Scenes From the Home of the Casting Couch : The Talk of the Country Has Hit a Nerve in the Industry That Creates the Images of Women in Popular Culture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The late president of a major talent agency called his assistant into his office and greeted her with his pants down. When she refused to have sex with him, he refused to put her in an agent training program. She left the firm one year later.

* A now-prominent agent's former boss used to call her at home in the morning to tell her he was playing with his genitals. In the office, he'd comment on her breasts, ask about her sex life and leave pornography on her desk. Too embarrassed to confront the issue, she asked to be transferred. "We're just not getting along," she told management.

* A senior network TV executive arranged to a meet a female writer late in the day. Pleading eye trouble, he asked for a lift home. In the car, he tried to rape her. When the Writers Guild discovered that dozens of others had similar experiences, it pressured the network to force him out. After a "medical leave," the executive has since been hired by two major studios.

They discussed it in boardrooms and over lunch at the Ivy, they clustered around TVs at the studios and networks. In Hollywood, as elsewhere, the face-off between U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas and his accuser, Anita Faye Hill, placed the long-suppressed issue of sexual harassment on the job squarely on the front burner.

"People are consumed by, and in some quarters uncomfortable as a result of the proceedings, breathing a collective sigh of relief that they weren't up there on the stand," says ICM agent Elaine Goldsmith. "When it comes to sexual harassment, Hollywood is no different from the rest of the world."

It's not surprising. This is, after all, the home of the casting couch--a free-wheeling, highly competitive, male-dominated environment that attracts people in search of a fast buck and their dreams. And what happens here has vast implications, since motion pictures and television shows shape attitudes worldwide.

"Sex is in the air," says producer Paula Weinstein, former head of production for United Artists. "We create the myths here--romance, passion, glamour--with which America is obsessed. Because it can be hard to separate real life from myth-making, you see a lot of sexually oriented behavior. Like Washington, which is equally power-oriented and clubby, Hollywood doesn't feel like it has to live by the rules . . . it makes them."

Is Hollywood, a place that feeds on ego and power, a greater offender than other industries? Observers find it hard to say, since the problem has been swept under the corporate rug for so long. But, inspired by the Thomas hearings, industry women--long at the bottom of the show business heap--have been speaking up, recounting tales not only of overt sexual demands but also of the more subtle gender-related tensions that come with working in such a male-dominated business.

"It was shocking," Margery Tabankin, executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee recalls of a meeting the group held last week. "Just about every woman in the room had a personal story. These hearings have touched the 'Thelma & Louise' button, getting to women on a visceral level, putting the issue out there in prime time in a way that no made-for-TV movie could."

Walking out of a screening with some female writers last week, veteran TV producer Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey," "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill") was amazed when all four claimed to be victims of sexual harassment.

"Hollywood is a male bastion," he says. "It doesn't take women seriously because they don't have power--and aren't likely to any time soon. Like most men, I tend to forget that what we regard as kidding around, being cute, can be very off-putting to women. Guys figure, 'What's the big deal? Just say no.' In the end, they just don't 'get it.' "

In fairness, it can be difficult to define the term. "The criteria, in my mind, is whether it's a power play--whether the person behaving badly has the ability to affect the other person's professional life," says producer Dawn Steel who, as the president of Columbia Pictures was the business' first female studio chief. "It all boils down to status and power."

Says InterTalent agent J. J. Harris: "You have to be in a position to force a situation . . . and that's usually not the prerogative of most women in this industry."

Though Steel says she was propositioned by a senior executive during her first job at Paramount, the problem diminished as she worked her way up. "The men I worked for didn't look at me as having any gender at all," she says. "They regarded me more as a workhorse. People on the lower rungs are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than those at the top."

Weinstein, then an apprentice film editor, was hesitant to speak up when the editor rubbed against her breasts at an editing table in the early '70s.

"My first instinct was to haul off and hit the guy," she says, "but I realized I'd be called a prude and humorless by someone who held my economic and career destiny in his hands. Why should I give up my livelihood because this guy couldn't keep his hands to himself? It sounds vulgar but, with women like us, ambition also figures into the equation. There's a tremendous conflict between ambition and pride.

