From the earliest days of Hollywood, women were stage managed and manipulated by older men in powerful positions. And it’s clear that, although Harvey Weinstein has been outed, little has changed
In the Hollywood dream factory, trauma surfaces as light entertainment. In 2013, introducing the list of best supporting actress nominees at a pre-Oscars event, comedian Seth MacFarlane quipped: “Congratulations, you five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” What was chilling about this was not just that MacFarlane followed it up at the Oscars with a stream of “edgy” jokes, including the line that nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis had “16 years before she’s too old for Clooney” and the nauseating We Saw Your Boobs song. What is really disturbing is that everyone – even people who had no idea of what has now emerged about Weinstein’s behaviour – got the joke. The idea that female stars and aspiring stars are required to accept the attentions, at the very least, of older male studio executives and producers, is as old as the Hollywood hills.
Why are those of us who don’t attend breakfast meetings in Beverly Hills familiar with the phrase “the casting couch”? Why is there even a euphemism for this extreme form of sexual harassment? The power imbalance between female stars and older male executives is so well broadcast that it features in Hollywood films and awards ceremonies, as a plot device or as a joke, and nobody takes the trouble to hide it.
In this weighted system, historic horror stories abound of executives taking advantage of starlets. Shirley Temple recalled that Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, exposed himself to her when she was 12 years old. Louis B Mayer insisted that his protege Judy Garland sit on his lap – she was one of a number of “juvenile stars” at the MGM studio, whose punishing schedule, she said, required amphetamines to get through the day, and sleeping pills to rest at night. Ginger Rogers said that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, chased her around a desk making passes. Marilyn Monroe compared Hollywood to an “overcrowded brothel”. Joan Collins, who was warned about “wolves” by Monroe, says she missed out on the lead in Cleopatra because she refused to be “nice” to the head of 20th Century Fox, Buddy Adler, who also reportedly harassed a 19-year-old Rita Moreno.
Once upon a time, before the US film industry moved to California, there were no stars, and studios could be democratic startup outfits where cast and crew mucked in together. The familiar faces that appeared on nickelodeon screens were known only by their studio’s brand: The Vitagraph Girl, The Biograph Girl. But in 1909, Carl Laemmle, head of the Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) studio, who later founded Universal Pictures, wanted a real star, and decided he had to kill one first.
Having hired Florence Lawrence from Biograph, he spread a false story to the papers that she had died in a streetcar collision. After the public expressed their dismay at never seeing their beloved “Biograph Girl” again, Laemmle put adverts in the papers declaiming, “We nail a lie”, dismissing Lawrence’s death as what we would now call fake news, and announcing her appearance, under her own name, in forthcoming IMP movies. Lawrence’s very existence had been stage managed and manipulated by the studio boss. It heralded the start of a new power relationship between producers and their female stars.
Where Lawrence led, many others followed. As the film business settled in a Californian orange grove, thousands of young American women made their way to Hollywood hoping to become stars. Once inside the film colony, they were more likely to end up as waitresses or sex workers than get a screen test – the numbers weren’t on their side. Actor Louise Brooks wrote that screen tests and movie contracts were handed out not to wide-eyed hopefuls at the studio gates, but, via the casting couch, to women at intimate parties who gave sexual favours to influential men. She described seeing a dancer enter a hotel room with Lord Beaverbrook and “a few days later she told me that she had a contract at MGM”.
It was a corrupt system fraught with dangers, which were becoming visible to the public. One of the biggest scandals in Hollywood history occurred in 1921 when actor Virginia Rappe died a few days after a party in a San Francisco hotel room. The cause of death was her ruptured bladder, and the comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was accused of raping her at the party – the implication being that his excess weight caused her bladder to burst. Arbuckle was eventually cleared. He hadn’t raped Rappe, and the damage to her internal organs had been caused elsewhere, by venereal disease or backstreet abortions or both. Despite his exoneration, Arbuckle was scapegoated for the crime and blacklisted from Hollywood, so as not to remind people of the scandal.
