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Sympathy for the devil: Doesn’t Harvey Weinstein deserve pity, too?

His attitude to sex must have been warped by the superabundance of opportunity.

May 29, 2018

6:03 PM

29 May 2018

6:03 PM

As I watched Harvey Weinstein hand himself into the police last week, the scalp the #MeToo movement most desperately craved, it was hard not to feel a scintilla of sympathy – certainly until it’s proved he’s a rapist and not just a determined sex pest.

Is it wrong to suspect virtually all men, if they thought they had the slightest chance of success, would have tried it on with the some of the women who’ve accused Weinstein? Hollywood starlets get paid according to how desirable they are. Angelina Jolie, in her prime, which is when she says Weinstein harassed her, was enormously desirable – desirable to the tune of more than $20m a movie. Gwyneth Paltrow, who says she was made to feel uncomfortable by the movie mogul, was also hugely desirable. These women were sex symbols for a reason.

I suspect over the years Weinstein’s attitude to women might have become a little separated from reality. As he rose up Hollywood’s insanely competitive pole, I wouldn’t be amazed to hear a large number of the world’s most stupendously desirable women began chucking themselves at him – more, say, than if he had been just a fat man, and not the most powerful film producer in Hollywood with the ability to hand out life changing leading roles like sweets. I wouldn’t even be surprised if his attitude to the sanctity of loving sexual intercourse became somewhat warped by this superabundance of opportunity. Hollywood is a town famously built on sex – brimful of beautiful people who will do whatever it takes to get ahead. Can we really be surprised when maniacs are made?

As is almost always the case with sex war, satyr is the first casualty. Fat Harvey hunched masturbating in his dressing gown in the presidential suite of some fabulously expensive hotel as a recalcitrant starlet wails in the bathroom: it’s an image for our times, like something out of the late Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theatre, a grotesquely hilarious novel about another libidinous and manipulative puppet master. I wonder what Weinstein’s conversion ratio was: how often was he slapped to how often he got lucky? I suppose now he has been arrested and is finally to stand trial – good luck trying to find an impartial jury – we might find out.

Since the Weinstein scandal broke, it’s been open season on rich and powerful men, particularly actors. Famous casualties have included Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey and lately Morgan Freeman. Even the dead aren’t safe. Shortly after Weinstein fell from grace, the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee took the opportunity to recount the time, just shy of 50 years ago, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, the author of More Die of Heartbreak, a masterpiece, supposedly undressed her with his eyes while she was trying to interview him. “Bored and bullying, he ordered me to walk ahead of him in the park so he could look at my legs as they were better than my questions. And shamingly, I did,” she wrote.

Steve Bannon, a man who knows a thing or two about what can be achieved with political momentum, last week told the BBC’s Emily Maitlis that the Weinstein-inspired Time’s Up campaign against male sexual predation was “the competing movement to the populist nationalist movement.” With laughable wide-eyed disingenuity he added: “President Trump for some reason triggers this movement”.

For feminist liberals these must be strange times. When the first accusations against Weinstein were being made, notorious pornographer Larry Flynt was taking out full page advertisements in the Washington Post offering $10 million to anyone with sufficient goods on former Miss World beauty pageant organiser Trump to bring him down. In fact, ever since Trump unwittingly delivered his homily on male fame – the gist: women become available to a degree that is scarcely imaginable to the non-celebrity (“you can just grab ‘em by the pussy”) – people have said it would be the fairer sex who did for him. But Flynt’s dollars have all been earned demeaning women in ways far worse than anything Trump has managed, ways that surely place him very much in the Weinstein camp, with miscreants Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and, presumably – although you wouldn’t have guessed it from the send off he got – Hugh Hefner.

And then there’s liberal feminist icon Hillary Clinton, still touring the civilised world to moan about losing to Trump, decrying the election to the Oval Office of a man she says she believes to be a danger to women. Given what we know her husband got up to in precisely that office, you have to applaud her chutzpah. Perhaps it’s time for a frank conversation about liberal attitudes to women.

What amazes, though, even beyond news of Weinstein’s alleged depravities, is the ability of so many to give such a passable impression of outrage. If he is guilty of rape, then sure, give him the two bricks treatment and throw away the key. But if it wasn’t rape, if it was just trying, gracelessly, to seduce the world’s most beautiful women, can we really be surprised? Did we really think Hollywood was so different to every other industry and every other social structure in which pretty girls with something about them advance more quickly than those who are not so pretty, and those who have rather less about them? The world likes beautiful women. And not just to look at. Hollywood of all places understands this.

It sounds clear that for many years Weinstein tried – at the very least – to leverage his position in Tinsel Town to get laid. However, are not the women who went to bed with him without being physically forced, in an effort to get what they wanted, not to some extent culpable, too? Did they not set a precedent that would make life harder for other aspiring actresses, down the line?

The answer, of course, unequivocally, is yes. They did. Italian actress Asia Argento made some of the most lurid allegations against Weinstein in the now famous New Yorker piece, but in the same article went on to describe subsequently having consensual sex with him for five years, and introducing him to her mother. She tells the interviewer “she knows this contact will be used to attack the credibility of her allegation”. Well it will a bit, yes, but that’s not really the worst of it.

Weinstein sat at the very pinnacle of the West’s cultural power pyramid. It is natural that his fall from grace causes the ground to shake. The only way to prevent another Weinstein would be to apply stricter governance procedures to Hollywood, but it’s surely impossible to do. When physical desirability itself is the movie industry’s primary currency, how do you police the realisation, or the attempted realisation, of desire? In court, I suppose. And only in court.


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