In 2006, while accepting the Best Supporting Actor award for Syriana, George Clooney gave a speech that instantly became such shorthand for celebrity smugness that South Park based an entire episode around making fun of it. “We are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing,” Clooney said. “We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular… This academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.”
Even amid an entire night predicated on self-congratulation, Clooney’s speech stood out for its pomposity—not to mention its hypocrisy. After all, contrary to Clooney’s assertion, Hollywood has been notoriously hesitant to take on controversial topics in a timely or too direct fashion, surfing only the most cautious of waves long after they’ve already been set in motion elsewhere. What’s more, McDaniel’s Oscar was handed to her during a ceremony that was held at a hotel where blacks weren’t allowed, where McDaniel was forced to be escorted by a white man and sit at a lone, segregated table, placed far away from her co-stars—so, you know, let’s maybe not paint it as some sort of mass, celebrity sit-in. Ultimately, Clooney’s speech did for the stereotype of the “out-of-touch celebrity” what Syriana did for American foreign policy.
Of course, Clooney wasn’t alone: The 2000s marked a real turning point for Hollywood’s political awakening, and Clooney was just following in the tradition of recent Oscars recipients like Sean Penn and Michael Moore who’d spent their time at the mic haranguing George W. Bush over Iraq. And while the Oscars has a long history of getting political—from Marlon Brando dispatching Sacheen Littlefeather to remind everyone of the plight of the Native Americans, to Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Richard Gere standing up for Haitian refugees and the Dalai Lama—it wasn’t until the Bush years that the idea of “liberal Hollywood” became truly cemented, a sneering mantle proudly taken up by every celebrity who’s since used their platform to speak out on gender inequality, the treatment of the LGBTQ community, or a president who somehow makes us long for Bush’s kinder, gentler war crimes. Last year, those celebrity liberals may have been tarred with some of the blame for that same president’s election—No one likes to be lectured by people who play pretend for a living! This is why Trump won! etc.—but at least you can say that their sanctimony is well-intentioned, adopted as a necessary corrective to a country where naked hatred is suddenly given so much camera time. As one of those liberal showbiz elites so eloquently put it in 2009, “Hollywood has the best moral compass, because it has compassion.”
Unfortunately, the guy who said that—Harvey Weinstein—now stands accused of dozens of sexual assaults. And Weinstein’s statement has been gleefully dragged out in recent weeks by conservative pundits as an example of Hollywood’s flagrant hypocrisy, the laughable grandstanding of an industry that likes to portray itself as America’s conscience while also allowing predators like Weinstein, James Toback, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, et al. to flourish behind the “open secret” of their own evils. After all, as Fox News cheerfully points out, Weinstein made that statement around the same time he wrote a passionate defense of Roman Polanski, whose own history of sexual abuse is another of the city’s ugly, accepted truths, largely forgiven and clumsily talked around, even covered up in applause from the likes of Meryl Streep—something those same outlets seized upon when she publicly shamed Donald Trump for his own turpitude. If Hollywood really wants to be America’s moral arbiter, their argument goes, then it needs to start by cleaning its own house.
The thing is, they’re not wrong. Sin and iniquity have been baked into the movie business since its very beginning, and we’ve always just sort of accepted it. You don’t have to buy into half of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon to know that showbiz was built on lecherous men leveraging their power over young and desperate women (men, too, but mostly women) in order to behave like mad, unchecked Roman emperors. Weinstein is just a descendant of every mogul who’s stashed a “casting couch” since the days of Louis B. Mayer—the guy made a teenaged Judy Garland sit on his lap while he groped her breasts and helped turn the town into, as Marilyn Monroe put it, an “overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.” That grotesque power dynamic—and the “you’ll never work in this town again” culture of fear it creates—has lived long enough to become a clichéd awards show joke. It is the shadowy undercurrent beneath Hollywood’s glitzy veneer, and if this town is going to champion itself as some liberal bastion for equality, progressivism, and noble ideals, it must first reckon with all the creeps who not so secretly run it.
If there’s any bright side to this past year that has slowly turned our Newswire into a never-ending police blotter, it’s that it’s starting to look like maybe, possibly, this reckoning might finally have arrived. In the wake of the Weinstein allegations, encouraged by the way his quick toppling swiftly eroded that culture of fear, we’ve seen so more of those nasty little “open secrets” thoroughly investigated and exposed than ever before. Some of these secrets were more open than others: We’ve known for years that Steven Seagal and Brett Ratner behave disgustingly toward women, for example, only to see those stories come and go with only minor controversy. We’ve spent just as long whispering about the rumors of Louis CK’s sick proclivity for forcing women to watch him masturbate, only to get lost in the debate over whether rumors, however many, are enough to believe.
Some, like Jeremy Piven, just seemed like they were probably assholes. Others, like Dustin Hoffman, just seemed like they weren’t, even when we had years of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. (In Hoffman’s case, I keep thinking of an interview I did years ago with Teri Garr, where she laughed off the fact that he would just “grab her butt” while they were shooting Tootsie, as though it were just something she had to put up with—because it was.) Some, like Bryan Singer, must wake up every day now grabbing for their phones, waiting for that proverbial other shoe to drop.
Their offenses range from inappropriate propositions to rape, their accusers are both anonymous and incredibly famous, and the specific repercussions they each have and will face similarly vary. I’m not here to litigate which crime is “worse,” or to debate degrees of offensiveness when it comes to harassment and humiliation. Some will likely take issue, as they always do, with the fact that very few of these cases resulted in legal action, protesting trauma on a technicality. I’m not interested in having that argument; I’m not even here to tell you that you’re no longer allowed to like these guys. That’s up to you.
Regardless of whether their careers crash or only briefly falter, each of us will from here out be forced to have that equally age-old, uncomfortable discussion about separating art from these artists—a purely personal choice about whether you can still laugh at Louis CK’s endless material about jacking off or appreciate Spacey’s performances in Glengarry Glen Ross and L.A. Confidential, or enjoy any movie stamped with Weinstein’s name ever again knowing what you know, the same way only you can decide whether you still like Hannah And Her Sisters or Chinatown. But although these are individual cases necessitating individual responses, we all must acknowledge that their shared existence was made possible by a business that has, demonstrably, long thrived on abuse. And together, they represent a purge that’s long overdue.
It would be nice to credit this to some genuine soul-searching on Hollywood’s part. The truth is these things happened because of power and money and a dwindling thereof, with Harvey Weinstein’s stock plummeting to where he was finally no longer worth protecting, and the other accusations snowballing from there. Still, it’s happening. And it’s all part of a genuine ablution the industry has been forced to undertake, after so many years of preaching its own virtuousness, by no longer being able to remain so blissfully “out of touch”—a slowly turning tide toward giving more than just lip service to the ideas of representation, pay equality, and no longer condoning or covering up for depraved monsters just because they get great box office. Maybe that seems a tad optimistic, given that so many of these men remain gainfully employed, even revered. But they are the last remaining links to Hollywood’s past. Hopefully, this year represents the first of its future, when they’ll be able to deliver those kind of proud, George Clooney-esque speeches without anyone rolling their eyes.