Whether producing “The Artist,” “Shakespeare in Love” or “The English Patient,” Queens-born serial predator Harvey Weinstein has always had a knack for making powerful period pictures. Maybe, between the best picture Oscars that those movies scored, he should have brushed up on his Hollywood history. His penchant for the casting couch — the practice of powerful white men exploiting young actresses trying to break into the movie business — has a historical precedent as old as the movie business itself.
“The perils for women in Hollywood are embedded, like land mines, from an actress’s debut to her swan song,” says film critic and historian Carrie Rickey, “where moguls like Harry Cohn reputedly wouldn’t cast starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak unless they auditioned in bed.”
Long before Weinstein there was Louis B. Mayer, who co-founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1924. Mayer, the ground zero of this kind of abuse, had means, motive, opportunity and that critical piece of the puzzle: the whip. If women didn’t comply, he’d threaten to ruin their careers or those of their loved ones. Sound familiar?
Cari Beauchamp, author of “Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood,” noted: “Mayer chased actress Jean Howard around the room. When she said, ‘No way,’ and went off and married Charles K. Feldman, the agent, Mayer banned Charlie from the lot. For a long time after, he wouldn’t allow any of Feldman’s clients to work at MGM.”
Mayer also allegedly groped the teenage Judy Garland, according to Gerald Clarke’s book “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland,” and held meetings with the young woman seated on his lap, his hands on her chest. But that wasn’t the only damage done to the “Wizard of Oz” star. As Rickey clarifies, when it comes to abuse, “it’s not just the casting couch — it’s also the producer[s] who tell Judy Garland she’s not pretty enough or thin enough, so she gets a nose job and starts taking amphetamines to stay employed, and nobody knows that amphetamines and drinking can’t mix, and the pills lead to instability and sleeplessness and sleeping pills and more instability, and she falls apart.”
When the studio system consolidated in the late ’20s and early ’30s as talkies eclipsed silent movies, the men in charge of the Big Seven notoriously abused their power. According to Beauchamp: “Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and Jack Warner at Warner Bros. were Abusive with a capital ‘A.’ Mayer believed he’d built his studio brick by brick, it was his town, and he was king, so therefore he deserved all the perks of the kingdom. That was the attitude of most studio heads.”
I met them all. Some were vicious and crooked. But … you saw hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”
Marilyn Monroe was passed from man to man, president to playwright to center fielder. This is another instance like that of Garland, where a star’s talent and beauty and charisma added up to low self-esteem, drug abuse and suicide in an industry that ate women for lunch. In Monroe’s memoir, “My Story,” she wrote with heartbreaking candor: “I met them all. Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”
Just last year, veteran actress Tippi Hedren made headlines when she revealed in her memoir, “Tippi,” that director Alfred Hitchcock had sexually molested her. According to Hedren, the obsessive vision of the world he manifested on-screen extended to his treatment of women on the set. His treatment of the blond star of “The Birds” and “Marnie” caused her to stumble at what should have been the peak of her career (and is the subject of the BBC film “The Girl.”)
In 2016, Hedren, the mother of Melanie Griffith and grandmother of Dakota Johnson, told Variety why she opened up decades after the sexual abuse: “I did it because this is legion all over the world. There’s nothing unique about it. Women complain all the time about somebody trying to make a pass at them or have a relationship in which they are not interested. I don’t put up with that kind of thing. I wanted to let women, especially young women, know never to allow that kind of approach and to be forceful in telling people you’re not interested in having that kind of a relationship. It’s not a bad thing to say no.”
Just saying no can be challenging. Often, the imbalance isn’t just one of power but of age and experience. In the case of “Breathless” star and fashion icon Jean Seberg, her career began when she was an Iowa teenager with summer stock experience and was plucked by the tyrannical Otto Preminger, then in his 50s, in 1956 after a massive talent search. He cast Seberg as the lead in his ill-fated but gold-plated production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan,” adapted by Graham Greene. While the abuse wasn’t explicitly sexual, Preminger bullied Seberg relentlessly, and she was severely harmed during the burning-at-the-stake climax. Like predecessors Monroe and Garland, her early death was suspicious, a “probable suicide.”
Women aren’t the exclusive victims of the casting couch. The notorious agent Henry Willson, the subject of Robert Hofler’s book “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson,” played the same power game with generations of boys and young men seeking Hollywood recognition. Counting Hudson, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue among his clients as well as Lana Turner and Natalie Wood, the predatory Willson had a reputation as a “casting couch agent,” trading liaisons for opportunity in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The closeted Willson, who had sex with many of his clients, had an eye for beautiful men in the rough. He lured them with a simple ploy: Come with me, do what I say and I’ll make you a movie star. He molded the gay Midwestern truck driver Roy Fitzgerald into the butch A-lister Hudson while providing his own secretary, Phyllis Gates, as a beard. With gays, yielding to sex with men in order to gain access also put the aspiring actors at risk for blackmail and exposure — giving the victims even more incentive to keep quiet about sexually exploitative business practices. In Hofler’s book, actor Roddy McDowall denounced Willson, saying he was “like the slime that oozed out from under a rock you did not want to turn over.”
This particularly heinous form of pay-to-play corruption has long been a staple of the back lot, unfurling against a backdrop of scandal and licentiousness, drug abuse and blackmail, with the press colluding one minute, exposing the next, often manipulated by those same libidinous power brokers to gain access to high-profile clients and scoops. The Hearst newspaper chain sold a lot of copies off the broad back of famed silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. His lurid 1921 sex scandal — with its ubiquitous mug shot — crops up in any review of Hollywood’s tawdry past, although it was not a case of an insider preying on a woman seeking work.
|Judy Garland was groped by Louis B. Mayer; Guy Madison was among actors groomed by agent Henry Willson, a serial abuser.
garland: MGM/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock; willson: Photofest
Following a liquor-fueled, orgiastic Hollywood party at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel, police charged Arbuckle with manslaughter in the suspicious death of starlet Virginia Rappe, apparently during sex. While three trials failed to convict the multimillion-dollar silent film star, Arbuckle was never cleared in the court of public opinion. The scandalous image of the 266-pound comic atop the victim, who actually died of a ruptured bladder, with no signs of forced entry, as they say on “Law & Order: SVU,” trashed Fatty’s reputation and buried his career.
Sex and scandal, power and privilege, vulnerable beauties and predatory men: The history of the casting couch is so endemic to Hollywood that the notion of sexual exploitation in exchange for access has been whitewashed and reduced to the name of a banal piece of upholstered furniture. But the transaction has transformed some of our most beloved stars (and countless others who didn’t make the cut) into commodities — Garland, Monroe, Hedren, Hudson — victims of abuse at the hands of opportunistic perverts who consider other people’s bodies one of the perks of the business.
What price fame? What price films? Certainly Academy member Weinstein’s recent comeuppance isn’t unique in the Hollywood lexicon — but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable. Considering the history of the casting couch and Hollywood, Beauchamp argues: “The story of white male entitlement is the story of Hollywood — at least since the talkies, particularly when Wall Street entered in the late ’20s.” Apparently, the stakes weren’t the only things that were rising on the studio lot and in the executive suites.
And is it any coincidence that “The Casting Couch” is the title of the “lost” soft-core porno Joan Crawford allegedly made as Lucille LeSueur before signing with MGM? Want to know a dirty little secret? Of course you do! Google “vintage casting couch” and prepare to descend into a rabbit hole of porn. Weinstein didn’t invent the transaction, but as he did with the mainstreaming of independent film, he gave it his own hefty stamp.
Thelma Adams is author of the historical novel “The Last Woman Standing.”