Why Hollywood Has Always Had A Sexual Harassment Problem

For aspiring stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, sexual harassment from producers and executives was as much a part of the job description as memorizing lines. The idea of the casting couch — trading sexual favors for roles — has been a persistent image in the cultural imagination since the star system of the '30s and '40s, but the phenomenon existed before then. A 1920 article in Photoplay Magazine said women in Hollywood "are not advanced in their chosen profession unless they submit to the advances of studio managers, directors, or influential male stars.”
Remember: The glamorous stars whose images you emulate for Halloween costumes — and many more women who did not become famous — endured harassment, and few spoke up. The history of sexual harassment in Hollywood remained a history of silence. Until now, of course.
Film historian and reporter Alicia Malone can identify the direct line that connects the high-powered predators in Hollywood currently being outed in Times exposés to the the high-powered predators that had come before them. In her book Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film, out this past August, Malone traces the history of women in Hollywood — especially their treatment during Hollywood's Golden Age. Her insights will help you understand Hollywood's gruesome inheritance, and how the jump from "then" to "now" does not require a tremendous leap in imagination.
Refinery29: Comparisons are often drawn between Harvey Weinstein and Louis B. Mayer, who was the head of MGM for 27 years. Can you tell us a little bit about the way Hollywood used to be structured, and the role of studio heads, like Mayer?
Alicia Malone: “At the very beginning of American cinema there were more opportunities for women, and a more equal playing field, than there has been ever since. Right at the start of cinema at the 1890s, right up to the mid-1920s, almost 1930s, women were producing movies, acting in movies, creating their own content, writing films, even being stuntwomen. They had a lot of creative freedom, and that was because movie-making at that time was purely a creative endeavor and it wasn’t about making money. When it came to the mid 1920s toward the 1930s, a couple of things happened which changed Hollywood. The first was the Great Depression. When that hit, movies started having to make money and be a business. Then, Hollywood started to form in terms of studios. The banks who were lending money to these studios didn’t feel like they could trust women with money, so the studios started to hire these young male executives who came from more of a business sense than a creative sense and put them in charge. Then, the advent of sound also pushed the women out.
“The change was so great that from the 1930s; there was only one female filmmaker still working. That was Dorothy Arzner. From then on, women have been trying to crawl their way back into the business and back into positions of power, but it really has been a man’s world since it became all about business. And that imbalance [of] power has created the culture which has allowed sexual harassment and discrimination to continue for so long.”
How much power did a studio head wield over the decision-making process, in terms of casting, what movies got made, and who starred in them?
“The head of the studio had a huge amount of power. They were able to green-light movies, to cast the actors. Back in the studio days they had very restrictive contracts for the stars, which meant that a star was bound to a particular studio. The studios were able to lend some of them out to other places, but the stars themselves had no say in the matter. They were lent out, things were negotiated for them, and they were really just pawns in whatever game the studio head was trying to play.
“Someone like Louis B. Mayer had an enormous amount of power over studios and over stars producing content. Someone like Harry Kohn, who was the head of Columbia Pictures, also was in a similar position. Unfortunately, many of these big-name, powerful men started to abuse their power in various ways. One of that is the casting couch, where women were expected to trade sexual favors in order for roles."
And the casting couch was a frequent practice back then?
"This was a frequent practice, although it’s very hard to figure out exactly what happened. In my research from my book, I come across a lot of stories and a lot of rumors, but of course everything was kept under wraps and under cover. A couple that I came across were people like Rita Hayworth, whose husband was quite abusive to her. He would literally pimp her out to studio heads and to producers in order to get her to be a star. At one time she actually said no to Harry Kohn, the head of Columbia, and Harry then vowed to try to ruin her career in every way that he could."
It seemed that women really didn’t have a voice to speak out back then.
"Rita [Hayworth] is a great example of a woman who tried to speak out but was shut down. She lived in fear of Harry for a lot of her career, and what he would try to do to her. I know that when it came to The Lady from Shanghai, Kohn wanted her to work with her ex husband, Orson Welles, hoping that that would destroy her.
"Then, you heard so many rumors of Marilyn Monroe being passed from man to man and talking about Hollywood being a brothel. Shirley Temple said that a producer exposed himself to her when she was 12 years old. Then, of course, you have Tippi Hedren who worked with Alfred Hitchcock, and he was in position of power being a director and a producer. He was abusive to her on set. It was rare that women actually spoke up about it, because they lived in fear of the powerful men. That’s what makes me excited about this Harvey Weinstein thing, as horrible as it is to hear the stories and how hard it must be for women to come forward. It does feel like a change, because it’s never happened before."
When did the studio system change and became the Hollywood that we’re more familiar with?
“It came a lot down to one woman, who took the studios to court about the contracts — and that was Olivia de Havilland. That happened in 1943. She took Warner Bros. to court, and she found a loophole in the system. Bette Davis had tried to take the studio to court in the past to try to get out of her contract. They had these seven-year contracts, so they were supposed to be only for seven years you’re with a studio. But then the studios would extend the contract as they wanted. So if a star didn’t want to do a certain movie, but the studio told them they had to do [it], they would be punished by having their contracts extended. They could have a star under contract for as many years as they wanted. So, Bette Davis tried to take them to court, but she lost. Olivia de Havilland found a loophole in the California law which said that contracts for any kind of work could only be seven years in length and couldn’t be extended any further. She won that, and the contracts dissolved."
How did the studios restructure themselves? And how was it possible for sexual harassment to continue without restrictive contracts?
"After the star system crumbled, and it became not about the contracts but about the stars themselves getting work, you would think that would have given women more power in Hollywood. But, unfortunately what happened was a whole bunch of agents came in, and the agents started to get more power because they became the gatekeepers for the jobs for women. All these young actresses really had to go through agents to have to get jobs. Agents, producers, and executives still held the power when it came to giving jobs in the first place, so that allowed the culture to keep going on and just added another strand, with gents aboard."
In 1975, Variety published an article with the headline “Casting Couch: Fiction or Fact?” As time went on, the casting couch was relegating to being a myth of the Golden Age studios, not taken seriously as a very present phenomenon. How do you think the practice of the casting couch was so easily brushed off as, "Oh, this doesn’t happen anymore?"
"The way the power structure worked in Hollywood continued throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, and into the ‘80s. There started to be a glimmer of hope when female executives came into Hollywood [in the '80s], but often they were the only woman in the room, and so they couldn’t do too much to change anything. It was more of a rumor than an actual given that the casting couch was still happening. I know many people – myself included — were surprised when everything started to unravel, and we heard stories about 30 years ago, 10 years ago, five years ago. It really is astonishing that this has been allowed to continue for so long, right up till now."
You have to think of all the Hollywood actresses whose careers were cut short by harassment and intimidation.
"There were a lot of sad stories. A lot of drug abuse, a lot of suicides. Really rough, rough stories. My heart breaks for many of these actresses. The most famous is Monroe, and her story has always spoken to me. She was abused as a child and then all throughout Hollywood, typecast as a ditzy blonde, or as the sex goddess. She didn't necessarily want that. She wanted to be taken seriously. So whether you believe the conspiracy theories around her death or not, her story is really sad. Judy Garland, as well, who had spoken in the past about the abuse by MGM producers, and she of course has lots of substance abuse problems. A lot of that was pills she was given in order to perform long hours on screen. And then Dorothy Dandridge, a woman of color who tried to get out of stereotypical roles she was given. She really wanted to push the boundaries and to not play stereotypes of her race, and she wasn't able to do that in the end. That was all sad."
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