My previous post dealt with Morgan Spurlock’s recent confession that he’s been a drunk, a womanizer and a sexual harasser. He now promises to be part of the solution. Well, gee, that’s great. Here’s how he and all men can be “part of the solution”: don’t act like a jackass when you’re around women. Don’t attempt to have sex with women who aren’t actually attracted to you, and if you’re married, don’t cheat on your wife. It’s not that difficult to figure out.
If you watched the Golden Globe awards on Sunday (I didn’t), you know the rich and famous women of Hollywood wore black dresses and gave rousing speeches to publicly demonstrate their outrage over all that sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. They were, of course, praised for their courage by a mostly-fawning press.
Sorry, but I’m not impressed. According to what I’ve read, Harvey Weinstein’s status as a sexual predator was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. Many of the women courageously donning $10,000 designer black dresses on Sunday night had to know, yet did nothing when Weinstein was still sitting atop the industry and could boost or bust careers.
Rose McGowan, the actress who had enough spine to call him out (and whose story was spiked by some of our “speak truth to power” journalists because they were afraid of Weinstein) wasn’t impressed either. As CBS reported:
Rose McGowan is still unimpressed with the black dress protest at Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards. The outspoken actress claimed that all of the stars at the Golden Globes wearing black in protest against sexual harassment would not have done so if it weren’t for her.
Yup. Wearing a black dress and giving a rousing speech now, after years of remaining silent, is kind of like running out from the crowd to kick Goliath in the groin after David hurled the fatal stone, then patting yourself on the back for your bravery. I mean seriously, am I supposed to cheer for Meryl Streep and her black dress and her righteous speeches now, when she once stood and cheered for director Roman Polanski after he was convicted of drugging and raping a teenage girl?! Pardon me if I remain seated.
Perhaps you’re wondering how Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and all those other walking penises got away with it for so long. As someone who lived in Hollywood and worked in and around the entertainment industry, I can make an educated guess.
Here’s the brief version: the entertainment industry (including TV news) is a universe in which 1) a disproportionate number of powerful people at the top are amoral sociopaths, and 2) a disproportionate number of the people who aren’t at or near the top are so desperate for success, they’ll do or put up with almost anything.
In other words, it’s a perfect environment for abuse.
You can find various definitions of sociopath on the internet, but I like this list of traits:
- Having an oversized ego.
- Lying and exhibiting manipulative behavior.
- Exhibiting a lack of empathy.
- Showing a lack of remorse or shame.
- Behaving irresponsibly or with extreme impulsivity.
- Having few real friends.
- Being charming—but only superficially.
- Living by the “pleasure principle.”
- Showing disregard for societal norms.
Doesn’t that sound rather a lot like some Hollywood bigshots we could all name?
There are, of course, some very nice people at the top in showbiz. I’ve yet to hear anyone say a bad word about Tom Hanks, for example. But as Chareva and I both noticed during our years in the L.A. area, something about the entertainment industry seems to both attract and reward a particular type of aggressive, amoral, me-first personality.
I’ll give you just one example from my corner of the entertainment industry, standup comedy. I’m actually talking about a couple of famous comedians (whose names I won’t reveal, so don’t ask), but the story is similar in each case, so we’ll just roll them into one guy named Freddy Funny.
When Freddy Funny first appeared in comedy clubs in Los Angeles, he already had a killer act. There’s a good reason for that: while working the comedy-club circuit around the country before moving to L.A., he wrote down the best bits of every comedian he worked with. Then he went to L.A. with an act that could have been titled The Best Of The Club-Circuit Comedians.
His punishment for stealing material that other comedians had meticulously written, worked and reworked was to become a TV star. After all, agents and producers saw him slaying audiences. Eventually, word got around that Freddy routinely stole his material from unknown comedians. Nobody cared. Freddy was a star now with millions of fans. His presence in a show drew the numbers that make producers rich.
I was first warned about Freddy by other comedians. “If you’re about to try that great new bit on stage and you see Freddy in the back of the room, don’t do it. Switch to your old material, finish your time, and get off the stage.”
“Why would I want to do that?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it help my career if Freddy Funny saw me and liked my stuff?”
