In the presciently titled movie Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays the eccentric aviator and Hollywood studio mogul Howard Hughes. In the late 1950s, Hughes kept a stable of young actresses waiting at his pleasure in various Los Angeles apartments and, in the screen version directed by Beatty, the favoured starlet is played by Lily Collins. In the grimly inevitable seduction scene, the disparity in power is disturbing, as is the age crevasse between the actors: Beatty was 79, Collins 27 during filming last year. In interviews, Beatty was clearly delighted by his vanity project. Rules Don’t Apply tanked at the box office.
Moments like these show once and for all how Hollywood is a land that time and equality forgot. In this cinematic closed shop, men directed 96 per cent of the 100 top-grossing movies last year and those were often about boys in tights with superpowers. There is an outrageous pay gap, too, with the top 10 actors combined earning three times that of their female equivalents. In any other workplace, this imbalance might be seen as a little embarrassing. In La La Land, the rules simply don’t apply.
Will this ever change? Perhaps now. A pall of shame is hanging over Hollywood in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behaviour. As Oscar-nominated producer Elizabeth Karlsen of London’s Number 9 Films, who worked with The Weinstein Company on Carol, says: “How have we found ourselves supporting a narrative which allowed a psychopath sexual predator to act for so long? It’s a dark side of the business that was known to many. And there’s the problem of the guilt of people who knew, and for a whole series of reasons didn’t act on it.”
Karlsen herself was aware of an out-of-court settlement between Weinstein’s previous company Miramax and a young female executive almost 30 years ago, when he shared the production’s rented house in London. “She came to me directly and said that Harvey had appeared naked in her bedroom.” Karlsen added: “For people to be able to speak is so cathartic, to finally be able to have a voice. So many suffered so much and we said so little. There can’t just be a full stop at the end of this.”
It is surely no coincidence that insiders flushed out Weinstein, now 65, as his award-winning streak began to ebb. The release of the beleaguered Tulip Fever was delayed, and this year’s Oscar hope Wind River met a lukewarm response. The Weinstein Company made almost 50 people redundant and lost senior executives recently. As Zack Stentz, the screenwriter of Thor and X-Men: First Class, noted on Twitter: “We’ll know Hollywood culture has changed when a predator at the height of his power is taken down, not just someone already in decline.”
Setting Weinstein aside (as he should have been long ago by his own curiously blind company), the fact that the executive’s sleazy modus operandi went unquestioned reveals a culture going right to the compromised core of the film business. Clearly Weinstein is not alone in his addiction to the casting couch; Ben Affleck this week apologised for his own inappropriate behaviour in groping an MTV presenter on air in 2003. As the Rules Don’t Apply script said of Hughes, “He’s old . . . but everyone’s got a crush on him anyway.” Replace “old” with “rich and powerful” and the picture is unchanged in the 21st century.
Getting backing for a film is tough, and even directors are expected to sing for their supper in horrendous ways. Lucy Walker is an Oscar-nominated English film-maker whose documentaries include Waste Land and The Crash Reel. “It’s traumatic and hard to say anything,” she tells me. “I never had dealings with Harvey. But I did work with other producers on the Harvey spectrum and was almost raped on two occasions — ripped clothes, bruises, screaming, running.”
Until I saw Hollywood’s underbelly and machinations close up, when I became chief film critic for a newspaper seven years ago, I did not grasp the extent to which the movie industry was fuelled by a tanker of testosterone. Like any upstanding member of the chattering classes, I would see a charming little French film or an Oscar contender at the Everyman Cinema on a Sunday night, and think all was well with the world. But once I was watching 350 films a year, I began to wonder where all the female, black, Asian and minority directors and characters were, and why about 70 per cent of protagonists were male. Unlike any other art form, the production of popular movies seemed to be taking place in a mysterious gentleman’s club.
In this world it was deemed normal that Tom Cruise could star alongside Cobie Smulders, buddy-style, in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, yet her face did not appear on a single poster. She had been erased.
Months went by in my role until I saw the name of a female cinematographer on a multiplex screen, and it turned out that 97 per cent of cinematographers are men on top-grossing films. No wonder the male gaze is so invasive and persistent. Even in areas like screenwriting, where you might imagine women could more easily flourish while juggling families, only 11 per cent made it through on the major films. Thus the talent of half the world, half the graduates from film schools, was going to waste. It is only in the klieg light of the Weinstein accusations that the reasons for such exclusion begin to make sense: this atmosphere makes it hard for women to breathe, let alone thrive.
Ten years ago my friend Melissa Silverstein founded Women and Hollywood, to campaign for equality and diversity in the movie business. I joined her a few years ago as the London organiser. Silverstein hopes that the Weinstein debacle will lead to a far-reaching look at the industry and how women are treated in all positions. “The last week has revealed what many of us have known for some time: that Hollywood is rife with toxic masculinity,” she tells me even as more emerges: over 20 accusations so far, ranging from sexual harassment to rape.
“The lack of opportunities for women to rise up to the top has created a business run by men, and those men are protected by other men, and they are enabled by people throughout the business and the culture of silence that allowed 30 years of sexual harassment to flourish with impunity.”
