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The State of the Race: The Oscars Without Harvey Weinstein

The world woke up to more horrible stories about Harvey Weinstein, this time in The New Yorker with vivid details by his victims, famous women and not-famous women, all treated like pieces of meat thrown into the lion’s den. The new accusations go far beyond sexual harassment, and into intimidation, sexual assault, and by at least by one accuser, rape. He was a serial predator — putting young women in vulnerable positions and expecting them to trade sexual favors to advance their careers. He did it because he could. He did it because he correctly assumed no one could or would stop him.

Most of us know what it’s like to be a situation with a guy like that. Some of us had the courage to say no; others knew it was more dangerous and complicated than having courage. These newly-revealed stories paint a picture of a company that enabled Weinstein’s predatory behavior for years, helping to validate his hotel suite “meetings,” helping to cover up the accusations, making sure each incident went away and paving the way for the next episode. They likely did it because they didn’t want to throw away careers they had struggled to attain, and they complied out of fear of becoming outcasts, never to work in this town again. Everyone who has ever worked in Hollywood knows how that goes. You shut up and accept what’s happening unless you want to find yourself banished from the kingdom, along with your family. This fresh round of revelations, though, and the brave women who have come forward to tell their stories make it crystal clear that the era of shutting up and looking the other way is over.

It’s perhaps one thing to cross the line once or twice, learn the lesson of your transgressions, realize how very wrong you were — and then make amends, resolve to change, work hard to make that change permanent, and vow to prove your redemption every year. But it’s a whole other thing to have a decades-long pattern of abuse from which there is no way out because the predator has dug himself in too deep. What we now see is that Weinstein’s behavior was calculated. It was planned and executed with specifics and a support structure of payoffs and lawyers. And the only reason no one in his sycophantic inner circle stepped forward to stop it was because there was a healthy gravy train rolling along, doling out rewards for silence. There is plenty of blame to go around. From studio execs who knew, to assistants who only heard rumors. From the boosted careers of any enablers who shared financial rewards, to the crushed careers and damaged psyches of anyone who took a hit for resisting. From the top of Hollywood’s head all the way down to the soles of its feet, including measly sites like mine that benefited from the largess of Weinstein throughout the wave of his success.

At first the story seemed limited to its primary culprit: that Harvey would get the blame, suffer the consequences, and that would be that. Then quickly mass hysteria took hold, as the feeding frenzy unfolded online. Everyone who had ever won an Oscar for any Miramax movie was accused as an accomplice, everyone who had ever heard gossip was pilloried for not publishing their hearsay. Mob justice demands that any film and career that Weinstein ever touched must be tainted, and the scandal has blown up so big it now threatens to derail the entire system of Oscar campaigning.

It is virtually impossible to wrap your mind about how just how much Harvey Weinstein has influenced the Oscar race since his first big breakthrough in 1989 with My Left Foot. The way Oscar-ready film projects are scouted and groomed and pushed, how the content and editing of those films is carefully honed to appeal to voters, the uncanny process by which Weinstein could anoint filmmakers as Oscar winners and make that dream happen. The Weinstein Way that he perfected is how most Oscar strategists operate when it comes to the kinds of films and contenders that are most likely to win. Why? Because Harvey Weinstein was the Oscar whisperer. He had cracked the code. He knew Oscar voters better than they knew themselves. He understood how to shape the films and the contenders for maximum success with Academy members. They trusted him because he gave the predominantly older white male voter what they wanted to see: downtrodden yet fearlessly intrepid men doing important things alongside strong, rebellious beautiful women many of them naked and having sex – something that has mostly vanished from the race now. One can’t deny that the females in his films weren’t great characters. They were. From Shakespeare in Love to Chocolat to The Reader to Philomena – you’d never know that the same guy who helped usher those films to fruition was the same guy we were reading about today.

His sure-fire versatile framework worked to earn Best Picture nominations for The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, The Piano, the Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Reader, Silver Linings Playbook. Strong directors with bleaker visions like Tarantino and Scorsese liked to show aggressive men whose destinies led them to go down fighting, and Weinstein knew how that too would appeal to the sensibility of Hollywood martyrs. Needless to say, this formula was highly adaptable and adjusted accordingly as the Oscars themselves changed, as Hollywood changed. Weinstein’s later Oscar entries like Finding Neverland, The King’s Speech, and The Artist were sanitized of their sexuality, though the dauntless, heroic men remained.

Let it be said that Weinstein rarely let sexual barricades he encountered interfere with his business model. It’s clear that Weinstein pointedly refrained from thwarting the careers of some of the women who rejected him, like Gwyneth Paltrow or Roseanna Arquette, although others like Mira Sorvino have claimed he did hurt their careers. Many others maintain that their disturbing encounters with him shattered their self-esteem, demoralized them long after they broke free, and destroyed their faith in their ability to make it in Hollywood. Most will say Weinstein burdened them with lasting scars if guilt and shame, no matter what he did or didn’t do after they escaped his clutches.

