Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence
The Gray Concrete Carpet
Once, he exuded power. Films he produced and distributed garnered 81 Academy Awards and 341 Oscar nominations. Only Steven Spielberg was thanked more often from the awards stage. He boasted of his friendships with Presidents Clinton and Obama, and of the famous actresses he claimed to have bedded. Inside the office, he terrified the four assistants who serviced his needs, and he bellowed at most of his executives. Outside the office, he flashed a dazzling, capped-toothed smile while strolling hundreds of red carpets, trailed by clicking cameras, often accompanied by his second wife, fashion designer Georgina Chapman, who dressed some of the stars lit by the paparazzi flashes. He was that rare Hollywood figure known instantly by his first name: Harvey.
The gray concrete sidewalk Harvey Weinstein crossed daily in the winter of 2020 was not a red carpet, but a gauntlet. Waiting for him to arrive at the criminal court building at 100 Centre Street were armed police officers and metal police barricades corralling a throng of reporters who did not adhere to the respectful protocols of a Hollywood opening. Because of his recent back surgery, when his black Cadillac Escalade braked in front of the New York State Supreme Court building, Harvey had to be helped out of the back seat by two burly men. He slowly shuffled in black orthopedic shoes toward the building’s entrance a hundred or so feet away on a four-wheel walker, trailed by his team of lawyers and public relations advisers. Harvey did not pause and rarely looked up to respond to shouted questions or to smile for the cameras. Once inside the building, he dutifully emptied his pockets and passed through a metal detector. An elevator whisked Harvey and his entourage to the fifteenth floor, where he passed a second gauntlet of cameras and reporters before entering courtroom 1530 for his criminal trial for predatory rape and sexual assault.
Harvey’s world—the world in which he was in charge—was upended forever over a few days in early October 2017, when The New York Times and The New Yorker publicly proclaimed that he was a sexual beast, and the Weinstein Company fired him. Seven months later, Harvey was indicted by a grand jury convened by the Manhattan district attorney. Now as he entered the courtroom, he faced a criminal trial that threatened to place him behind bars for the rest of his life. For eight weeks, beginning on January 6, 2020, Harvey walked this concrete carpet Monday through Friday.
He now dressed more like a midwestern businessman out of a Sinclair Lewis novel than a Hollywood power broker—drab, boxy suits; white shirts with crumpled collars; and dull, slightly askew ties. He looked miserable. He had lost at least seventy-five pounds, his pallor was gray, and his scruffy stubble beard failed to camouflage the crevices and lines of his swollen face.
In court, Harvey would settle into a low-backed leather chair, flanked by his five lawyers at a table facing Judge James M. Burke on his elevated platform. His prosecutors, assistant district attorney and Special Counsel to the D.A. Joan Illuzzi and her deputy, Meghan Hast, deputy chief of the Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit, were seated at a table to his right, close to the twelve-member jury box. Every day, about one hundred twenty-five journalists and spectators crammed into the courtroom; more reporters and spectators often waited outside to enter or for a chance to verbally assail Harvey and his lawyers.
Assistant district attorney Illuzzi would say more than once that Harvey’s walker was “a prop” to elicit sympathy, a view widely shared by his detractors and not a few members of the press. In truth, Harvey Weinstein was not well. After a car accident in 2019, he had been dragging his right foot for a solid year, and his back was operated on days before the trial began to ease pain and correct spinal stenosis and drop foot. The operation was not successful. He also suffered from high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, chronic diabetes, a weak heart, and he was receiving what his lawyer described as “shots in his eyes” to treat macular degeneration. In all, Harvey had prescriptions for twenty different medications.
Harvey had been indicted on five counts of assault and rape of three women: Miriam Haley (formerly Haleyi), a production assistant at the Weinstein Company; aspiring actress Jessica Mann; and established actress Annabella Sciorra. Woven throughout the prosecution case was the assertion that Weinstein abused his power as head of Miramax, and later the Weinstein Company, to entrap aspiring actresses, models, and women on his staff. After he coerced sexual access, sometimes brutally, they kept silent, shamed or fearful he would sabotage their careers. They wanted to be in the movie business, and he was not only their biggest but often their only connection.
