Navigating abuse could be tough for women in old Hollywood both because they were generally excluded from power positions in the industry and because their on-camera value was sometimes contingent on their perceived desirability. When it came to actresses, the director Elia Kazan said, the studio bosses had “a simple rule”: Do I want to have sex with her? Like women in the outside world, women in film nevertheless worked and some thrived. They stuck around because they needed the work, because they loved the work. You can, after all, be a victim and flourish. Yet without power or legal protections, they had to submit, ignore, dodge or fight back.
That women continued to fight or submit — and still do — makes it clear that, post-Weinstein, we need to rethink how some stories about the industry are framed, and who benefits from certain kinds of framing and why. Like journalism, American film history tends to be rather too neatly divided between sober, apparently disinterested chronicles and gossipy counter-histories, some persuasive, others fantastical. The sober side likes to package the past into biographical portraits, production practices and technological innovations; sometimes, they nod at the more unsavory stories and use words like womanizer when they really mean rapist. The gossipy accounts, by contrast, repeat unsourced or unconvincing dirt about abusers and victims.
I assume that some historians and journalists omit certain of these appalling stories because they dismiss them as mere gossip and perhaps tantamount to fake news. Yet like Weinstein’s assaults, this behavior — Twentieth Century-Fox’s longtime boss Darryl F. Zanuck had a well-documented habit of flashing his penis at women — is as much a part of American film history as the organization of labor, the invention of new lenses and executive decisions. These abuses are, in turn, part of a larger, complex and contradiction-filled story about women, men and power, one that involves every aspect of American cinema and which created an overwhelmingly white, male-dominated business that has remained stubbornly resistant to change.
Not long after the recent death of a movie star, my colleague, the critic Jessica Kiang, sent out a tweet stating that “We’re going to have to get better at memorializing great men with astonishing, unassailable professional legacies who also did, or were credibly rumored to have done, awful things.” I knew the story she meant involved a now-dead teenage starlet who, in the mid-1950s, is said to have been raped by the dead male star. I won’t identify either here because I haven’t found a convincingly reported account.
Like Kiang, I am not sure what we should do with gossip. Yet I agree that we need to figure out what to do with the shadowy corners. “The rumor mill,” as Kiang wrote in follow-up tweets, “is the only way that many real stories of rape/abuse have been recorded, because of the silencing mechanisms of 20th century sexism, and that to ignore them wholesale on the basis of their unverifiability is to perpetuate a broken system.”