Two years ago, as Harvey Weinstein’s company was on the brink of bankruptcy, his lawyer issued a statement blasting the New York attorney general, who had accused the beleaguered mogul of fostering a culture of systemic sexual harassment.
“If the purpose of the inquiry is to encourage reform throughout the film industry, Mr. Weinstein will embrace the investigation,” said attorney Ben Brafman. “If the purpose however is to scapegoat Mr. Weinstein, he will vigorously defend himself.”
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Three months later, when Weinstein was arrested and charged with rape, Brafman again portrayed his client as a scapegoat for misconduct in the industry. “Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch in Hollywood,” he said.
Though he may not have invented it, Weinstein certainly perpetuated a decades-long practice of sexual abuse and entitlement in the entertainment industry by powerful men exploiting young actors and underlings looking to advance their careers. His ruination over the past two and a half years ignited the global #MeToo movement as thousands of brave women from Hollywood and beyond came forward with heart-wrenching stories of sexual assault.
This week, Weinstein was convicted on charges of third-degree rape and first-degree criminal sexual acts. He had already been stripped of his career, his company, his stature and his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At his sentencing on March 11, he faces up to 29 years in prison.
“The era of impunity for powerful men who rape people is over,” Mira Sorvino told reporters on Feb. 24. The Oscar-winning actor alleges her career was derailed after she rebuffed Weinstein. “He will rot in jail as he deserves and we will begin to have some closure.”
But this final act of banishment does not by itself end the culture that allowed Weinstein to wield so much power for so many decades. The trial did, however, provide the most comprehensive look to date at that culture. For six weeks in a Manhattan courtroom, jurors were introduced to Weinstein and to the characters that surrounded him — the assistants, the handlers, the flatterers, the procurers.
Weinstein hobbled into court each day hunched over a walker. He seemed so unwell that prosecutor Meghan Hast had to remind jurors that he was “not a harmless old man.” Instead, said her co-counsel, Joan Illuzzi, he was “the master of his universe.” To see him stripped of the trappings of power was hard for many of his accusers to imagine.
“I was terrified of him,” Katherine Kendall, who alleged that Weinstein removed his clothes before asking for a massage in 1993, tells Variety. “He had a presence that was very mafioso, like ‘I have eyes and ears everywhere and I own this town.’ There is no restaurant you can walk into where he doesn’t know the owner. There is no agency you could walk into where he doesn’t have connections. He just felt like he had you surrounded.”
That cat-and-mouse dynamic has been embedded into the fabric of the entertainment industry, underlying the idea of what it means to be an actor in a business dominated by men.
“For so long, those in Hollywood who have abused their power have stood to gain everything from perpetuating this fear in women,” says Larissa Gomes, a Canadian actor who also spoke out against Weinstein. “It’s just a long-held assumption that this is the way the Hollywood industry is, and women must be crazy to be in it, and if they do want to be in it, then they have to just deal with it.”
Since Weinstein’s fall in 2017, those assumptions have been challenged in dramatic ways. The allegations against the indie producer sparked an industrywide reckoning that led to a public outing of other high-profile abusers such as CBS chief Les Moonves, newscaster Charlie Rose, comedian Louis C.K., director Brett Ratner and Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. It pressured states such as California and New York to change laws, increasing the statute of limitations on rape cases, and weakening the power of nondisclosure agreements that cover up sexual harassment and abuse. And it has changed the way that corporations deal with powerful bullies in their boardrooms and C-suites. Instead of paying out settlements or looking the other way when executives or top talent are accused of harassment, companies are treating it as a fireable offense that threatens the health of the company if it is covered up or ignored.
It was an atmosphere that had been brewing. A year before the exposés in The New York Times and The New Yorker of Weinstein’s abuses in the fall of 2017, Fox News’ powerful longtime chief Roger Ailes was ousted over sexual harassment accusations by female underlings. Bill O’Reilly, the cable news network’s top-rated host, soon toppled due to similar allegations.
