On November 18th, Universal Pictures will release SHE SAID, the film adaptation of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN-style book on their investigation into the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault/misconduct/abuse/harassment allegations. I stayed up more than a few late nights to read this book, along with fellow Pulitzer-winner Ronan Farrow’s CATCH AND KILL, which detailed his own investigation (and would also make a great movie). Having not yet seen it, I confess I’m looking forward with schadenfreude-istic glee to finding out whether or not Academy voters invite the so-far well-reviewed SHE SAID – arriving right on time for Oscar season – to the same stage where its real-life villain was rewarded so much and so often. Hollywood never passes up an opportunity to exhibit tone-deaf hypocrisy while patting itself on the back for making movies about Important Issues (see: PHILADELPHIA, CRASH, GREEN BOOK, et. al), so we’ll see how another no-win – at least for the Academy – situation plays out come nomination morning.
Industry rubbernecking aside, what I’m most curious to see about SHE SAID is if the film will move beyond “just the facts” procedural to convey the feelings described by the victims that Kantor and Twohey interviewed. Women both famous and un-famous described very similar situations awaiting them upon visiting a Weinstein hotel room, and whether they were “lucky” enough to get the fuck out of there after a few indecent proposals and some unwanted touching, or were subjected to far worse tortures, the hard-left-turn fractures caused in their lives, both seen and unseen, are what made me angriest. I suppose because, in my own way, I knew exactly what they were talking about.
I moved to L.A. on July 4th weekend of 1999, smack in the middle of the year that’s often been described as the best single one for movies in history, making the choice of AMERICAN BEAUTY for Oscar’s Best Picture even more cringe-inducing today. I’m proud to say I found AMERICAN BEAUTY suspect (a nice way of saying “completely full of shit”) from the jump, but this doesn’t mean I was savvy about anything else at that time. I was 24 years old, and I’d moved to Tinsel Town in hopes of becoming a capital-A Actor. No matter how much I played the role of Nobody’s Fool, there were still a good number of illusions yet to be shattered by my time here. I don’t think anybody bought my act – not to mention my acting – and I fell for the whole pack of Dangling Carrot lies like the kid off the bus I really was. In all my streetwise posturing, I never would have admitted this, but I really did expect to find someone waiting at the Los Angeles city limits with a sign that read “Star Wanted,” a CAA contract, and a studio offer. And even after I quickly ditched acting for writing, this fantasy didn’t change for a long time. I guess one really is born every minute. And it sucks to learn you were the one in your particular minute.
Somewhere in the middle of the year 2000, I got a call from a guy I didn’t know saying he’d like me to come in for an audition. I have no memory of what the audition was for, how he found my number, or why he thought I might be right for this particular role – I may not have even asked. What I do remember is that, after many months and hundreds of dollars spent on headshots and acting classes and mass mailings of my photo and (pitiful) resume, I was finally chosen.
I was green. I was young. I was dumb. I was desperate. I was a lot of things.
The facts are thus: I drove to this guy’s apartment in Hollywood (Red Flag #1). He answered the door in a backwards baseball cap, tank top and gym shorts, clearly wearing no underwear (Red Flag #2). The first thing he asked me when I sat down on his couch was if I wanted a margarita (Red Flag #3). When I politely declined -- the first and only time I ever turned down a drink until 2007, btw -- he poured himself one anyway (Red Flag #4). He gave me some sides to read with him, and halfway through the reading, he, out of nowhere, asked if he could suck my dick.
Now, most people who hadn’t already bolted for the door upon Red Flags 1 through 4 would have certainly done so upon hearing that. But I was 25, new in town, and had never been called in for an audition before. I – again, politely – said no, thank you, and some form of “Can we get back to the audition, please?” He agreed, I read a little more, and then he cut in again with the same request.
There are so many specifics about this encounter that I do not remember. For instance, I don’t remember any exact words that came out of my mouth except my response to his second inquiry: “There isn’t really an audition, is there?” To this, he responded, yes, there absolutely is, so I kept reading. And here’s where the feelings become more vivid than anything that was actually said or done. I stupidly read to the end of the pages of dialogue, all the while seeing flashes of Coco in the movie FAME, weeping even as she continues to remove her blouse for the creep in the filthy walk-up who’s filming her while telling her to do so. What was happening to me wasn’t nearly as sickening, but it sure felt that way.