However, the public had now glimpsed the sordid side of the film business – the scandal concentrated the full glare of the world’s attention on Hollywood’s young, desperate and sometimes tragic starlets. The industry’s solution was Will Hays, who, in 1922, was appointed president of the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Hays is now best known for his notorious film censorship “production code”, but his methods for scouring the business clean went beyond what appeared on-screen. He found a new, larger home for the Girls’ Studio Club, for instance, a chaperoned dormitory-cum-sorority house for young women starting out in Hollywood. It had been founded in 1916 by a group of Hollywood women, but this 1926 incarnation (which stayed open until 1975) benefited from the donations of studios and film stars, and aimed to replace the image of the preyed-on “extra girl” with the smart and well-mannered “studio girl”. That is to say, making over the potential victims of the problem rather than addressing the root cause.
In much the same way, stars such as Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow were faced with morality clauses in their contracts. Sign, and your personal life becomes the property of the studio you work for. Don’t sign and you are looking for a new job.
As fast as Hays, and other “uplifters” of Hollywood, could work, the power of the studios, and their executives, was perversely growing. Cinema had become a vastly lucrative business, but it was star names, not studio brands that sold tickets. In the 1920s, as Brooks describes it, when the producers realised that female stars were a threat to their dominance, they waged “a concerted war on the star system”, abusing the power they had to make or break an actor’s career. Female writers and producers such as Frances Marion and June Mathis, who had held senior positions in the silent-era industry, were squeezed out by the 30s, and soon the business was being run by a group of male executives, many of whom obsessively controlled the films they produced and the women who starred in them.
It was standard form for starlets to be made over by studio bosses, with their name, appearance and ethnic identity altered. Margarita Cansino became Rita Hayworth with the help of a dye-job and electrolysis to raise her hairline. Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford after an MGM publicity man said her last name reminded him of a sewer. Inauspiciously, Louis B Mayer named Hedy Lamarr after tragic silent star Barbara La Marr who had died young after struggling with drug addiction. Given a new name and image, a morality clause to conform to, and publicity stunts including staged romances with studio stablemates, the star’s persona began and ended with the inventions of the front office. The star was a creation of the executive’s imagination, and his corporate asset, to be discarded as soon as she was tagged “box-office poison”.
Early in the Golden Age of Hollywood, in 1937, two events underlined how tyrannically moguls would exercise authority over starlets. One was the release of A Star is Born. This Technicolor romantic drama featured Janet Gaynor as a Hollywood hopeful who becomes a big star after a chance encounter at a party where she is waitressing. Rustic Esther Blodgett is remodelled as chic Vicki Lester by studio exec Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) and mentored by her new lover Norman Maine (Fredric March), an alcoholic actor on the slide. Despite the story’s darker moments, it is a relatively palatable presentation of the star-and-studio system. (It is also perennially popular and has been remade three times, with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, and with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. The latest remake features Stefani Germanotta (Lady Gaga) with Bradley Cooper, and will be released next year.)
Also in 1937, behind very closed doors, 20-year-old dancer Patricia Douglas took a job hostessing at a Hollywood party. To be strictly accurate, the party was in Culver City, but it was the climax of MGM’s annual sales convention, and was hosted by comedy producer Hal Roach at his “Rancho Roachero”. The party was trailed to the delegates as: “a stag affair, out in the wild and woolly west where ‘men are men’.” Douglas didn’t know it was a party. After answering a casting call, she was bussed out to the desert location with more than 120 other young women, in skimpy western outfits. It only became clear that they were to be hostesses at a studio party rather than extras on a film when they arrived at the banquet hall, and 300 sales delegates burst in. The women danced and the men eyed them up, in between eating and drinking their way through MGM’s largesse. The party soon became as wild as promised, and David Ross, a 36-year-old sales executive, had Douglas in his sights. He found another man to help him force booze down her throat, then he dragged her to a car outside and raped her. “I’m going to destroy you,” he told her during the assault.
When Douglas pressed charges, Ross’s threat took on a new meaning. Fearing another shock on the level of the Rappe/Arbuckle scandal, MGM, and its thuggish fixer Eddie Mannix, mobilised against Douglas, destroying her character and seeing to it that the studio was not named in the news reports. Douglas’s crime report disappeared and party attendees testified that Douglas had been drinking. Mannix joked: “We had her killed.”
