What kind of barbarous creature was Harvey Weinsteinwho punctuated business meetings by hurling marble ashtrays at the wall, ripped out a smoke alarm in a toilet on Concorde so he could enjoy a cigarette mid-Atlantic, ordered unsatisfactory employees to jump to their deaths from a high window, and regarded sexual abuse or rape as the equivalent of a job interview for young women anxious to appear in the movies he produced?
In Ken Auletta‘s meticulously reported account of his downfall, people assign Weinstein to one of several alien species. Everyone agrees that he was a pest and a predator; survivors also call him an ogre, a monster, even a fiend. Odd glimpses of his flame-haired, acid-tongued mother suggest that he was “raised by wolves”. A studio executive whom he threatened to topple from a terrace into the sea at Cannes describes him as “this gorilla person”, like King Kong in an ill-fitting tux. Exhausting all options, Weinstein’s estranged brother, Bob, formerly his partner at Miramax, concludes: “There is no real human being there.” Perhaps Harvey was a humanoid, programmed with technical skills but bereft of emotion. His tantrums in the cutting rooms where he savagely re-edited films over the protests of their directors led to his being dubbed Harvey Scissorhands, a less endearing twin for the unfinished mutant played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s fantasy.
Feared but never loved by others, disliked or disgusted by himself, Weinstein adopted another nickname during his obese adolescence, when his jokey alias was “the Gru”. He later aggressively exhibited his gruesomeness by parading naked before the women from whom he demanded what Auletta calls “sexual access”. These coercive sessions usually began with his request for a massage, after which he displayed a back that was crered by cystic acne and abloom with blackheads. When he moved in for a kiss, remnants of recent meals could be seen on his bristly, half-shaved jowls, which reminded an observer of “chewed bubble gum rolled in cat hair”. One actor for whom Weinstein pulled out his penis told him to put it away “because it’s really not pretty”. Another reported that he had no testicles – they seemingly imploded after a bout of Fournier’s gangrene – and added that he “smelled like poop”.
Such scenes turn Auletta’s narrative into a warped fairytale about a beast who ravages a succession of traumatised beauties. Aides followed Weinstein around with paper bags containing hypodermics to treat his erectile dysfunction, then returned post-coitally to clean semen from the furniture and gather up used condoms, but sexual relief mattered less to him than dominance and control. His aim was to degrade and defile women, then leave them feeling so shamed or needlessly guilt-ridden that they couldn’t bring themselves to denounce him; As an extra precaution, he bullied and bribed them into silence with non-disclosure agreements.
Similar tactics contrived the emasculation of the men he dealt with. Menials he considered inept were made to write “I am a moron” 100 times on a chalkboard, sign it and set it up as an ersatz pillory. A marketing discussion with Ismail Merchant graduated from verbal abuse to fisticuffs in the street. On the set of Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese had mirror fitted on top of the video monitors he used so that he could see the hated overseer closing in on him from behind. A rival producer retaliated by sending Weinstein 27 gift-wrapped cartons of cigarettes to speed his death from lung cancer.
The squalid transactions in hotel bedrooms and the screaming rows in corporate offices were for Weinstein parables about raw power and his monopoly of it. When an aspiring actor recoiled from his unpretty private parts, he yelled: “This is how the industry works!” He was right about that, at least in the past: for producers and casting directors or for male viewers out there in the dark, the women on screen were engaged, like prostitutes, to enact fantasies.
The wider world, as Weinstein saw it, worked in the same way. He enjoyed being called a mogul and behaved like a potentate or pasha. He claimed an affinity with Ariel Sharon, “a lion in the desert” who firebombed opponents, although Bernardo Bertolucci called him “a little Saddam Hussein”. At a wedding in Rome, he found the church uncomfortably hot and said he would talk to the pope about getting it air-conditioned. He accepted Bill Clinton’s hospitality at Camp David, but balked at the food and commanded a navy guard to drive him to Wendy’s for a hamburger. Later he employed Barack Obama’s daughter as an intern, and received a letter from the president thanking him for the favour.
Brought low, Weinstein whimpered to the judge who judged him that he had been martyred by the new McCarthyism of a #MeToo lynch mob. Then he turned to his glowering accusers in the courtroom, reminisced about the “wonderful times” they’d had, and hoped that their “old friendship” could be reignited. This lack of self-awareness prompts Auletta to classify him as a narcissist and a sociopath, free to trample on others because he was incapable of empathy – the same charges that are customarily made against Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Yet those tidy labels don’t account for Weinstein’s rages, his rapacity, and the raving appetite that made him guzzle M&Ms, swig Diet Cokes and chain-smoke Marlboro Lights while chomping on the people he persecuted and spitting them out. The film historian Peter Biskind describes him as a “cauldron of insecurities… battered as well by relentless waves of hubris”. Although that sounds a little too grandiose, Biskind’s imagery prompts Auletta to liken Weinstein’s temper to a volcano, with expletives as its lava. Yes, the man was a blubbery Krakatoa, and at the end he simply blew up. It’s a gross and ghastly story, but its outcome – bankruptcy, obloquy and 23 years in prison – suggests that there may after all be some remnant of moral order in our reeling universe.
Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence is published by Penguin Press (£25)