Of all the mind-bending aspects of the Harvey Weinstein scandal—the Cain-and-Abel psychodrama of the Weinstein brothers, the breathtaking (and heartbreaking) proliferation of #metoo hashtags, the queasy association with potted plants—Weinstein’s expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on Saturday, is far from the most shocking. Every institution that ever had a claim on Weinstein seems to be dropping him like a scalding frying pan, beginning with the studio that bears his name. (It’s dropping the name, too.) Even Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, is now working to rescind Weinstein’s Légion d’Honneur.
But it’s worth pausing on the Academy’s decision for its sheer irony, and for the ramifications it may have. Weinstein was not only a big fish of Oscar season; he practically invented it in its current form. His movies, first at Miramax and then at the Weinstein Company, have earned more than three hundred Oscar nominations combined, largely thanks to the aggressive campaigning tactics he spearheaded. Beginning in the nineties, with films like “Pulp Fiction,” “Life Is Beautiful,” and “Shakespeare in Love,” Weinstein was relentless and cunning in his hunt for Oscar votes: lobbying at a show-biz retirement home, hiring armies of publicists, and (supposedly) spreading bad buzz about rival films. The “Weinstein playbook” was so effective that everyone uses it now, and today’s top Oscar strategists are Miramax alumni—including, this past year, those behind “La La Land” and “Moonlight.” An Academy without Weinstein is like Oz without the Wizard.
Alas, we’ve now seen behind the curtain. The avalanche of horror stories, revealed in the Times and The New Yorker, has rocked Hollywood, the entertainment press, and even the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The Academy, meanwhile, has just wriggled through its own period of upheaval, after two years of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy prompted a diversification effort that drew both ire and praise from its membership. The board of governors, which includes Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, and Laura Dern, was surely not anxious to wade into more dicey territory, but this weekend it took the unprecedented step of ousting Weinstein. The emergency meeting, according to the Times, was held at the Academy’s headquarters, on Wilshire Boulevard, at 10 A.M., and “Coffee and fruit were available.”
The decision, according to the Academy’s statement, was “well in excess of the required two-thirds majority.” As a private organization with more than eight thousand members, the Academy is dedicated to achievement in film, but it’s unclear how equipped it is to handle misbehavior in life. In explaining its Weinstein verdict, the Academy stated, “We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues, but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.”
And yet, as reporters and late-night hosts were quick to point out, there are some less than reputable members still in its ranks. What to do about Roman Polanski, who won an Oscar in 2003, twenty-six years after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a minor and then fleeing the country? What about Bill Cosby, also a member in good standing? Or Mel Gibson, who was nominated for Best Director this year, a decade after “sugar tits” and “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”? This past Oscar season, two contenders were bedevilled by their messy pasts, with vastly different results. Nate Parker, the director and star of “The Birth of a Nation,” had been acquitted of raping a college classmate years earlier, but the revelation torpedoed his Oscar chances. Casey Affleck had settled sexual-harassment lawsuits with two women who worked on his 2010 film “I’m Still Here,” and he denied their allegations. He won Best Actor for “Manchester by the Sea.”
Last December, in the midst of these controversies, I wrote that the Academy Awards “officially need a rabbi.” Now I think that it needs a whole branch of rabbis. Weinstein was, apparently, an open-and-shut case, but many sexual-harassment incidents are not. The Academy may well treat this as the Supreme Court did Bush v. Gore, as a one-off that sets no precedent. Or it may limit its purview to workplace misconduct—if you assault someone on your own time, it’s not the Academy’s problem. If the Academy is going to act as moral arbiter, however, it will need to iron out its process for adjudicating personal sins. Right now there are detailed regulations for Oscar campaigning (inspired by the kinds of hawkish tactics Weinstein popularized), and the last time a member was kicked out, in 2004, was for the high crime of lending out VHS screeners. The red line has irrevocably moved—but where?
Yesterday, I spoke to Patricia Resnick, an Academy member since 1983. Resnick wrote the screenplay for “9 to 5,” in which a band of secretaries overthrow their male chauvinist boss. “In 2009, when we were about to open the musical,” she said, “almost every interview I did with male journalists, they asked me the same question: How is ‘9 to 5’ going to appeal to contemporary audiences? How is it going to resonate when all these problems have been solved?” As for Weinstein, she thought that the Academy had made the right decision, but added, “Unless you start looking through your membership rolls and culling some other people, then to me it’s just optics. I think they did the right thing maybe for the wrong reasons. How do you get rid of him and allow Cosby and Polanski? Just like the #OscarsSoWhite thing, I feel like a lot of it just has to do with how the Academy wants to see itself viewed, as opposed to doing things that will make a real difference.”
The Academy has always represented the industry’s loftier side. When Louis B. Mayer created the organization, in 1927, it was in part to gain an upper hand in labor disputes, but also to clean up Hollywood’s image after an era of salacious scandals, including Fatty Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial and the former Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas’s mysterious death by poisoning. Mayer himself is said to have groped an adolescent Judy Garland, so he wasn’t exactly a moral authority. But times change. Last night, Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm and a member of the Academy’s board of governors, said in a speech that she has asked her fellow-governors to create “commission charged with the task of developing new, industry-wide protections against sexual harassment and abuse.” If the Academy is once again stepping into the role of superego, it’s for good reason. It now has a problem of inconsistency, but that’s better than a problem of blindness. The question is whether it will be not just reactive but proactive, as Hollywood finds its way toward an enforceable code of conduct. Either way, it’s headed into another bumpy Oscar season.