What It Took to Succeed as a Woman Producer in the Hollywood Boys’ Club

This article originally appeared on this site.

In the last week, as the Hollywood Hills began ringing with furious cries of “me, too,” my son Oly, a manager whose clients include many talented women, called me in dismay. Every day brought devastating stories of movie stars and models who said that they’d been molested by Harvey Weinstein—even raped. Allegations about other men percolated online and went mainstream within minutes. “I am reading this and imagining how horrible it must have been for you when you first started,” my son said. I was quite taken by his sudden burst of empathy, but I told him that his worries were misplaced. “Men like Harvey didn’t hit on me,” I told him, even before I had really made it as a producer. “I didn’t seem powerless, even if I was. I had a husband and came from a newspaper background. I definitely seemed like I could or would tell someone. I was off limits—and, I suspect, just not their type.”

I left journalism and came to Hollywood in 1979, and began my movie career developing “Flashdance” with a woman who became my best friend, Dawn Steel, then at Paramount. I was one of many young women in development—“D-Girls,” they called us—and Dawn was a star up from the marketing department. (We knew a girl’s-empowerment hit when we saw one.) We became part of a generation of women who started as competitors and ended as a girls’ club. And though Dawn was a doyenne of this club, among her greatest joys was crashing anything that reeked of “boys only”—rafting trips, men’s bathrooms, boardrooms. Her ambition and aplomb blew my mind. Dawn ran two studios in her brief lifetime, and died, of brain cancer, in 1997, with the girls’ club as her pallbearers, but not before making my first producing deal at a studio, partnering me with Debra Hill, who had co-written and -produced the “Halloween” movies.

Among Dawn Steel’s greatest joys was crashing anything that reeked of “boys only.”

Photograph by The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

We women roaming the plains of the dinosaur era had never heard the term “sexual harassment,” but we were frequently moving errant hands on our thighs back where they belonged, with a small swat or otherwise. H.R. was not a concept we’d even dreamt of; screaming bosses and aggressive flirting were part of the fabric of everyday life. Men cheated with their assistants, and often married them. And, truthfully, much of the daytime and after-hours philandering wasn’t incredibly different from what I’d seen in the newspaper business. But there were outliers.

I had a boss who would hole up with hookers and dealers in his office for hours, and when he emerged he’d regale me with tales about how he was responsible for every hit movie of the past decade. Dawn and I were invited to an after-hours party by her boss; he and his gang went to the basement of someone’s home, where there was a disco ball and “pros” entertained them while trying to figure out what to make of us, the women tagalongs. Dawn and I were each thrilled and mortified to be “one of the guys.” Whenever our eyes locked they widened in disbelief. But we would never give ourselves away, for fear that the guys wouldn’t let us back into the inner sanctum.

Thus was life trying to penetrate the locker room. Once, in a studio chief’s office, deciding on a leading lady with a director, the studio chief dismissed the award-winning actress we wanted to hire by saying, “I wouldn’t fuck her.” I almost fell off my chair. But if I had, that would have been my last meeting in his office. So the director and I just kept talking about her “chops.” If you wanted in on the decision-making you had to block out the vile language and the insulting sexism and just keep talking about the part. “Don’t get kicked out of the room” was the rule. And, in the end, we cast the woman we wanted.

As the small warm-blooded mammals among the dinosaurs, we learned to huddle together to be nurtured. There were men we called “pigs and drunks,” and we warned each other about them whenever we could, with a code word or an eye roll. (The worst offenders, some of whom are being outed now, were in the center of the Venn diagram “Pig/Drunks.”) As I rose, so did my female peers; eventually, enough women succeeded for me to frequently choose a woman for a studio head as my company moved.

For some reason, when women got these jobs, no matter how immensely successful they were—I’m thinking not only of Dawn but also of the late, great Laura Ziskin, the Queen of Hollywood Sherry Lansing, even the late, eccentric, and fabulous Sue Mengers—they never read from the old guys’ playbook. There were perks—drivers, or beloved jets—but no sense of the abuse of power that seemed, to many men, to come with the job like in a Fitzgerald novella. We all felt so lucky just to have the jobs. And if darting and dodging unwanted passes was part of it, well, that was life, and we built an arsenal of tools to deal with it.