Harvey’s team believed their defense was formidable. Sex with these women was consensual, his lawyers insisted. They pounded the jury with evidence that both Haley and Mann, on whose testimony the case pivoted, kept in touch with Harvey after his alleged assaults, sending him emails, asking for jobs and favors, and eventually engaging in voluntary sex with him. Sciorra did not maintain contact, but the defense hit back hard at her for being unable to identify the year—1993 or 1994—in which the rape occurred, suggesting that she had lied. Two of the three other female witnesses who would testify also sought favors from Harvey after he allegedly abused them. And given the flood of negative publicity about Harvey over the two years since the stories broke, the defense claimed he was robbed of a presumption of innocence because it was not easy to locate jurors who did not have an opinion about Harvey Weinstein. Just over one third of the approximately six hundred potential jurors screened by Judge Burke in the courtroom prior to the trial were excused when they said they could not be “impartial.”
This was understood by all to be a watershed trial. Typically in sex-crime cases, law enforcement chooses not to prosecute if there is no forensic evidence and no contemporaneous police reports. This case was even more challenging because there was email evidence that the victims not only kept in touch with their abuser but in some cases had consensual sex with him after being assaulted. By pursuing this case, District Attorney Cyrus Vance was seeking to enlarge opportunities to prosecute sex crimes. To the #MeToo movement and many others enraged by the abusive behavior of powerful men—Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Les Moonves, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer, Russell Simmons, Kevin Spacey, USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, R. Kelly, among many others—the trial was seen as a reckoning, a call to justice for victims of sexual assault everywhere.
On February 25, after a trial that lasted twenty-two days over two months and was followed by twenty-six hours of jury deliberation over five days, the jury foreman rose and declared that his colleagues found Weinstein guilty of two of the five counts.
The packed courtroom went silent, then it abruptly flooded with two dozen armed court officers, four of whom stood directly behind Harvey at the defense table. The officers inched closer to him as Judge Burke announced that he was remanding the defendant to the prison on Rikers Island. Before Harvey was lifted by his arms and taken by two court officers out a side door, the judge set sentencing for two and a half weeks later, on March 11.
On that day, Judge Burke announced that he was sentencing Weinstein to twenty-three years in prison. Harvey’s head dropped to his chest. He did not unleash his famous temper. Instead, he feebly responded, as if he could not believe this was happening to him, “But I’m innocent.” He said this to his lawyers three times.
It was a long, dark road to this point. Innocent is a word few others would use to describe Harvey Weinstein, in this or any other context. Championing good movies and exhibiting good behavior did not always overlap in Hollywood, but Harvey broadened the chasm between the two. How extreme that divide was in the motion picture industry is one of the questions this book explores. The pressing question is how, and why, he was enabled, decade after decade, by the silence or shuttered eyes of so many in Hollywood, including so many of those who worked for him, to get away with sexually abusing women. To understand this culture of silence, it’s necessary to take a close look at the architecture of collusion, both intentional and unwitting, that he built at his companies.
Those who worked for Harvey were daunted by his talent yet terrorized by his volcanic personality. After a long day in the office, staff members would sometimes repair to a bar for a recuperative drink to ponder the source of Harvey’s frightening rage. As Amanda Lundberg, who started working at Miramax in 1988 and in her ten years there rose to worldwide head of public relations, put it, “We used to say of his home, ‘They must have done a number on those kids.’ ” Shocked by Harvey’s behavior, a former intimate confided, “He’s like someone who’s been raised by wolves.”
But upbringing can only explain so much. Harvey’s life offers confirmation of the Greek philosopher’s adage popularized by George Eliot, “Character is destiny.” Just as Richard Nixon or Donald Trump drowned in the currents of malice and paranoia that overwhelmed their judgment, Harvey Weinstein was unable to tame the demons that warped his behavior and will shape his legacy: One, his ferocious rage, which erupted without warning, alienating colleagues and competitors. Two, his predatory sexual compulsions, which he indulged and successfully masked for decades. Three, his promiscuous spending on films and expense accounts, nearly bankrupting his companies. And four, his unhinged, Shakespeare-worthy relationship with his younger brother, Bob Weinstein, which gyrated from an impregnable partnership to screaming matches, stony estrangements, and, at least once, bloody blows.
Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of crimes prompted by his raging impulses and his unquenchable need to dominate. But the question his staff asked still lingers, rooted in one of the great films Harvey loved and hoped to emulate. Orson Welles spoke of his creation, Charles Foster Kane, as being burdened by an “enraged conviction that no one exists but himself, his refusal to admit the existence of other people with whom one must compromise, whose feelings one must take into account.”
What is Harvey Weinstein’s Rosebud—a loss, a lack, that explains what came after? Is there an explanation for a life lived as he has? Any such search begins in the Flushing, Queens, home where Harvey was raised.
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|Epub||July 28, 2022|
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