“No, it will hurt your career. Because you’ll turn on The Tonight Show or The Letterman Show some night, and Freddy will be doing your best bit. Then you’ll have to drop it from your act, because audiences will think you stole it from him instead of the other way around.”
Eventually, a comedian who was outraged at hearing his best bit come out of Freddy’s mouth on TV cornered Freddy in a club, punched him in the face, and shoved him down a flight of stairs. After that, Freddy’s manager routinely paid the victims of Freddy’s thefts for their silence. But of course, the thefts continued … because despite the millions of fans who considered a Freddy a brilliant comedian, the guy never did learn to write a good act.
When Freddy died – one of them, anyway – some comedians posted an inside joke beneath his obituary in a showbiz magazine: When Freddy Funny died, a little bit of all of us died with him.
Keep in mind I never personally met Freddy, so I’m passing on what I was told by quite a few other comedians. But I did have a personal experience with a comedy thief. I was the headliner in a small club many years ago, and the opener was okay but not exactly rocking the house. About a year later, I worked another club where he was opening, and he seemed to have really improved. And yet some of his material seemed familiar … and then one of my best bits came out of his mouth.
I didn’t say anything to him, but went ahead and did the same bit in my act. When the audience responded with quizzical looks and a few nervous chuckles, I said, “Yeah, I know, you just heard that bit about an hour ago, right? Which is weird, because I wrote it.”
At that point, the opener left the club instead of fulfilling his duty to come up on stage after the show to wish the audience a good night and send them on their way. With such an a-hole attitude, I’m surprised he didn’t end up as a TV star.
It’s not just performers who lie, cheat and steal. As you may recall, the first two distributors for Fat Head never paid us. One of them sold the film to TV markets around the world, but reported zero profit because of huge and unexplained expenses – for a film I produced and financed out of my own pocket. (Gravitas, our current distributor, is one of the good guys, by the way. They send regular quarterly checks and document the rare expenses they charge against the film’s sales.)
Bottom line: the glamor of showbiz lures a lot people who have no qualms about lying, cheating, stealing or screwing other people — literally or figuratively. And those at the top, the ones who can make or break careers, have access to plenty of people who will put up with being abused.
That’s where the desperate-to-make-it aspect comes in.
When Chareva and I first moved to Hollywood, her sister – who at the time was a documentary producer and knew quite a few industry people – gave us a friendly warning about relationships among showbiz types. Dating isn’t really dating; it’s a career move. People jump into bed with whoever might open doors for them. Same for friendships; if you’re in a position to boost careers, you’ll have more new “friends” than you can handle – which in turn makes you suspicious of anyone who wants to be your friend.
I saw that from both angles. Some years ago, I was in a sketch-comedy show at a small theater near Burbank. After our opening night, we went out to celebrate at a local pub. One of the actresses had a friend with her, a middle-aged woman. I ended up chatting a bit with the friend and eventually asked what she did for a living.
After just a hint of hesitation, she replied, “I’m a photographer.” She seemed uncomfortable, so I didn’t ask any more questions about her profession.
Later I said something about “your photographer friend” to the actress.
“My what friend?”
“Your photographer friend. She was with you at the cast party after opening night.”
“She’s not a photographer. She’s a director.”
“Why didn’t she just say that?”
“Because if she tells people she’s a director, they start schmoozing with her, hoping she can give them an acting job.”
The year before we moved, I was in an acting workshop I’d been attending for several weeks. One of the actors and I had become chit-chat friendly, and he asked if I’d done any standup shows recently. I told him I’d given up the comedy gigs for the time being and was shooting some footage for an independent film I wrote, a comedy-documentary of sorts.
Boom, next thing I know, a pretty young actress-wannabe who had never spoken to me before was chatting me up and being very friendly – and of course, she handed me a copy of her headshot and resume.
I had no interest in her, but I’m guessing I could have asked her out for a drink right then, despite the wedding ring on my finger. I was a nobody, but I was shooting a film, so she suddenly found me interesting. Imagine what a Harvey Weinstein could do. Well, you don’t have to imagine anymore.
People in the industry just seemed to accept this as normal. I once attended a workshop run by a brutally honest casting director. He’d worked in various aspects of the industry, including a brief stint as a producer.