The culture of Hollywood has long been that women are there to be consumed by men, and films have long backed up this idea — expressed brilliantly by Ann Hornaday:

Sexism is endemic to just about any profession. But the sleazy ethos epitomized by the Weinstein story permeates an industry whose legend and lore has long mythologized the “casting couch,” whereby female actors got breaks in the business by sleeping with influential men. In a medium predicated on objectifying the human form and dominated by men with money, power and needy egos to burn, it’s long been assumed that a young woman trying to make it in Hollywood will need to brave a gantlet of ogling, suggestive comments, propositions or worse.

Those rituals, and the values that inform and support them, are reflected in the movies themselves. For nearly the entire century that American cinema has been a dominant mass medium, it has trafficked in imagery that sexualizes women to a gratuitous and sometimes degrading degree. Even in movies that don’t explicitly feature women as objects of male desire, audiences are subjected to a steady diet of superhero fairy tales of unchecked potency, vigilante violence, and limitless powers — wish-fulfillment fantasies of male desire and grandiosity that would be laughable if they didn’t have such distorted, disgusting analogues in the real world.

I’ve been writing about Harvey Weinstein the entire time I’ve run this website, going on almost 20 years. I started in 1999, the year after Weinstein and Miramax had bested Saving Private Ryan with one of my favorite films, Shakespeare in Love. I never covered the Oscars because of him but it would have been impossible to cover it without him. He was an omnipresent force in modern day Oscar campaigning. I remember notable moments, like The Reader slipping in for a surprise mid-December release and nabbing nominations in five top categories, swiping the seat of The Dark Knight, and forever changing how the Oscars vote on Best Picture. The next year the Academy would expand the Best Picture ballot to ten. There was a love/hate relationship where Weinstein and the Oscars were concerned. Somehow even some of his lesser films would always make it in when most non-voters thought they didn’t deserve it. His contenders would nearly always win, often inexplicably. Think about Roberto Benigni winning Best Actor, or Jean DuJardin. He had the edge because he knew how to season his Oscar recipe to satisfy voter taste. All of that undeniable savvy and unchallenged power, it turns out, emboldened the consummate showman to enable a monster within.

Although I’d been writing about Weinstein for many years, I never had direct contact with him until a couple of years ago when he wrote me to compliment my writing. I don’t have the email, but it was very flattering. While many people in Hollywood knew to hold him at arm’s length, especially where compliments were concerned, there is no doubt that a little bit of that kind of attention from someone of that stature has an impact. So I would never judge the women who relented out of fear or simply because they couldn’t believe someone that powerful was interested in them. I hope they can not only forgive themselves but absolve themselves, because there is only one person to blame here.

The Oscar race, though, will feel the echo of Weinstein for many years to come. His contribution to American cinema is vast. His promotion of international cinema is was invaluable. His vision was uncompromising. For all that, however, it feels like an era has unquestionably come to an end. The old guard is gone, and good riddance. The Academy under new leadership has invited a breath of fresh air into its ranks. Guys like Harvey Weinstein represent a different time, but that’s no excuse for such a disgraceful way of thinking about and treating women. As more and more women try to break in as directors, writers, heads of studios, they will no longer serve at the pleasure of men. Hornaday puts it best:

In the Times story, one of Weinstein’s [former, she has since resigned] lawyers, Lisa Bloom, called her client “an old dinosaur learning new ways.” Coincidentally, in “Battle of the Sexes” — a movie that’s directed by a man and a woman, and that reflects that egalitarian point of view — Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King makes a similar comparison, chiding her anti-feminist opponent Bobby Riggs that “dinosaurs can’t play tennis.” That’s true, of course: Their arms are too short. Which makes it difficult for them to keep grasping at the power that keeps slipping away despite their most desperate efforts. And which makes it impossible to keep their fingers on the pulse of the changing tastes and expectations of an audience that’s 50 percent female, and increasingly unwilling to pretend otherwise.

The current Oscar season is just beginning, and already we have strong and vital badass voices like Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird, Kathryn Bigelow with Detroit, Dee Rees with Mudbound, Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, and yes, Valerie Faris with Battle of the Sexes. Gerwig has been an important co-writer (and co-director in 2008) for years, and now that she finally trusted herself to break free and fly solo she has made one of the best films of the year. We have so many films framed around heroic women like The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, Wonderstruck, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and soon to be seen, The Post. There is still a long way to go before there is gender parity in Hollywood. That’s why it’s so essential that we change the power dynamic from the inside out, to address a generation that is tired of Hollywood’s old ways, and is ready to embrace the change no one can stop from coming.