“It’s really a new day,” says Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. “Instead of saying this guy may have his foibles but he’s indispensable, they’re saying we don’t think this person is worth losing the company for.”
While such allegations have ended the careers of many of these alleged abusers, Weinstein is one of the few to face criminal charges. Some A-listers have lost everything, but many of those accused have enjoyed relatively soft landings even as they have suffered public opprobrium. Moonves, Ailes and others received multimillion-dollar severance packages, for instance, while John Lasseter joined SkyDance Animation after being forced out of Pixar in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations.
The revelations of the #MeToo era have sparked a larger debate about workplace culture. The movie and television business was notorious for indulging, even lionizing, hard-charging producers, agents, studio chiefs and directors who routinely bullied underlings, hurling expletives and administering dressings down, without fear of reproach. That, too, is starting to change.
“It’s a high-stress, high-pressure, big-dollar industry and there definitely has been a general attitude that’s what it takes to survive in this business,” says Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film. “What people have discovered is we can both treat people well and succeed.”
That wasn’t always the case. Many have said that Weinstein’s abhorrent behavior toward women was Hollywood’s worst-kept secret. It was whispered about and gossiped about. Maybe a few details would come out in a memoir. But until the trial, it had never been on the record and under oath. “We can’t deny it now,” Gomes says. “No one can pretend it didn’t exist.”
The trial served as a forensic audit of the “casting couch.” It revealed not just heroes and villains but a full ensemble of bystanders and facilitators. In that respect, it was more revealing than the parallel actions in civil court.
Two years ago, a group of class action attorneys filed a lawsuit in which they aimed to expose the “Weinstein Sexual Enterprise” — the courtiers and lieutenants who had allowed him to get away with it. The attorney general’s office filed its own lawsuit, also alleging systemic abuse.
But lawyers are now working to settle those cases without going to trial. The criminal proceeding was thus the first opportunity to hear sworn testimony detailing how women became ensnared in Weinstein’s web.
One of the most chilling moments in the trial came during the testimony of Lauren Young. She described meeting Claudia Salinas, an Instagram influencer who appears to have been working as Weinstein’s procurer. Young said that Salinas called her up and invited her to come to the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills to pitch Weinstein on a script. “I put on my best dress and I was excited to network,” she testified.
She said Weinstein did not seem interested in her idea, but he suggested she do “America’s Next Top Model.” He then invited both women to continue the conversation upstairs in his hotel suite. She said she followed Weinstein upstairs, and that before she realized what was going on, she had walked into the bathroom. Young said that when Salinas shut the door behind her, she was suddenly seized with fear.
“That’s when I realized … ” she said on the witness stand, and then began to cry. She said Weinstein stripped his clothes off and pulled down her dress, exposing her breasts. He yanked at her breast while he masturbated onto a towel. As soon as he was finished, she said, she escaped from the suite. Later she saw Salinas in the lobby. “Don’t fucking talk to me,” Young said she told her. Ryan Beatty, a friend of Young’s, testified that when he saw her that night, she was extremely upset — “probably the worst I’ve ever seen her.”
Salinas denied Young’s account. “That never happened,” she testified. Through her publicist, she also issued a statement: “Under no circumstances would I ever have anything to do with an assault on a human being. This accusation was a vicious attack on my reputation.”
On the witness stand, however, Salinas did concede that Weinstein would often ask her to bring him attractive women. “If I was going to an event, he would say bring your good-looking friends,” she testified.
The story fit a pattern that emerged over 15 days of testimony. Jessica Mann, the D.A.’s star witness, told the jury that Weinstein had asked her to act as a procurer shortly after violently raping her at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Her eyes were still red and puffy when he said, “OK, now you can go have your relationship, and what you can do is bring me other girls,” according to her testimony. She would, in effect, be his “wingman.”
There were a lot of such “wingmen.” Dawn Dunning, a former waitress, testified that a female assistant invited her to a meeting with Weinstein at the Intercontinental Park Avenue in New York, explaining that there was a cigar bar there and Weinstein liked to smoke.