“I never actually got anything produced, but having Producer on my business card made it easy to pick up girls,” he said, prompting chuckles in the room. Ha-ha. I don’t doubt it.
During Q&A, a good-looking wannabe actress asked him (perhaps speaking from experience) what she should do if a big-name producer decided to put his hand on her thigh during an audition.
“If you’re smart and you want the role, you’ll reach out and pat his hand with yours,” he replied.
Like I said, brutally honest. And that, of course, is why Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long. Actors desperately want the next role. Agents desperately want their actors to get the next role. Writers desperately want their scripts produced. Directors, designers, composers, whatever, countless people fighting for a spot in the industry are desperate.
That includes many people who, to mere mortals, already appear successful. I found that to be one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole showbiz culture: almost everyone seemed to be suffering from some degree of career frustration. Actors who actually had roles on TV shows were frustrated because they wanted to be acting in films. Actors who were in films were frustrated because they wanted to be in the meaningful films, or wanted top billing. I remember reading an interview with Alec Baldwin in which he said he felt like a failure as an actor because he never got the kind of meaningful roles he wanted. I kid you not.
Same goes for directors, producers, agents, you name it. Below the tippy-top of the industry, it seemed damned near everyone was in a constant career-climbing, claw-my-way-to-the-top mode. Chareva and I used to wonder if that’s why there are so many incredibly rude and angry drivers in L.A. They’re frustrated by the traffic, but more frustrated by their careers … or lack of careers.
The desire to be discovered prompted some truly strange behavior. Chareva and I were having dinner at a restaurant for one of our anniversaries, and an adolescent boy at another table was annoying the crap out of other diners by singing show tunes — and his parents were encouraging him. They apparently hoped a producer would be somewhere in the restaurant and sign junior to a three-picture deal.
I once filled in for Chareva and took Alana to a dance class. While I was sitting in a waiting room with other parents, a young dad was reading to a toddler whose older sibling was in the dance class. I noticed with growing irritation that the young dad was reading way too loudly and with way too much expression. Is this guy deaf? Does he think his toddler is deaf? And then it hit me: he’s an actor, and he’s acting the character parts — loudly, just in case one of us might be a producer or agent or whatever.
Meanwhile, my Midwest friends working in other fields were nothing like the people I met in L.A. My friend who set out to be an attorney as a young man was one – a partner in a prestigious firm, in fact. My buddy who wanted to work in finance was a manager for an investment firm in Chicago. My pal who wanted to teach yoga owned a yoga studio. No desperate, never-ending career-climbing for them. They had achieved their primary goals and were enjoying life. If Kevin Spacey had grabbed one of them by the privates, they would have punched him in the nose, not complain to a manager who would tell them to keep quiet because Spacey has serious mojo in Hollywood.
I wasn’t aware of any specific sexual abuse at the time, but I was keenly aware of the toxic combination of desperate wannabes and amoral sociopaths in power positions. I suspected there plenty of people engaging in Harvey Weinstein behavior. I just didn’t know their names yet.
So there I was in 2008, with Fat Head done and in the hands of distributors who would later rip me off. I looked out the window of our townhouse one afternoon and saw my girls “playing outside” on the little strip of grass in front of our building.
That’s when it hit me:
This is going to be their childhood. They’re going to be L.A. kids. They’re never going to just run around outdoors unsupervised, because parents don’t let kids do that around here. As they grow up, they’re going to be surrounded by all those desperate, career-climbing, attention-seeking, needy people in the industry. And if, heaven forbid, they get caught up in the culture and want to be actresses, there’s a chance they’ll be meeting the amoral slimeballs who prey on pretty young actresses.
And why am I here? Because I love being a writer and entertainer and want to do it for a living. But what would that mean? It would mean working with a lot of people I don’t like, people whose me-first, aggressive personalities and loony-lefty politics (which they seem compelled to preach about at every opportunity) make me want to vomit — all so I can perhaps someday make enough money as an entertainer to afford a nice house with a big yard in a state run by big-government morons who are spending it into bankruptcy.
Holy crap … I’m an idiot. I know now I could have made Fat Head while living almost anywhere, and yet I’m still in a part of the country dominated by a bat-shit-crazy culture I’ve come to loathe.
So we moved to Tennessee. And the big yard is pretty nice indeed.