Upon finishing the pages, we both stood up, I shook the guy’s hand (wtf?), and then he gave me the address of a casting office and a phone number of someone – a woman’s name, I recall – I should reach out to. I walked, dazed, back to my car (my boyfriend’s silver Honda, actually, I had none of my own). I remember the shady cluster of trees outside his apartment, acting as camouflage for whatever was going on inside. I called the number on my early-model Nokia cell phone (also silver, and also my boyfriend’s, not mine), and I heard some automated message of “we’re sorry, the number you have dialed…,” because of course I did. I drove to the address he gave me. As I was driving, I held out some sliver of naïve hope that it was actually a live casting office, but of course it wasn’t. I can’t recall if it was an empty storefront, some random business, or if the address didn’t actually exist at all, but the result was the same. I drove home. I showered. I changed clothes. I thought, “Huh, shit like this really happens.” And I never pursued any form of acting job ever again. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part; I just took my hands off the wheel. I’d been acting in school and telling people I wanted to be a working actor since kindergarten. But if this was what actors were expected to swallow on their way to becoming Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts, then the life wasn’t for me.
The guy who intended on a sexual encounter by getting me to his apartment under the lie that I was auditioning for a film or TV project looked like he was in his late 30’s. He was attractive. Handsome even. If he had chatted me up in a bar or the gym where both our roles were clear and understood, I wouldn’t have turned my nose up at him. I’ve rolled those brief moments I was in his presence over and over in my head for the last 20+ years. And no part of this experience makes any more sense today than it did back then, except on the most superficial terms.
Here is a grown, adult man, who runs across the picture of a younger, clearly less experienced newbie to Los Angeles. He crafts an image of something he wants to happen in his mind, and he takes several actions over several days to achieve his goal. He calls up this young person, plans the time, the outfit, the drinks, the script, and the lie of why this young man should come to his apartment. He plans all this. He plans to sexually exploit another person, a complete stranger. More importantly, he plans to deceive and exploit another gay man. This was a premeditated action, knowing full well he was lying to this other gay man, knowing full well he was treating this other gay man’s ambitions and dreams as weapons for him to wield. This wasn’t some reckless, selfish choice he made in the heat of a drunken or lustful moment. He planned it. He planned to treat another gay man, one who’d undoubtedly already experienced plenty of diminishment at the hands of straight people – because we all have – with that same level of diminishment. This wasn’t an entitled, arrogant, heterosexual misogynist sexually harassing a woman because he’d been told all his life that women were objects and didn’t know how to relate to them any other way; this was one gay man choosing, over the course of multiple methodical steps, to betray and reduce someone like him, to treat another gay man as if he was nothing, worth nothing, meant nothing. There’s a lot I don’t remember. For instance, I do not remember this man’s name. But I will never forget what he did, how he did it, or the way I felt when he did it. It was my hard left turn.
A few years after Kantor & Twohey’s NEW YORK TIMES stories about Harvey Weinstein were published, Emerald Fennell wrote and directed PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, my favorite film of 2020, which also starred SHE SAID’s Carey Mulligan. I recall Fennell saying at the time that one of the complaints she kept hearing about the film – in which Mulligan’s character baits and then interrogates various men on their toxic, if not criminal, behavior towards women – is that it didn’t follow the standard rape-revenge plot, where Mulligan would have simply killed her targets rather than confronting them verbally. This criticism – mostly from straight male critics, I’ve no doubt – was telling: in our culture, a physical solution is always preferable to a thoughtful one. it’s much more palatable for us to wipe out the sources of our trauma rather than question them on their actions, to turn a challenging light on them, to ask why, to expect them to explain themselves. And maybe that’s because we know we’ll never get a satisfying explanation. Mulligan’s character certainly doesn’t. Spoiler alert: she’s the only character in the movie who dies.
The Academy, incidentally, gave Fennell’s script an Oscar.