which they submitted to The New Yorker. The document, which they say has the support of approximately thirty of their colleagues at the Weinstein Company, is anonymous: it’s unclear, with the company in turmoil, whether the nondisclosure agreements they signed as a condition of employment will be enforced. One supporter of the statement told me, “This awful helpless feeling of being vilified for something you never knew was creating this feeling of true despair.” The statement reads, in part:
We all knew that we were working for a man with an infamous temper. We did not know we were working for a serial sexual predator. We knew that our boss could be manipulative. We did not know that he used his power to systematically assault and silence women. We had an idea that he was a womanizer who had extra-marital affairs. We did not know he was a violent aggressor and alleged rapist.
But to say that we are shocked and surprised only makes us part of the problem.
Our company was built on Harvey’s unbridled ambition—his aggressive deal making, his insatiable desire to win and get what he wanted, his unabashed love for celebrity—these traits were legendary, and the art they produced made an indelible mark on the entertainment industry.
But we now know that behind closed doors, these were the same traits that made him a monster. He created a toxic ecosystem where his abuse could flourish unchecked for decades.
An assistant who co-wrote the letter described to me, by phone, the events of October 5th, the day the first Times story was published. Harvey came in to work at 375 Greenwich Street, his fiefdom (his brother Bob worked at a different address), where he had a “lair”: in addition to an office, there was a large living room with a commodious couch and trophy walls of photographs of Harvey and his stars. He expressed satisfaction that the piece had come out on a Thursday rather than a Sunday, when, by his reckoning, more people would have seen it. The assistant told Harvey that he was resigning from his position. (He is hoping to be reassigned within the company.) Harvey offered to provide a reference—he didn’t yet understand how undesirable that would be. Later, as the assistant was leaving to spend the afternoon drinking and strategizing with his colleagues at a nearby pub, he says that Harvey reached for his arm. Sobbing, Harvey said, “I’m not that guy. I’m not that guy.”
On the following Tuesday, the staff convened in a conference room, with soul-food takeout from Bubby’s. As they gathered, someone mentioned that The New Yorker story was up. The assembled employees read in silence. They listened to the tape. They knew that voice too well. Some began to shake, and many of them wept as they contemplated the roles they might have played as accomplices, unwitting or not. “People were having a wave of retroactive memories,” a creative executive who worked on the letter told me. “Some of the stories were within the time frame of people who still worked there.” A longtime employee offered to answer questions based on his experiences travelling with Harvey. There was a silence, and then, according to the creative executive, “One of the female assistants was, like, ‘Tell us everything.’ ”
In the time since, people both inside and outside Hollywood have been processing the reality that Harvey Weinstein is “that guy.” In fitting revenge for his reduction of women to bodies, there has been thorough discussion of Weinstein’s own ungainliness and girth (not incidental, as he allegedly used his imposing size to threaten, impede, and overwhelm his victims). Fired from the Weinstein Company, external validation stripped away, he’s now just a body and its urges—not the passionate filmmaker responsible for eighty-one Oscar wins but the animal who allegedly masturbated into a potted plant, or a kitchen pot, or both. (A Weinstein spokesperson told The New Yorker, “There are many stories about Harvey Weinstein that have become urban legend. Some are true and some are not.”)
On Saturday evening, a few hours after Weinstein was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a group of women, former assistants and executives at Miramax and the Weinstein Company, gathered at a house in Los Angeles. They stood around a kitchen island, nibbling on grapes and cheese and drinking wine, while the rice water boiled and the hostess’s husband put the kids to bed. The women said they hadn’t known—they were not “honeypots”—but they were struggling to make sense of how Weinstein’s behavior had gone unchecked. They were dealing with the twin discomforts of having their entire professional community wonder if they were complicit in or victims of his assaults, or both. They wanted Harvey’s downfall to mean something and to create real change within their industry and in the world.
“You feel a little bit like an idiot,” the hostess said. “There were things you knew. Clearly there was also a strategy on his part. He could be flamboyant in his ‘People can know I’m a womanizer.’ But the idea that he took it to sexual assault or even rape was really well hidden.”
The woman standing to my left, in bluejeans, said, “Looking back, the problem is that the unspoken message we were being given from the powers that be across media, Hollywood, and politics is that he can get away with this shit.”
“But get away with what?” a woman in black said. “At the time, you didn’t know this was happening. What you knew was that he was a bully, a screamer, a yeller, a thrower, a pig—not that he was a rapist.” She said that she and her husband got into a fight when the news broke. He insisted that she and her friends must have known.
The hostess said, “The public lynching has been so severe that I think it’s a huge warning call to men in the future. Probably there are people—any number of agents—”
“I want to talk about that,” the woman in jeans said. “The larger culture of harassment and bullying, because you don’t feel like you can come out and report something. The patriarchy is creating this environment for men and women of misogyny and sexism. There is somehow this understanding that you can be this caricature of being bombastic and bullying and treating your underlings—”
“As inhuman,” a fourth woman, chopping chicken, said.
“When this shit happens, a woman doesn’t know who she can turn to, because everyone seems to have a blind eye to it,” the woman in jeans said. “The people around him, his enablers, and there had to have been enablers, men and women, perpetuated the bullying culture. As long as that’s O.K., we’re in trouble, we can’t get out from under it.”
The woman in black said, “It’s naïve to think that Harvey is the only Harvey out there.” (On Tuesday, Harvey Weinstein’s business partner and brother, Bob, who has called Harvey “indefensible and crazy,” was accused of sexual harassment by a showrunner on a Weinstein Company television project, a claim he denies.)
After a while, the hostess said that she had a Harvey story, one whose import she only now understood. She had never told her friends; it didn’t seem like a big enough deal before. After she’d worked at Miramax for a couple of years, a position opened to be Weinstein’s assistant. She wanted to be a producer, so she interviewed for the job. “You’re too pretty to be working for Harvey,” a senior female executive told her. “It will embarrass him.” Confused but undeterred, she persisted. Finally, one of Weinstein’s former assistants took her out to lunch. “Do not take this job,” the former assistant said. “You will see things you will never be able to unsee, and you will do things you will never forgive yourself for.” She didn’t have enough information to comprehend the warning, but she heeded it anyway. The gravity of her near-miss is still sinking in. “There are obviously people that knew,” she said. “And, if they knew, and they knew you, they would protect you.”
The hostess walked me to the door. She had one last point to make. As Hollywood reckoned with its own culture and how to evolve it, there was a more pressing change she did not want people to lose sight of.
“Please, may this empower people to step forward about Trump, and we can bring him down,” she said. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie and countless others speaking out about Weinstein—and more than five hundred thousand women sharing their own experiences with sexual harassment under the hashtag #metoo—the floodgates are open. (On Sunday, BuzzFeed reported that a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” who has accused Trump of groping and kissing her, had subpoenaed his campaign for documentation related to “any woman alleging that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately.” Trump has denied her allegations.) The hostess told me, “Trump women can come through and throw him down. That would be the biggest play women can make. That’s what we need to do.”