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In a sense, Hollywood is facing its first-ever real scandal. What's going on now has made the movie industry do something it perhaps has never done before: feel deeply ashamed about itself. A famously self-confident, indeed smug, institution is questioning its basic norms.
Of previous industry scandals there have been many, but Hollywood itself didn't take any of them particularly seriously. The Roman Polanski scandal? Hey, it was just sex. Oh, it was sex with an underage girl who had been drugged past the point where she could give meaningful consent? Well, it was the '70s. Anyway, the girl forgave him. Anyway, he's suffered enough. Anyway, his family was murdered by Nazis and his wife by the Manson family. The Academy gave Polanski an Oscar for Best Director, and a standing ovation in 2003. In the clip, Martin Scorsese can be seen standing and applauding, right in front of Harvey Weinstein. Jack Nicholson, at whose home Polanski's appalling act took place, is applauding robustly also. Anything to do with sex or drugs Hollywood shrugs off as mere libertinism, and while previous sex scandals — Fatty Arbuckle, Errol Flynn, Ingrid Bergman — may have been bad for business, those in show business didn't have any particular moral objections, or if they did, they dismissed them as bad choices made by scattered individuals, not emblems of moral rot in the system.
The popularity of Communism in Hollywood, and Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, didn't much alter Hollywood's view of itself either. If you asked movie people to describe their politics, they'd say it boils down to supporting the underdog, and maybe opposing war. Who was a bigger underdog than the ragtag North Vietnamese forces against a massive industrialized army? Jane Fonda won an Oscar before she went to Hanoi to cheer for our enemy, and she won another one just seven years later. As for the Reds and fellow travelers who attained many positions of power and influence in the movie business, to Hollywood the only real scandal there was the McCarthyite reaction that sidelined some highly talented people. The blacklisted Hollywood Ten became underdogs, victims of oppression and hence icons within the business. At no point did Hollywood as a whole question its own patriotism.
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Broadly speaking, then, previous Hollywood scandals fall into two categories: debauchery and far-left ventures, neither of which is overly worrisome to a debauched and left-wing institution. The tale of Harvey Weinstein, though, can't be spun as an attempt to uplift the oppressed, nor dismissed as one man's depravity. Too many people were in on it. Indeed, it appears that everyone was in on it: Sex Assault on the Orient Express.
Roy Price, the head of Amazon Studios and a major industry player, lost his job due to an accusation of sexual harassment just a week after The New Yorker reported three women claimed they were raped by Weinstein. Last weekend the Los Angeles Times published a sickening piece detailing claims made by 38 women about loathsome sexual behavior by the writer-director James Toback, who has made many well-regarded films and scored an Oscar nomination for his script for Warren Beatty's Bugsy. The actress Molly Ringwald had nothing particularly sensational to offer about her experience as a young actress in Hollywood, and yet her reminiscences about her history of degradation were nauseating in their multiplicity. She recalled, for instance, that under the guise of teaching her to dance, a 50-year-old crew member pressed up against her with an erect penis when she was 13. This sort of talk could go on for months. Hollywood may have a moral and public-relations horror on its hands akin to the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal.
Hollywood's image of itself as a morally enlightened congress of tribunes of the people has been destroyed. The Weinsteinians are more like an imperial ruling class commanding unsuspecting young maidens to service them in their bedchambers. Lupita Nyong'o, the Oscar winner for 12 Years a Slave, says that when she was still a drama student who couldn't afford to use taxis, she accepted a dinner invitation with Weinstein. Appetizers had yet to appear when the producer barked, "Let's cut to the chase. I have a private room upstairs where we can have the rest of our meal." Learning that she was the meal stunned her. "He told me not to be so naïve," she said in a New York Times op-ed. "If I wanted to be an actress, then I had to be willing to do this sort of thing." Actress Adrienne LaValley said something similar about Toback: "The way he presented it, it was like, 'This is how things are done,'" she told the Los Angeles Times of a 2008 meeting with the filmmaker that ended with him trying to press his crotch against her. "I felt like a prostitute, an utter disappointment to myself, my parents, my friends."
Having profitably played his lyre in Weinstein's court for a quarter of a century, the director Quentin Tarantino kept his counsel for a couple of weeks before confirming that, yes, this really is how things are done. "There was more to it than just the normal rumors, the normal gossip," he told the New York Times. "It wasn't secondhand. I knew he did a couple of these things. I wish I had taken responsibility for what I heard," he said. "What I did was marginalize the incidents. . . . Anything I say now will sound like a crappy excuse." Of course he knew: His mid 1990s girlfriend Mira Sorvino was one of the sex trophies Weinstein sought, showing up at her apartment after midnight. Sorvino believes Weinstein damaged her career in retaliation for her refusal.
Tarantino's pained and evidently soul-searching comments stand in contrast to the Sgt. Schultz-isms of George Clooney and Matt Damon: "We knew nothing! About this man we've worked with, for and alongside for 20 years!" Tarantino implicitly admonished them: "Everyone who was close to Harvey had heard of at least one of those incidents" reported in the media about Weinstein. "It was impossible they didn't."
It's going to be a woozy, what-have-I-done "awards season," as Hollywood terms the five-month self-celebratory run-up to the Oscars (next held on March 4). Shrill speeches about the misdeeds of Donald Trump are going to sound hollow, if not absurd, now that we know what Hollywood has known about itself for all these years. The men either participated in the plot to treat women as communal sexual property, or, knowing about it, said nothing. The women knew even more about it, and also said nothing. Gwyneth Paltrow was sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein when she was 22; four years later she was tearfully thanking him for his "undying support" from the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion as she clutched her Oscar. Every day that everyone remained silent amounted to tacit endorsement for allowing the depravity to continue. And each day another wagon-load of young cuties arrived in town to be put through the meat grinder, determined to crack the code of "how things are done" in pursuit of becoming the next Ringwald, or Paltrow, or Nyong'o. Hollywood, says Tarantino, has been "operating under an almost Jim Crow-like system" to oppress women. That comment must be causing a chill of recognition throughout the industry: What if we were the villains all along?
Commentary by Kyle Smith, a critic-at-large at National Review. Follow him on Twitter .
For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.
©2017 National Review. Used with permission.