When Dunning arrived at the cigar bar, the assistant led her up to the hotel suite, offering yet another innocent explanation — that Weinstein was on a conference call. He answered the door in a bathrobe, and promptly propositioned Dunning, she said, offering her three movie roles in exchange for a threesome with him and the assistant. When she tried to flee, she said, Weinstein shouted at her: “This is how this industry works. This is how actresses got to where they are.”
She remembered looking at the assistant. “She was just blank — a blank expression,” Dunning said.
Another assistant, Barbara Schneeweiss, emerged as one of the trial’s more complicated figures. She worked for Weinstein for 20 years and had contact with three of the women who testified. According to one account, she served as Weinstein’s “right-hand woman,” arranging meetings and offering auditions. Mann said that when Weinstein first invited her to dinner at an Italian restaurant, Schneeweiss sat at the table with them. Mann described her years-long relationship with Weinstein as horrendously abusive. She wept many times when recounting the humiliation and degradation she felt. Schneeweiss appeared now and then at the periphery of the story, dealing with Mann when Weinstein would not. She said Schneeweiss helped arrange an audition for her for “Vampire Academy,” but that she was judged to be too old and didn’t get the part. Mann felt like the audition was “fake.”
When Mann was in trouble — living in her father’s car, which she had inherited, and worried that it would be repossessed — she called Schneeweiss for help. “I didn’t really know how to ask or what I really needed,” she said. “I talked to Barbara a lot about the exact situation.” Schneeweiss urged Weinstein to help, she said.
Mann said that Schneeweiss called her in November 2016, after Weinstein’s mother died. “‘Harvey wants to see you,’” she said Schneeweiss told her. “I said, ‘What about his wife?’ And Barbara said, ‘You’re the only one he wants to see.’”
The day after Young’s encounter with Weinstein in the hotel bathroom in 2013, Schneeweiss reached out to her, too, Young said. They had a meeting, and Schneeweiss asked her about appearing on “America’s Next Top Model.” Later, she said, Schneeweiss emailed to ask her for a headshot and a résumé. Had she pursued the opportunity, it would have smoothed things over somewhat, turning a sexual assault into part of a quid pro quo. She never responded. “I didn’t want anything to do with any of them,” Young said.
Schneeweiss was not called to testify. She is being sued in the United States and Canada by several women who allege that she led them into meetings where she must have known they would be assaulted.
Schneeweiss did not return a call seeking comment. But in the lawsuit in Toronto, she denied any knowledge of Weinstein’s misconduct. “The entire time that Schneeweiss was Weinstein’s assistant, she had no reason to suspect that Weinstein was engaging in sexual harassment, sexual assault or sexual intimidation,” her attorney wrote.
Tarale Wulff also told a story of being ensnared by a web of Weinstein’s accomplices. She worked as a waitress at a members-only club, Cipriani Upstairs. Weinstein was a frequent guest and a close friend of the owner. Once, she said Weinstein led her up a stairway and then masturbated in front of her. She said the manager, Maurizio Ferrigno, saw Weinstein taking her upstairs and shut the door — as though not wanting to see what was happening. She said she never complained to anyone.
Later, she said, she was invited to the Miramax offices for an audition. A woman greeted her and directed her to a waiting car. Wulff said the car took her to Weinstein’s apartment, where he raped her. Asked if she was suspicious at all when told to get in the car, she said no. “I trusted the woman,” she said.
Wulff said she tried to put the whole thing out of her mind. “It’s easiest for me just to pretend like it didn’t happen,” she said through tears. Years later, she spotted Weinstein at a fashion show. The whole nightmare came back to her. “I felt just as intimidated and scared and small as I did the last time I saw him,” she said.
The defense sought to acquit Weinstein in part by indicting the entire film industry. In so many words, defense lawyers repeated the argument that Weinstein is said to have yelled at Dawn Dunning as she was fleeing his hotel room: “This is how this industry works.”