While cinemagoers were basking in the story of how a paternal Hollywood studio had transformed Esther the hopeful into Vicki the star, MGM was using its influence to shatter a young woman’s life. Douglas’s story was belatedly uncovered by film historian David Stenn and featured in the 2007 documentary Girl 27. Last year, the Coen Brothers released Hail, Caesar!, a lighthearted musical comedy about Mannix, which substantially sanitised his work covering up this and many more studio scandals.
The hit movie and the sidestepped scandal of 1937 demonstrate how efficiently Hollywood studios could weave myths out of its own banal production-line processes and how much clout they wielded in the world of law enforcement, medicine, courts and the news media. Effectively, the Hollywood myth becomes more powerful than the truth. If rumours about what happened to Douglas got out, it only served to keep other women in line, or at least in fear for their careers.
After the studio system fell into decline in the 50s, there were still mighty producers pulling the strings on Hollywood sets, but directors assumed more importance than before, and some played up to the old system. Directors of Hollywood films are still overwhelmingly male: 96% of the directors of last year’s top grossing films were men.
Woody Allen, who has been the subject of serious sexual allegations (all denied) in his private life, capped his 1966 directorial debut What’s Up, Tiger Lily? with a casting couch gag, in which he poses as an old-school sleazy executive exercising his petty power over a wannabe. Playboy playmate China Lee performs a gratuitous striptease over the film’s end credits. Allen, reclining on a sofa, jokes: “I had promised to put her in the movie … somewhere!”
Another revered director, Alfred Hitchcock, was well known for having a “type”. “Blondes make the best victims,” he said. “They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” The blond star of The Birds and Marnie, Tippi Hedren, wrote in her memoir that Hitchcock truly victimised her: throwing himself on top of her and groping her, then punishing her on set for resisting his advances.
Maria Schneider who starred alongside Marlon Brando in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, has described feeling “humiliated and ‘a little raped’” by director Bernardo Bertolucci’s handling of a key scene. The director has admitted that he and Brando kept Schneider in the dark about the use of butter in “that scene”: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” Molly Ringwald has written in the New Yorker about several incidents of sexual harassment and abuse in her career, including a “married film director” assaulting her on set. Reese Witherspoon revealed in a recent speech that she was assaulted by a director when she was 16, and that after the incident agents and producers “made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment”.
More recently, since the Weinstein allegations have gathered pace, the Icelandic musician Björk wrote that when she worked with a “Danish director” her “humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm … it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it.” Many assumed she was referring to Lars von Trier, who directed Dancer in the Dark, the only feature film in which she has starred. Von Trier has denied her allegations.
The model of the mogul and the starlet makes Hollywood production a fundamentally sexist system, and it skews what appears on screen, too; most obviously, it helps explain why Hollywood films are so enamoured of May-to-December affairs, in which young women are helplessly drawn to much older men. As Lillian Gish once said of an actor 15 years older than her: “Lionel Barrymore first played my grandfather, later my father, and finally, he played my husband. If he’d lived, I’m sure I would have played his mother. That’s the way it is in Hollywood.”
There have always been egregious examples of age-gap romances on the big screen, most notoriously, in Allen’s films, and recent analyses of Hollywood films have found that female leads are still consistently younger than their male love interests. A machine-learning study by Google.org and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also found that in the 100 highest-grossing live-action films of 2014 and 2015, men appeared on screen for twice as long as women and spoke for twice as long. If the dynamic of older men and younger, submissive women that greases the wheels of Hollywood production offices repeats itself on screen, it is not an accident, but the desires of the producers and directors who create these films played out on the biggest stage of all: Hollywood cinema, the world’s most effective propaganda machine. Who is Hollywood trying to kid? The 52% female cinema audience, or executives who stalk starlets in their bathrobes, while threatening to demolish their careers?
Original article: One Hundred Years of Sexual Predation in Hollywood
Hollywood’s track record on racism, ageism, and outright political partisanship is every bit as black and foul as their track record on the sexual predation of men, woman, and children.