Men directed 96 per cent of the 100 top-grossing movies last year and those were often about boys in tights
An industry where beauty and money are the main currency, topped with talent, has a very particular look. I once met a studio head in Soho House in Los Angeles, a fashionable spot with panoramic views over the city. The women in the bar seemed so fresh and young, and the men so much older, that I thought for a moment that it was a “bring your daughters to work day” for Hollywood agents. Sadly not.
At the film industry’s annual schmoozefest, the Cannes Film Festival, where Weinstein ruled like a Sun King from the Hotel du Cap, you need only look around to see the state of affairs in both senses. The first time I went to Cannes, I noted with horror that in every marbled hotel, men were doing deals, while women were doing their hair (with only rare exceptions).
I said to a fellow critic, in all innocence: “Isn’t it extraordinary watching all those tiny men-in-suits walking down the Croisette with hugely tall girlfriends?”
“Those are not girlfriends, my dear,” he said. “They are the paid help. To help with the size of the gentlemen’s egos.”
The prostitutes and off-duty models are an accepted part of the Cannes’ glamour. The festival has always favoured the high heel over the low: a few years ago the latest scandal was “Heelgate”, when the protocol enforcers attempted to ban women wearing flat shoes on the red carpet. The atmosphere, again, is not conducive to hard-working women.
Cannes will always celebrate an auteur, however dubious his personal life, and this year Roman Polanski (who still has a pending US arrest warrant for unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor) had a red-carpet screening. Last year Woody Allen’s Café Society opened the festival. Not unusually for an Allen movie, it featured an older man and a much younger woman: Steve Carell is a Hollywood agent who has an affair with his secretary, Kristen Stewart.
There’s a sort of omertà at Cannes’ press conferences where no one asks challenging questions, but I asked Allen if he might ever envision a love story between a younger man and an older woman. “It’s not a commonly seen thing, and I don’t have a lot of experience to draw on for material,” he said. “It’s a perfectly valid comic idea.”
One year at Cannes I even met Weinstein. He stepped over the VIP rope at a party, shook my hand politely, and then lumbered off. Clearly, the public and private versions of Weinstein lead separate lives. We critics were merely impressed at that point that Weinstein had the smarts to buy up The Artist (which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar) before it even had its first standing ovation at Cannes.
One might assume, however, that the world of high art would be more open to the feminine. But in 2010 and 2012 there were no female directors in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Last year, there were three women, 14 per cent, but other festivals make more of an effort: the London Film Festival, running until Sunday has 25 per cent of female-directed films. The festival’s director, Clare Stewart, said at the launch that figure was not good enough, but “us making a point of it each year, not trying to hide it like it is a dirty secret, is a very important element of ensuring that change happens”.
But the ancien régime of Hollywood is not for turning, especially when the international market, which makes up 70 per cent of receipts, just loves a Transformers movie or a male superhero sequel. Many of these films rely heavily on explosions — which need no translation — rather than dialogue.
This year, all but two of the films in the US top 10 are sequels or reboots, and many of the superhero vehicles delivered a flatlining domestic box office, and a collective yawn from audiences. The late teen and twenty-something male audience, courted for years by studios, is in decline. What is growing is a more diverse audience. The Fast and Furious franchise has a cast that is black, Asian, Hispanic and white, and is in its 16th successful year.
So what has triumphed at numbers one and two in America and Britain in 2017? Step forward two female-led features, with Amazonian box office: Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman, which has grossed over $820m so far. Gentlemen, take note. And they have.
Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins has been offered a sequel, and she is no longer taking ladies’ rates. Instead she held out for between $7m and $9m, the most ever paid to a female film-maker, although not quite as much as Christopher Nolan, who reportedly took $20m for Dunkirk. “You’re of course aware of the money,” Jenkins told Variety this week. “But I’ve never been more aware of a duty than I was in this deal. I was extremely aware that I had to make sure I was being paid what the male equivalent would be.”
How have we found ourselves supporting a narrative that allowed a predator to act for so long?
Cinemagoers are 52 per cent female, so it is not surprising to anyone — except, mysteriously, those at the top of the industry — that women-centric movies are popular. They have always been so, from the glory days of the “women’s picture” in the 1940s, when Joan Crawford starred in Mildred Pierce, and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. In the past decade, quality television has shown a remarkable swathe of women with complex characters, bad knitwear and weird obsessions, while popular cinema has failed to reflect its main audience.
Are Hollywood’s out-of-touch men of a certain age carrying the seeds of their industry’s own destruction? If you create a world where smart, creative women feel uncomfortable, objectified and belittled at work, the best will go elsewhere. Take Jane Campion, the only woman ever to win Cannes, who has left film for television to create the Top of the Lake series. As the more nimble and less institutionalised Netflix and Amazon Studios begin to finance movie after movie, the red carpet may be pulled out from beneath the old guard’s feet.
Kate Muir is a screenwriter and critic
Photographs: J. Vespa/WireImage; Getty
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