Debra, my producing partner, died, of cancer, in 2005. When she and I first got together, many agents set up general meetings for us with their actresses. Now I look back on those meetings and remember how exhilarated the actresses were. They would always remark about how different the meetings felt than any they had been in before—the first with women only, something now almost commonplace. In the course of working on twenty movies and TV shows, I have never been alone with an actor who was up for a part—the audition process does not require it, ever. On set, women producers would go into wardrobe trailers genuinely to discuss wardrobe—an astonishing relief, it turned out, for costume designers, wardrobe assistants, actors, and set P.A.s who were used to protecting trailer doors from Trump-at-Miss-Universe-type invasions made by peering male producers. It was a whole other ballgame; people felt safe. Female stars were immediately attracted to the idea of female producers, and, as they watched us, they began producing themselves, wrapping themselves in their own leverage, which, before, had always been used by others. This was a sea change.

So I have been lucky. But I was a producer, and not a director or an actress. Their routes were different, and more difficult, and, especially for actresses, filled with peril. Being cornered in a hotel room or greeted at the door by a man naked under his bathrobe is not the occasional arm swipe off your breast. It’s a heinous power play by a serial abuser who has a sick routine.

And, yes, some of us knew about him—not all, but some. One day in the late nineties or early two-thousands, an aspiring and beautiful New York actress friend of mine told me that Harvey had sexually assaulted her. I was outraged. I’d heard stories of moguls wining and dining actresses to get them into the sack since time immemorial, but they had usually seemed Don Draper sleazy, not felonious. I’d known of Weinstein as a bully who attacked edits of movies and undercut filmmakers and then took credit for their success. But not this—this was horrifying. I asked the actress if I could help her go to the press. She looked at me as though I was out of my mind, and I understood. Without even enumerating the disasters that would follow, we both knew what would befall her: a battery of legal eagles going after her, a reputation destroyed. I listened carefully for more stories after that, and heard rumors. Twice I told journalists trying to break the story about what I’d heard, but no one would go on the record, because of nondisclosure agreements or fear. The moral arc of the universe took its damn time to bend.

While the cultural clock was ticking, the dinosaur and all his ways started going out of style in Hollywood. (New York, more in thrall to the old Hollywood image, took a while to catch up.) Bullying, screaming, phone throwing, and high dudgeon went out of fashion decades ago. After the ruthless Mike Ovitz—one of the founders of the Creative Artists Agency, and for a decade and a half the most feared and powerful man in Hollywood—fell from his perch, in the late nineties, there was a new expectation of good manners all around. E-mails took over from phone calls—and they had posterity, as we all learned from the Sony hack. The overt use of drugs diminished; gentility and team building was the new order. Harvey, again, was a screaming outlier, though there were other notable holdouts. But no one else had the sway that Harvey did to continue this bad behavior. He owned his own company, and he’d been manipulating New York media writers and editors for years, with his carrot-and-stick, buy-your-article-then-sue-you merry-go-round.

In the middle of this last week, I received a Facebook D.M. from an ex-assistant who has since become a producer. It was an SOS. “I’m having a really tough time with this. These stories are horrible,” she wrote. I felt her fear, and wrote back immediately. I agreed that the stories were horrible, and that he was. Then I reminded her that we both knew supportive men in the business, who’d helped us in so many ways. Suddenly I felt like I was unconsciously defending my son and my brother, both of whom work in the industry, who are good to women, and whom I love dearly. I was getting upset.

The fear that my former assistant described is part of a volcanic outrage that has erupted over the charred ground of the business this week. Survivors are everywhere. Others are hiding in the ashes. A long-suppressed fury has spread throughout the land. Young women are angry at women like me, too. They feel that we tolerated it. They are angry that it went on at all. They are angry that they don’t feel safe, at work or writ large, given who is in charge, bigly. Everything seems broken and rigged against them and they are mad as hell and won’t take it anymore.

I am wondering why I don’t feel more complicit. I think that we did what we had to do, given our desire to break into a closed business. Back then there was no one to tell about what went on but each other. (The police? That is a cruel joke.) And if a man was kind and nurturing in a fatherly way, we were thrilled. Guys like that let us participate, and taught us the game, and we, in turn, did the same for the women who came after. I don’t think we would have reached this moment of change otherwise.

I am thrilled that actresses will now, I think, be safer; that public-relations crisis managers will be embarrassed to take the cases of abusers; that lawyers will be shamed for attacking victims, and that prosecutors will think twice before throwing out cases. And, most of all, that women who speak out will be protected by a chorus of supporting voices, and will never be alone again.