Hollywood has always been built on power and vulnerability, and abusers like Harvey Weinstein have been a mainstay since the days of Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe.
At the time of this writing, Harvey Weinstein has been accused by 40 women of sexual misconduct over the course of his career as a producer and distributor of films. While applauded by the industry for his “cultural impact,” few saw it fit to speak up about the decades of abuse, assault and rape that had been going on in their ranks. Yet when news broke of Harvey Weinstein forcefully performing oral sex on one actress and masturbating into a plant while cornering an unsuspecting news anchor, no one seemed the least bit surprised — apart from Harvey’s closest friends. And why is that? Why didn’t anyone speak up sooner? Because this is who Hollywood is, and has been, since the very beginning.
Think: Who goes to Hollywood?
These are your social pariahs and outcasts, your freaks and artists, your sensitives and misfits. These people roll into Los Angeles with big dreams, empty pockets and a willingness to work. A fair majority, like Rita Hayworth (the original starlet and love goddess), enter this world with some training in theater. Rita, for instance, was a descendant of Spanish dancers who had won over the New York vaudeville scene. When she was 13, she joined her father, Eduardo, in Tijuana to dance for the film executives, knowing full well that her family’s survival depended on her success.
Eventually the sultry numbers she performed with her father landed her small, exotic roles in B films. That’s what brought our future “Gilda” to Tinseltown. It wasn’t long before she met her first husband, Eddie Judson, a 41-year-old smooth operator with a mysterious past. Judson landed her more gigs in B films and worked to build her career as a star, hoping to capitalize on her success. When she turned 18, they eloped and Eddie seized complete control over the future starlet’s life. In fact, the Rita Hayworth we know and love was a persona designed by Judson himself, right down to the hairline. As she had with her father, Margarita simply did as she was told.
Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand, had been born in Los Angeles. An unwanted love child, Marilyn would spend her free time at the cinema, dreaming of a better reality. She used to sit in that bright, white light of the moving pictures and pray that it would help her change her life. She believed that through acting and film, she could finally find acceptance and love. She’d married her first husband at 16 to escape an orphanage but divorced him once she’d gained some independence through modeling. She later began relationships with agents, directors and voice coaches, who helped her with plastic surgery and getting a foothold in the industry, but she also knew that you couldn’t just sleep your way to the top — “it takes a lot of work too!”
But many people who come to Hollywood are attracted to the idea of fame and fortune, in one sense or another. They’re not doing regional theater for the love of the craft. They’re out there trying to make money, and that attracts the Eduardos and Eddie Judsons of the world, as well as the Marilyn Monroe hopefuls. It’s a magnet for all kinds of artists and business types, eager to be in a world with blurred lines, where anyone can change their fate. And these individuals are often willing to do anything to achieve their goal, even change what they look like and who they are, to meet the desires of Hollywood.
Hollywood has never been a virtuous place
And just because you’ve moved there does not give you any guarantee of success. You’re expected to claw your way to the top and do whatever it takes to become a star. For Rita Hayworth, the vaudeville circuit had dried up. All of the money to be made was now through film. She had no choice in the matter. And since her father, Eduardo, had insisted that she not attend school, she had no other life skills but dance. Rita later revealed to Orson Welles that her father had also established a sexual relationship with her when she was around 13. Undoubtedly, it was this abuse that led her into the arms of Judson, who later offered her to Hollywood producers for sex, hoping that bigger roles would lead to grander opportunities. And it worked.
It wasn’t until Rita finally stood up to Judson and refused to sleep with Columbia Pictures’ executive Harry Cohn that she was finally able to break free of this trap; however, Cohn never forgot it. He stalked Rita on set, had her followed and even recorded her conversations on the studio lot. After divorcing Judson in 1942 and after a four-year marriage to Orson Welles, she ended up marrying Prince Aly Khan, hoping to escape Hollywood altogether. But he was addicted to gambling, had already burned through his own money and quickly burned through hers too. He forced her to stay in the business, for both the notoriety and the cash.
A little further down the line, Marilyn Monroe needed $50 to pay a note on her car. Otherwise, it would be impounded. The 23-year-old actress had already been dropped by the studios twice, and she was struggling to pay rent. She turned to photographer Tom Kelly, who’d requested many times to take nude photographs of her. After demanding that his wife also be present for the shoot, Monroe appeared at the studio for the two-hour session. She was paid exactly $50. It wasn’t until she became a famous actress that the photographs resurfaced, causing 20th Century Fox to threaten her career due to their “morality clause.” This coming from the studio of Darryl F. Zanuck, who chose actresses for projects by asking one simple question: “Do I want to sleep with her?”
Many powerful men in the industry knew people flocked to Los Angeles (and New York) looking for success as a movie star or brilliant writer/director. They also knew they could provide it, so “How badly do you want it?” The answer, they’d say, was entirely up to you.
