SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 29, 2017

Plenty of Harveys

 

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke in early October, my immediate reaction was, “Wait—you people are getting all arm-flappy about this NOW? You’re joking, right? Jesus Christ, the Sleazy Hollywood Producer Preying on Young Actresses has been a tired fucking cliche for over a century! And you’re just noticing NOW?”

            I’ve written stories in past years about silent era actresses who completely abandoned the business after discovering sexual abuse and harassment were simply accepted as part of the game.

            I’ve also written about Shirley Temple’s early career. When her mother first took her in to meet with producers, as the story is told, the two were separated into different offices. While a producer exposed himself to the three-year-old Temple in one, her mother was sexually assaulted by another executive in the other. Nevertheless Temple’s career began immediately afterward, with the moppet starring in Educational Pictures’ Baby Burlesks shorts. Designed to compete with the hugely popular Our Gang series, the comedy shorts featured three and four-year olds in diapers, but placed in very adult situations. Almost without fail, temple played a variety of hookers with names like “Madame Cradlebait” and “Morelegs Sweettrick.”

            Although it never made the news, numerous actresses from the Forties and Fifties openly complained about the groping, harassment and rape they encountered at the hands of directors and studio executives. Most reported their careers were threatened if they didn’t cooperate. At the same time, actors like Cesar Romero called these women whiners and opportunists, saying they knew what they were getting into when they tried to break into show business.

            Despite all the radical changes in Hollywood (and the culture in general) in the Sixties and Seventies, that was one element of the movie business that remained staunchly in place, even if nobody talked about it much.

            Hell, in 1985 The Mentors recorded the song “Couch Test Casting,” in which El Duce, in his own inimitable fashion, took on the persona of a sleazy Hollywood producer. (“You wanna come to Hollywood to be a star? Have sex with me and you’ll go real far.”)

            But nope, only now, it seems, are people coming to realize this sort of thing goes on. I mean, did you never read MAD magazine? And why stop with the movie industry? Look at the music business, corporate culture, law enforcement, the military, and pretty much every level of government. Give people a little power, and out come the dicks. It just seems to be the way things work around here. But hey, you want to go after Weinstein because he’s a big name (and possibly because he’s a major donor to the Democratic Party)? That’s fine, I don’t care. Whatever—just don’t pretend to be shocked and grossed, like this is any kind of new and unheralded behavior on his part.

            As it happens, I have two sort-of tangential stories vaguely connected with the present sordidness.

            I’ve mentioned in the past there was a spell when Morgan and I were drinking at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill in the Village. It was a little too fancy for us, but it was close to her old apartment, so for a few months anyway it became a semi-regular haunt. It was a hangout for old drunken Broadway types and other celebrities. We saw Tony Randall there, and F. Murray Abraham, a few faces from Warhol’s Factory scene, and one night we talked to the woman who wrote every episode of Bewitched without ever receiving a credit.

            Well. One night we ran into an odd but enthusiastic British ad salesman from the New York Press. I recognized him from the office. We’d say hello in the hallways, but that was about it. But when he walked into the Knickerbocker one night and saw us there, he sat down at our table and started talking like we were old friends. Cecil or something was his name. Along with being an ad rep, he also played mandolin in some kind of band, and hosted a cable access show about movies. He had his mandolin case with him, and we chatted a bit. Then he looked to a small table off to our left and whispered, “My god—it’s John Turturro and Harvey Weinstein!” And sure enough it was. They were clearly having a business meeting, and what appeared to be a script lay on the table between them. Don’t know if we would have noticed had someone not pointed it out.

            In a blink, Cecil snatched up his mandolin case and marched over to their table to ask them if they’d appear on his cable access show. Morgan and I, meanwhile, pretended we had nothing to do with him, had never met him, and were just minding our own business, same as everyone else in the bar that night. I don’t think either one ever appeared on his show, but they were apparently polite enough when it came to giving him the brush. At the time, we actually felt bad for the two of them.

            Not much of a story I know, but what do you expect? Have YOU ever found yourself having a few beers two yards away from someone who would go on to become the most notorious man in America?

            Not only do I have that to my credit, I’m also friends with someone who once unwittingly portrayed the most notorious man in America onscreen.

            One of the first actresses to break her silence and name names in this scandal du jour was model, singer, actress and director Asia Argento, daughter of the legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento. Well, her directorial debut was the semi-autobiographical 2000 feature Scarlet Diva, about the trials of a young actress trying to break into the business. In the film’s most famous scene, she shows up at a hotel suite to meet with a high-powered producer, ostensibly about a possible role in his latest film. The producer was played by my friend, painter and performance artist Joe Coleman. I remember him talking about his scene not long after they shot it. They’d apparently filmed it late at night in a real New York hotel, on a floor with actual unsuspecting guests asleep in the rooms around them. This may not have been that big a deal, except the scene ended with a completely naked Joe Coleman chasing Ms. Argento down the hall, screaming.

            I don’t know if Argento’s own encounter with Weinstein ended with him chasing her down a hotel corridor screaming and naked, but apparently everything else in the scene leading up to that moment was essentially a recreation of what actually happened during her first meeting with him.

            Which just goes to show yet again that you can get away with telling an ugly truth disguised as fiction much more easily and honestly than you could by simply telling the truth.

            Yes, well, so Weinstein’s career is over, not that I really give a damn, and now actresses, actors, studio staffers and flunkies across the board are publicly accusing other producers, directors and actors of similar behavior, comedians are outing other comedians for saying offensive things offstage, and so on and so on and so on. If it ultimately leads to a grand overturning of the status quo, in which sleazy asshole bullies always seem to rise to positions of power, that’d be great and amazing (but I doubt it). My only fear is that the Weinstein case is merely being used as justification for the latest expansion of the dictatorship of the most easily offended.

 

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