"This is a business in which women are admired 20 feet tall on a huge screen, but, particularly when I was starting out, unable to be accepted in the executive suites," Weinstein says. "At a staff meeting, I was the only woman in the room and one of the studio heads asked if I would stand on the table and strip."

TV writer-producer Gloria Goldsmith, a member of USC's Institute for the Study of Women and Men, believes that's par for the course given the demographic composition--and mind-set of-- studio management.

"In the past decade, the industry has been driven by young male executives frightened of, and hostile to, intelligent women," she says. "That's why we're seeing those denigrating female images up there on the screen. The images of women--monster mothers, happy hookers or victims--are linked to the way these men treat the women in the workplace. Movies validate behavior and vice versa."

If power is the name of the game, more women, these days, are players. When four actors came on to a female producer during a recent shoot, she realized she had the confidence--and clout--to laugh it off.

"If actors think you have influence or power, they'll come on to me just as actresses come on to directors," she says. "To anyone feeling powerless, sex is a useful tool. One night an actor followed me up to my room and insisted I needed a massage. No sex, he said . . . just take off my clothes and relax. Twenty years ago, I would have been shattered. Now I realize I have the prerogative to say no."

Actresses, however, are particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation, jockeying between their real-life personnae and the on-screen sex and glamour that frequently is their stock-in-trade.

"In the process of auditioning, actors want to be liked," says Joan Hyler, a senior vice president at William Morris and an 11-year veteran of Hollywood. "And they collude with the casting directors and producers, sending out signals to get the job. Because of the high stakes and the scarcity of jobs, there's an enormous dance going on. What's harassment in other places is part of the game here. Everyone looks the other way."

Though actresses such as Tracy Scoggins and Morgan Fairchild went public with charges of sexual harassment a few years back, insiders claim the casting couch--though still in existence--has seen better days.

"I've been in the business seven years and no one has offered me illicit sex," said John Levey, director of casting for Warner Bros. Television, "but I'm sure it exists, but mainly in B-, C-, and D- features--certainly not in network TV and mainstream films."

Bonnie Palef, producer of "Moonstruck," says the social climate has also encouraged Hollywood to clean up its act. "AIDS is a factor. People think twice before jumping into bed. That statement, 'A job isn't worth dying for' is taken literally these days."

Sexual harassment is not only perpetrated by men on women, however. With the significant gay presence in show business, it can also be male on male. And consider the case of one male studio executive whose female boss called him "baby cakes," made comments about his rear end and, in a fit of jealousy, lashed out at him in front of staff. She later told him the problem was not his performance but his refusal--along with other men in the company--to treat her like a woman. "I need you to take care of me," she said.

In September 1990, the two took a business trip and the woman became ill. Convinced that her male underling showed insufficient sympathy, she accused him of insensitivity upon their return. He reported the situation to studio management, which consulted outside counsel and advised his boss to lay off. Last February, he--not she--was quietly paid to leave. A clause in the settlement precluded legal action.

"Higher-ups in the firms are often aware there are problems, but would rather close their eyes and pretend it's OK," says a female agent. "They all have skeletons in their own closets, and there but for the grace of God. . . ."

Hollywood observers are only cautiously optimistic that the situation will change in the wake of the Thomas hearings.

"Thousands of years of evolution won't be turned around by a few days of testimony," says producer Steel. "But some good may come of it all. The creeps--the guys that out-and-out don't respect women--may curtail their behavior out of fear. The non-creeps--those guys unaware of their behavior--may start treating women with more sensitivity."

Producer Lynn Loring believes there may be two sides to the coin. "This episode will certainly raise awareness," she says. "It will enable women to come forward and make them feel less alone. But it may also open the door for people to scream sexual harassment when none exists."

Finally, though, it's a matter of ironing out the inequities, placing men and women on a level playing field.

"When women have an equal shot at money and power," says producer Gina Blumenfeld, "sexual harassment won't be the problem it is today."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
52°