Hollywood has always been like this
In this industry, sex sells and almost everyone’s buying. Rita Hayworth was sold as the femme fatale love goddess, despite her shy and withdrawn nature. She was known as the “most cooperative girl in Hollywood,” because she always did what she was told. Although, that willingness to follow directions did nothing but cause her grief. As Orson Welles put it, “It’s the saddest story in the world…all her life was pain.” Yet you’d never know if from her characters and publicity. Even Welles himself had been tricked into believing the mirage.
During a major career crisis, Welles had come across the famous photograph of Rita by Bob Landry. “I saw that fabulous still in Life magazine,” Welles said, “where she’s on her knees on a bed. And that’s when I decided: when I come back that’s what I’m going to do!” Welles became her second husband, and they had a daughter named Rebecca in 1944; however, the marriage was doomed. Both wanted out of show business, neither could manage it, and Orson discovered that he couldn’t be the man Rita needed him to be.
In contrast, Marilyn Monroe admitted that she owed her career to sex. She knowingly made herself a sex goddess and believed that she had accomplished this great feat in spite of the studios. Up until her death, Monroe consistently thanked the fans for her success, and if we’re completely honest, those were the fans that kept 20th Century Fox afloat in the 1950s. When called vulgar, she compared herself to Botticelli’s Venus. When admonished for her behavior, she argued that sex was a perfectly natural thing and nothing to be ashamed of. She also didn’t see why a stigma was attached to being a mistress, when it was a far worse thing, in her mind, for a woman to marry a man she didn’t love just for their money. But don’t let her dumb blonde character fool you. Marilyn understood how Hollywood worked, and she was willing to go along if it got her to where she wanted to be; however, where she failed was in thinking that once she reached a certain level of success, she’d be respected by the studios and given artistic freedom. As she found out, that would not be the case.
Even today, casting calls abound asking for young women willing to be filmed nude. The majority of scripts are filled with casual sexism, stereotypes and crude imagery. And by choosing a career in film (or even theater), you’re ultimately allowing others to judge your emotions, appearance, body, voice, style, shape and opinions in the name of art. And if you don’t meet the requirements, there are hundreds of other people more than willing to cut themselves down to size, just for the opportunity. As Monroe said, “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”
Hollywood has always had exploitative business practices
Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If I were in this business only for the business, I wouldn’t be in this business.” And as I’ve pointed out in previous work, some men who get involved in Hollywood aren’t doing it for the money. If they only wanted to make money, they’d head to Wall Street. Instead, they turn to Hollywood for the power, prestige and sexual freedom. The rules of the real world haven’t always applied to this fantasy land, and since there are so few opportunities available for the huge demand coming from artists, it’s easy to control the show. Executives are the “job creators” and “fund-raisers” who give the rest a taste of glitz and glamour. They have the power to make or break a career with a phone call, and “you don’t want to ruin your relationship with [him] for five minutes.”
This is why it is so difficult for artists to gain artistic control in Hollywood. You either have to be so valuable that they can’t possibly ignore the future returns on their investment, or be prepared to do exactly as they say. Marilyn Monroe is a prime example of this. She was one of the first women to renegotiate her contract for artistic control with the studios. She believed she’d made herself a star, and now she was ready to make career decisions for herself. She wanted to be able to choose her own scripts, directors and cameramen. After all, she’d created the character of Marilyn Monroe. Didn’t she know what was best for her?
She was also ready to break free of films like The Seven Year Itch. The infamous scene on the subway grate was actually one of the lowest points of her life. Billy Wilder had decided to conduct a publicity stunt for the film, so the crew encouraged a group of some 1,500 men to watch as they shot take after take of her skirt flying up to her ears. Joe was watching from the front row, for five hours, as the crowd grew. They all screamed out, “More, Marilyn, more! Show us more!” Eventually, Marilyn screamed at her director, “Goddamn it, Billy! I hope all these extra takes are not for your Hollywood friends to enjoy at a private party!” The evening was the last nail in the coffin for her relationship with Joe DiMaggio, who’d always loved Norma Jeane, not the character she’d created. And to add insult to injury, they had to reshoot that scene in the studio anyway. It was all for nothing.
After these experiences, Marilyn eventually formed her own company, Marilyn Monroe Productions, which negotiated for her to have more control. The result? Her brilliant performance in Bus Stop. She’d made every artistic decision for her character, and the results were mesmerizing. However, by the end of her life, after struggling to break free from her Marilyn Monroe persona and failing, she was forced to beg 20th Century Fox to rehire her — for less money and with zero artistic control. She died shortly after the announcement.
