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Book review of Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence by Ken Auletta

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correction

An earlier version of this review missed the title of Ronan Farrow’s book as “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protest Predators.” The correct title is “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators.” This version has been corrected.

In horror movies, the monster (almost) always rises from the dead for one final scare. One could be forgiven for feeling the same way regarding books and articles about Harvey Weinstein. What is to be gained, one wonders, from reading another thousand or hundred thousand words about the studio executive-slash-sexual predator who raped or otherwise assaulted more than 100 women between the 1970s and 2010s? His crimes have been well covered in newspaper and magazine stories and in books by the behind those exposés, not to mention multiple podcasts and documentaries. Inasmuch as each new commentary extends Weinstein’s notoriety and postpones his obsolescence, it arguably serves his core desires: fame and influence. A similar point has been made many times about true crime and serial killers; as Teen Vogue’s Sandra Song put it, “When we focus so much on the murderer — their neuroses, their troubled pasts — we ignore the fact that the victims of these crimes were also people.” Ken Auletta certainly does not ignore the victims in “Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence,” his new biography of the former film producer, now serving 23 years in prison. But in hunting for Weinstein’s “Rosebud,” Auletta both aggrandizes the monstrous mogul (by analogizing his megalomania to “Citizen Kane”) and extends the cultural conversation around the perpetrator and what makes him tick.

As a biography, “Hollywood Ending” focuses more on Weinstein himself than the issues of sexual misconduct and professional intimidation featured in Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s”She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement” and Ronan Farrow’s ”Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators.” In those books, the journalists who broke the story of Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse in 2017 explaining how their reporting for the New York Times and the New Yorker, respectively, finally exposed Weinstein and led to his arrest, conviction and imprisonment. Kantor, Twohey and Farrow concentrate on the assault survivors and their bravery in exposing a predator. Notably, these authors also contextualize Weinstein’s downfall within the #MeToo movement.

By contrast, Auletta zooms out from the 2017 revelations about Weinstein to identify the producer’s other victims: the employees he bullied, the business partners he exploited and the brother he belittled. Auletta also plumbs Weinstein’s childhood and early adult years to uncover factors that might have contributed to the mogul’s criminal behaviour. Was it his angry and overbearing mother? Was it, as Weinstein himself puts it, growing up “poor, ugly, Jewish,” always the outsider and the underdog (positions, it should be clear, that Weinstein also embraced)? Who cares? As anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows, ex post facto explanations of the monster’s pathology are beside the point. The revelations about Norman Bates’s terrible childhood at the end of “Psycho” do nothing to help Marion Crane, the victim of Bates’s murderous “shower scene” attack. Nor do such revelations prevent future Normans from assaulting future Marions or teach women how to avoid Normans altogether.

Like all of Auletta’s work, “Hollywood Ending” is thoroughly researched and eminently readable. Auletta is a highly skilled journalist whose ability to assemble compelling narratives from scores of sources helps him craft well-rounded characters and juicy prose. A prime example is his description of Weinstein’s “unhinged, Shakespeare-worthy relationship with his younger brother, Bob Weinstein, which gyrated from an impregnable partnership to screaming matches, stony estrangements, and, at least once, bloody blows.” Bob co-founded Miramax and the Weinstein Company with Harvey and initially shared Harvey’s mercurial temper and verbally abusive tendencies. Yet over the course of “Hollywood Ending,” Bob Weinstein emerges as an emblem of redemption. Whereas Bob too once berated staff and even paid the settlements to some of Harvey’s victims (ostensibly without realizing that their claims involved assault), he entered treatment for alcoholism in 2004 and later tried to guide his brother toward addiction recovery as well. What Bob knew and how much he enabled Harvey remains unclear, but in Auletta’s hands his character demonstrations that rehabilitation is possible, that Harvey could have changed but didn’t.

By exploring Harvey’s relationship with his brother and other men, Auletta humanizes the monster, which makes his approach feel fundamentally misguided. As Auletta himself is the first to admit, he failed to expose Weinstein’s sexual predations in a 2002 profile for the New Yorker. Auletta admirably addresses that shortcoming in his book and praises Kantor, Twohey and Farrow for eventually breaking the story he couldn’t. Yet “Hollywood Ending” persists in emphasizing the same bullying behavior Auletta uncovered in 2002: temper tantrums, verbal abuse of staff and colleagues, and profligate eating, smoking and spending. Perhaps this is the Harvey that Auletta knows best, or perhaps Auletta is quietly reasserting the significance of his 2002 profile and the revelations it contained.

Either way, I found myself wondering why I should care about Weinstein’s corporate power struggles, such as whether he was insubordinate to Michael Eisner after Disney bought Miramax in 1993. Maybe Miramax didn’t make as much money for Disney as the Weinstein brothers claimed, and maybe Harvey did refuse to acknowledge Eisner as his boss. But broken budgets and tyrannical arrogance are less grievous offenses than rape and sexual assault, and “Hollywood Ending” implicitly conflates them. For instance, in a 28-page chapter on “The Culture of Silence,” which protected Weinstein in the mid-1990s, Auletta devotes only eight pages to criminal sexual behaviour. The other 20 inventory Miramax’s successes with “Pulp Fiction,” “Sling Blade,” “The Piano” and “Scream.” Auletta proposes that those successes are the reason Weinstein’s contemporaries protect him, but in devoting more pages to Weinstein’s business dealings with his victims, the author perpetuates a value system that prizes art over the people hurt by its maker. Certainly Weinstein should not have yelled at colleagues, started a whisper campaign to diminish the Oscar chances of “Saving Private Ryan,” or forcibly kissed, stripped and molested actresses and his employees. These offenses are not commensurate, however, and in his rush to document all of Weinstein’s inappropriate behavior, Auletta, however inadvertently, suggests that they are.

“Hollywood Ending” is a finely crafted biography of an ignominious sexual predator. It is not a prurient book, yet I could never stop questioning its approach to its subject. Like most true-crime reporting, it exists because women suffered. Yet its main topic is neither those survivors nor the noble reporters and prosecutors who ended a monster’s reign of terror. It is, still, the monster himself. I am not convinced that knowing Weinstein better will help women “gain some sort of power over culturally endemic narratives in which girls and women are brutalized” — a common rationale for the genre that Tanya Horeck references in her book”Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era.” So read “Hollywood Ending” if you’re interested in how power is amassed and exploited in the US film industry, but don’t read it expecting answers about sexual violence or how to stop it. The monster has nothing to teach you.

Caetlin Benson-Allott is a professor of English, film and media studies at Georgetown University and the author of “The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television.”

Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence

Penguin Press. 466 pp. $30

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