Hefner, Weinstein and the culture

The rancid feast that is the news cycle served up a pair of groaning platters recently when the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner was quickly followed up by the destruction of the public reputation of Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer and the founder of Miramax studios.

Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy and champion of sexual license and abortion rights, died in September.

Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy and champion of sexual license and abortion rights, died in September.

Hefner’s death was hardly unexpected, but the reaction to it was, at least to some of the conservative press. After noting how Hefner was lionized for his pivotal role in the sexual revolution, Michael Brendan Dougherty of the National Review was shocked by the scathing obituaries in the liberal press.

While nothing could have been as vicious as Ross Douthat’s judgment on Hefner in the New York Times (“the grinning pimp of the sexual revolution … father of smut addictions and eating disorders, abortions and divorce and syphilis”), Dougherty was surprised at the bitterness many liberals suddenly expressed when mourning his legacy of exploitation and abuse, and for generally letting down the carefree, sophisticated style of Playboy’s heyday as he declined in a decaying mansion with dog shit on the carpet and identical blonde girlfriends on call.

While publicly supporting an ever-expanding catalogue of social freedoms and “rights,” the liberal middle class act very differently in their own homes, and when raising their own children. Dougherty anticipates that, after sneering at the values of social conservatives for so long, they are transforming into a new moral majority on the far side of the battle lines of the culture wars, rallying behind trigger warnings and social media campaigns instead of Christian morality. “It won’t be a great tent revival that did it,” he writes, “just a newly empowered class of people reasoning from the behaviour they observe in themselves and their peers.”

Movie studio executive Harvey Weinstein's rank reputation has long been an 'open secret.'

Movie studio executive Harvey Weinstein’s rank reputation has long been an ‘open secret.’

I don’t know whether this vision is hopeful or simply misinterpretation. I wasn’t as surprised by the dismal verdicts on Hefner as Dougherty was, but I was quite shocked by the Weinstein scandal that seemed to boil up in the wake of Hefner’s demise.

I have worked on the fringe of the movie and entertainment industry for over 30 years, as a critic, interviewer, and photographer, and none of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s treatment of the young women who had the misfortune to attract his attention were surprising. Weinstein’s reputation has been rank for nearly as long as he’s been famous; phrases like “open secret” were thrown around, but I’m not sure how secret something is if it’s been fodder for jokes at the Oscars or gags in primetime sitcoms.

No sooner had the first and second waves of accusations bookended Weinstein’s firing from his own company than cries of “everyone knew!” exploded from social media, as almost anyone who shared a limo with the man tried to assuage their guilt by distributing it around amongst the rest of the movie industry.

After listing the many ways working with Weinstein and Miramax was “a blast,” writer Scott Rosenberg declared in a widely publicized Facebook post that “Everybody f- – -ing knew.” But then he tried to deflect the mass culpability by pleading context, and asking that anyone outside his industry – anyone who might feel an urge to, you know, judge – try to be sympathetic: “What would you have had us do? Who were we to tell? The authorities? What authorities? The press? Harvey owned the press. The Internet? There was no Internet or reasonable facsimile thereof. Should we have called the police? And said what? Should we have reached out to some fantasy Attorney General Of Movieland? That didn’t exist.”

It’s hardly convincing. There has, after all, been an internet for at least half of the time Weinstein has been a major Hollywood player, and if “everyone knew,” why couldn’t everyone in an industry that famously and constantly pays lip service to the causes of women, children, minorities, migrants, animals, and even stranded aliens stand by their convictions and simply shun Weinstein?

He may have been powerful, but he did not have a monopoly on motion picture production, even when he seemed to dominate the Academy Awards.

The answer, of course, is simple. Weinstein was bad, but he wasn’t alone. He might not even have been the worst abuser and exploiter in Hollywood history, past or present. Anyone whose love of movies has led them to read biographies or watch documentaries on its “golden age” or the silent era knows that beastly behavior by men (and, yes, women) in positions of power is almost as old as the first one-reeler.

Weinstein didn’t invent the “casting couch.” His sole innovation is that he might have accessorized it with a potted plant.

Weinstein isn’t new, and neither is the general sleaziness that has become dominant in the movie industry’s products since the lingering death of the production code and the old studios starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

In their accounts of their personal experiences with Weinstein, actresses Molly Ringwald and Sarah Polley recalled, as an aside, how they were posed or airbrushed into provocative outfits and poses in posters for films where their characters were hardly purring sex kittens. Never mind what happens in hotel rooms or at dimly lit tables in restaurants – actors have been getting naked for the camera for decades now, and an unwillingness to strip down and engage in a reasonable facsimile of sex onscreen will hinder the career of almost any ingénue.

The border between porn and mainstream moviemaking has been porous for many years, and there are websites that will studiously anatomize evidence that movie stars have crossed over from simulated to actual sex on set. Men like Hugh Hefner were, of course, major cheerleaders for this coarsening of popular culture, but it’s worth remembering that Hefner gave millions to UCLA’s archival preservation of old movies – the sorts of films where love scenes ended with a fully-clothed kiss, and a good writer or director had to find more creative ways of depicting the lusty, carnal sides of our nature than simply tossing two marquee actors onto a hotel bed.

Hefner’s favorite movie was Casablanca, a film where a love triangle ends with a man and wife leaving together, and the hero prevents a desperate young woman from being exploited by a louche, leering old libertine played by Claude Rains.

I don’t know if Weinstein is just a scapegoat for an industry that would rather die than change, and I’m not sure if other industries can claim moral high ground over one that is merely more guilty of sexism and exploitation by reputation. What I am reasonably sure of is that, as outraged and cataclysmic as the Weinstein scandal might be as I write this – there are many hopeful yearnings that this will be, finally, a Hollywood Armageddon – the news cycle will probably have moved on by the time you read it.

What I do know is that the powerful exploit the less powerful when they’re sure that the moral will to refuse, oppose and expose them is weak. And that as long as the height and strength of our moral rampart is “everybody knew,” the Weinsteins of the world will thrive.

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