But it’s no surprise that with a foundation like this, Hollywood is still able to get away with using roles, scripts and the box office to manipulate and control their artists. Even independent artists had to go through Harvey Weinstein to secure distribution rights for their projects. No telling how many undiscovered artists got cornered in the kitchen or trapped in a bathroom while he jerked off into the plants. But it wasn’t in the interest of the more established players to notify vulnerable newcomers in advance, was it? After all, there are only so many spots, and if you really want artistic freedom — or to keep your job working in one of a handful of positions available — you’ve got to keep your mouth shut and kiss the ring, no matter how demeaned, embarrassed or ashamed you may feel. Because deep down, men like that know you need them more than they need you.
The entertainment media is complicit
The first real celebrity, in terms of nationwide publicity, was an actress by the name of Florence Lawrence. The year was 1910 and a producer named Carl Laemmle needed to generate some excitement for his upcoming film, The Broken Oath. So he reached out to the St. Louis Dispatch and told them that Florence, his leading lady, had been tragically killed in a trolley car accident. The next day, when the story came out, Laemmle refuted it through a series of advertisements, proclaiming that Florence was actually alive and well and soon to appear in this brand-new motion picture. Oddly enough, the newspaper reached out to Florence for a story. Soon, she had a full-page spread in the newspaper followed by a sizeable interview. When Laemmle organized a public appearance for the actress (to further boost his ticket sales), a mob of fans surrounded them at the train station. This was the very beginning of celebrities having personal lives the public cared about.
Rita’s first husband, Eddie Judson, took that idea and ran with it. He hired Henry Rogers, an up-and-coming publicity man, to create a story. Rogers then approached Look magazine with the tall tale of Rita having the best wardrobe in all of Hollywood — better than even some of the more established actresses — despite no one knowing about her at all. He also claimed she’d been recognized by the Fashion Couturiers’ Association of America as the year’s best dressed off-screen actress, even though that organization did not exist. He even fabricated a certificate to represent the award. And, of course, Look magazine picked up the story. Judson spent the next few days running around Los Angeles like crazy, trying to borrow all the necessary wardrobe pieces to impress fans. Six weeks after the photoshoot and interview, Rita Hayworth was on the cover of Look. Behold, a star is born!
Another example: when producers realized that Let’s Make Love was a terrible film, they leaked to the press that Marilyn Monroe was having an affair with her costar Yves Montand, hoping a bit of scandal would help the box office draw. It was never discussed that Marilyn’s marriage to Arthur Miller had been a living nightmare for her. When they’d married, she’d made him vice president of Marilyn Monroe Productions and allowed him to fill the board of directors with his theater friends. All of them wanted fame and fortune for themselves on the West Coast, being the East Coast intellectuals they perceived themselves to be. And it was during this time that Arthur wrote his failed screenplay for The Misfits and forced Marilyn to participate in the production. She felt his portrayal of her was misconstrued, making her out to be the joke she’d always fought to avoid. Still Arthur wasn’t making any money, and despite Marilyn’s deterioration and multiple miscarriages, he forced her to complete the film. Once shooting was complete, he ditched her in Nevada for a photographer he later married. And all the while, Marilyn was forced to field questions about a private affair she’d conducted in the vain attempt to capture her husband’s attention, just to promote a failed film she hadn’t wanted to do in the first place.
E! News and TMZ aren’t interested in deeper issues or complex subjects, and neither were their predecessors. Hollywood entertainment has always played to the lowest common denominator rather than to our highest intelligence, which is why exposés on the dirty underbelly of Hollywood rarely reach audiences until after a suicide or tell-all biography comes out. No one ever asked Marilyn Monroe about running her own production company. They only wondered if she was good in bed or able to cook her husband’s dinner properly. And it seems no one was interested in getting to the bottom of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior either — not when continued silence was profitable.
And we, the fans, are guilty too
It’s clear that most human institutions, whether Hollywood or elsewhere, are rotten. Maybe they’ve always been, and we’re just waking up to that fact. And yeah, the truth is disgusting. But, I wonder, when will we as human beings decide to raise our expectations and demand more from our institutions? And if it’s true that we’re now on some sort of even playing field thanks to technology and the internet, why aren’t we taking greater advantage of it? Why aren’t new voices breaking through, and why are the old gatekeepers taking so long to fall?
Why are we OK with Hollywood, even though so many recent films have been nothing more than pandering nonsense? If an actor’s role in society is supposed to be a noble one — to express the human condition — why do we as a society merely treat them as products to be consumed? Where have we gone wrong?
Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe were worshipped by their fans, but both women felt isolated and alone for most, if not all, of their lives. If we’d known what was happening to them, when it was happening to them, would the public have done anything about it? And now that we do know exactly what goes down behind Hollywood’s façade, will we take a stand? Is this behavior OK, or not? And if not, what are we going to do about it?
I wonder if we can face the truth of that reality: that true change takes real action, not just insincere celebrity statements that fade from memory with the 24-hour news cycle and fleeting outrage on Twitter. If Harvey Weinstein’s story upsets you, you can do something about it. We’re not in the 1950s anymore.