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PBS' 'Frontline' Pulls Back the Curtain on Hollywood Abuse with "Weinstein"
March 2, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

EDITOR'S NOTE: This review is based upon a rough cut of the program.

The presumption of innocence — a cornerstone of the judicial system in any westernized democracy — is ephemeral at the best of times.

When the person in the spotlight is, or rather was, one of the most influential and powerful figures in the movie industry, the concept of ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is easy — some might say all too easy — to dismiss. After all, perception is everything in show business.

Regardless of whatever criminal charges against Harvey Weinstein are proved or disproved in court down the road, the sheer volume of testimony, the number of allegations against Weinstein and who’s making them, tells its own story. It’s a story that, in just a few short months, has taken on a life of its own.

At the very least, as PBS Frontline’s pre-Oscars exposé Weinstein shows, it’s a squalid, sordid tale, no matter which way you cut it.

Even before the allegations came to light — and, remember, that’s all they are for now — the seemingly disgraced mogul was by all accounts a thoroughly nasty person to be around: abrasive, impatient, loud, pushy, and uncaring of others’ feelings, especially subordinates.

He was also good at what he did. Really good. In an industry notorious for bad calls, Weinstein knew how to pick movie projects. As often as not, those projects went on to become both box-office hits and critically-acclaimed award winners — a tough balancing act to perform, let alone on a consistent basis.

Weinstein, the film mogul, had a way of working miracles. Just witness the way his Shakespeare in Love (left) pipped Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for the 1998 Best Picture Oscar. That seems inexplicable today, looking back on it, but it’s prima facie evidence of Weinstein’s ability to work the system. Everything Weinstein touched turned to Oscar gold, it seemed. And in Hollywood, fame and fortune have a way of writing their own rules.

What may or may not have happened is one thing. What the makers of the PBS– and BBC–produced Weinstein show, though, is why it happened and, more importantly, how it was allowed to happen tell an even more important story.

This other part of the story — who knew, when did they know it and, if true, why did they do nothing to stop it — has implications for the entire industry. It’s the way the Hollywood machine — managers, handlers, lawyers, publicists, personal assistants, private security guards, etc., etc. — routinely run interference for those in positions of power and influence, including — but not limited to — quashing rumors before they gain a life of their own and restricting access to The Boss to a select few.

One of the weirder details to come out is the recent flurry of accusations, according to a report last November in the New Yorker, that Weinstein allegedly hired ex-Mossad agents to help suppress allegations against him.

That seems almost too crazy to believe, like something out of Ray Donovan — except that now it’s almost impossible to watch even one season of Ray Donovan and not wonder if this is one of those eerily familiar moments when art mirrored life, unconsciously or otherwise.

Ray Donovan is fiction, though. Steven Bauer’s character Avi Rudin, an ex-Mossad agent who works as fixer Ray Donovan’s most trusted ally, is still a fictional character in a fictional drama.  As Weinstein shows, what’s happening here is all too real.

And the accusations from an ever-growing parade of women (Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, Daryl Hannah, Annabella Sciorra, Brit Marling, Salma Hayek, Lena Headey, Angelina Jolie, Heather Graham, Rosanna Arquette, Uma Thurman, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, the list goes on and on) are all the more urgent because they come from familiar, easily recognizable film actresses with nothing to gain and, as Mira Sorvino, Sean Young, Judd and others have candidly admitted of late, everything to lose. (Judd told Stephen Colbert in a recent Late Show appearance that she only later learned that Weinstein blackballed her behind her back to other producers, costing her film roles; Sorvino tells a similar story, later confirmed by Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings and Hobbit filmmaker Peter Jackson.)

Weinstein has produced some truly remarkable films — I count some of them among my favorites — but the truth is that any film, especially one that works, is a team effort, the result of a myriad of artists and dedicated professionals, many of the same artists and dedicated professionals who are his loudest accusers.

Weinstein can only do so much in an hour, of course. Surface details are often just that — something to be floated, skimmed over, and then dropped. There’s only so much detective work an hour-long program can do. Frontline’s producers could easily have spent an hour — or two, or three — just talking to Rose McGowan (right).

And yet, even surface detail counts for something. A steady stream of women, many talking publicly for the first time, paint a harrowing picture of unwanted liaisons and assignations in hotel rooms, often late at night and almost always on their own.

Weinstein is hard to watch. It asks uncomfortable questions, about morality, about the value of simply being a decent human being, questions that cut to the very heart of what makes Hollywood tick.

It’s a town where who you know, and whether that person likes you or not, is as essential to your career as whatever skill and artistry you bring to the screen.

While Weinstein is an exposé about abuse in the workplace, it's also much more because the women involved — Jolie, Paltrow, Judd, etc. — do not fit the central-casting image of a powerless, passive victim. If these successful, strong, determined movie actresses can find themselves in a threatening, potentially abusive situation and feel powerless to do anything about it, the narrative goes, what does that say about society’s wider responsibility to women who might not be so formidable and influential in their own right?

The version of Weinstein made available to reviewers had a disclaimer that narration, video, and sound mix were not yet final, which is understandable, given the sensitive and evolving nature of the situation.

The broad strokes are there, though, and the questions raised go beyond this one case and speak to the TV and film industry as a whole: Where does loyalty end and enabling begin? How does one weigh being an insider in a powerful, influential organization — where the competition for jobs, access, and crazy-high income is highly charged — against doing what’s right?

How could it have gone on for so long, as one of Weinstein’s former heads-of-production tells Frontline, without something, somewhere, somehow coming out?

“I think that looking back that I did know and I chose to suppress it, I chose to hide from that fact,” this executive admits in the program. “I think we were all enablers. I think we were all complicit.”

As one former investigator with a private security firm hired by Weinstein tells the program, through hidden identity, “Harvey Weinstein came to (them) initially with a matter they probably wouldn’t take on if it was somebody else. Nobody likes to develop information on somebody who’s accusing a client of sexual misconduct. But Harvey Weinstein being Harvey Weinstein, exceptions were made.”

Weinstein refused to talk to Frontline for Friday’s program, except to deny the allegations through one of his associates in a written statement.

This time, exceptions were not made.

PBS Frontline: Weinstein premieres Friday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

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