Marci Liroff, a veteran casting director, says that line of thinking is untrue, and is a smear against her profession. Liroff ran Jessica Mann’s audition for “Vampire Academy,” and was called to testify about it. She told the jury that Mann was not seriously considered for the role because she was too tall, too old and not a good actor. That was the end of it.
“I just wanted to tell the truth,” Liroff tells Variety in an interview. “I knew that I didn’t have any bombshell testimony corroborating a pattern that existed with Weinstein.”
Liroff argues that Weinstein’s behavior was “the exception to the rule.” “Ninety-eight percent of casting offices have been and are running a professional organization, and something like this never comes up,” she says.
Defense attorney Donna Rotunno seemed to feed on the notoriety of defending Weinstein, giving a series of interviews in which she embraced the role of #MeToo critic. In her closing argument, she said that the women “made a choice,” and that they were now offering excuses for decisions they had come to regret. “What are we doing to women?” she asked. “Women have choices.”
Weinstein’s accusers said they were not given a choice. Instead, they were lured into a room where he pounced on them. Some managed to escape, and some did not. “Maybe there are some women who did make that deal and they’re keeping quiet about it now,” Louise Godbold, one of Weinstein’s accusers, tells Variety. “But all the women who are speaking out — we didn’t know. We were sent like lambs to the lion.”
But one witness at the trial acknowledged that she accepted the terms of the deal. Her story is what Weinstein’s attorneys argued all the women’s stories were — consensual and transactional. Emanuela Postacchini, an Italian actor, was called to the stand to corroborate Mann’s allegation that Weinstein had coerced her into a threesome. Postacchini said that Weinstein was directing both of them, but that Mann began to cry and ended up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor. She said she gave Mann a hug, trying to comfort her.
On cross-examination, the defense asked if Postacchini was forced into the threesome.
“No,” she said.
“He never forced you to do anything, did he?” asked defense attorney Damon Cheronis.
“Obviously,” she said, “I felt that I was in a situation that I did not want to be in.”
Postacchini said she emailed Weinstein after the encounter, thanking him for believing in her. She sent warm greetings to him periodically after that.
“You wanted him to help your career?” Cheronis asked.
It was more complicated than that, she said. “He could have spoken badly about me, so I wanted to keep in touch with him after what happened,” she said. “He was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.”
In January 2014, Postacchini emailed Weinstein to ask about getting cast on his Netflix show, “Marco Polo.” “You are a wonderful actress,” he wrote back. “If something comes up I will let u know. Let’s say hi.”
She emailed him again that fall, and he responded by propositioning her, asking her to meet him at the Peninsula. She was not interested. “I got very offended by his response,” she said. “As if he obviously just wanted something from me.”
At one point in the cross-examination, Cheronis asked Postacchini about an earlier sexual encounter with Weinstein, and asked why she hadn’t previously disclosed it to investigators. “To be honest,” she said, “I just wanted to forget about whatever had happened.”
That was the absolute best case for Weinstein: These encounters may have been regrettable, Weinstein may have offered career help that never materialized, but the women knew what they were getting into and had no grounds to complain about the unspoken quid pro quo.
Lauren Sivan, who has accused Weinstein of masturbating in front of her, says that argument belies the inequity of the exchange. “You cannot have consent with that type of power imbalance,” she says. “When you know that Harvey Weinstein can make or break your career, that this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with someone who can either make you a star or put you on a blacklist and destroy you, consent is not possible in those circumstances.”
And there are those who wonder if the verdict in New York sends a strong enough message to deter sexual abusers in Hollywood, where there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of vulnerable women and powerful men.
Caitlin Dulany, who is among those who have sued Weinstein for sexual assault, says: “I’m not sure that Harvey Weinstein going to trial has put the proper amount of fear into the predators who are still out there and will always be out there if we allow our industry to protect them if it suits their bottom line.”
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