Untouchable: The Rise and Fall of Harvey Weinstein – a powerful, revealing documentary

This documentary belonged to the women. Weinstein himself appeared hardly at all.

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Close to the beginning of Ursula Macfarlane’s powerful film about the rise and fall of Harvey Weinstein (2 September, 11:45pm) one of his former employees describes him as an “equal opportunities abuser”. What he means is that Weinstein – the producer who will stand trial on charges of rape and sexual misconduct in January – behaved appallingly to all those who worked for him, irrespective of gender. Easily brought to rage, his tantrums were the gild on the frame of his self-mythology. He liked to yell, threaten and sometimes to lob ashtrays across the room – and people put up with it not only because they were afraid, but because, by their telling, he was the brilliance in the room; the flame to which they were drawn, like so many fluttering moths.

In a certain way, I admired the honesty both of this man and of the several other paunchy, greying fellows who appeared alongside him. Jack Lechner, the former head of development at Miramax, was even able to admit that he still feels “conflicted” about Weinstein, his sense of guilt at his alleged crimes in frequent combat with his memories of the years when Miramax delivered hit after hit after hit. But an equal opportunities abuser? No. I can’t think that anyone in their right mind would regard a hurled ashtray and rape as being equivalent – and in such a remark, we see in an instant what women are up against. As horrifying as it was to hear of Weinstein’s abject pathology and all the disgusting ways in which it operated, what I most admired about Macfarlane’s film was its subtle placing of him in a wider culture – one that, sometimes enthralled and sometimes determinedly blind-eyed, enabled him to do exactly as he pleased.

Ultimately, however, this documentary belonged to the women. “Leaving would be worse,” thought the Canadian actor Erika Rosenbaum, as she watched Weinstein masturbating behind her in a bathroom mirror, his hand around her neck. “He pushed and pushed… He’s huge…” recalled Hope d’Amore, who’d worked for him when he was still a Buffalo concert promoter. “[He was] inside me,” said Paz de la Huerta, her voice so blank and uninflected you struggled to believe that she makes her living on screen. Who knew what? The question, largely unspoken, haunted every interview. “I quit, and your brother is a fucking pig,” said Kathy DeClesis, a former assistant to Bob Weinstein, having handed him a letter from a law firm that outlined an allegation of assault against Harvey (Bob Weinstein denies all knowledge of his sibling’s alleged crimes). Beside these testimonies, the feelings of guilt described by some male Miramax employees seemed flimsy indeed: retrospective memos-to-self that could, you felt, very easily be scrunched up later and thrown into the nearest bin.

Weinstein himself appeared hardly at all. We saw him shouting at some paps. We heard him in a series of messages to his assistant Zelda Perkins, his voice at first plaintive and then forbidding (she was on to him, another assistant having come to her with an allegation of rape). The journalist Rebecca Traister described the moment when he called her a c**t at a party.

I understand what Traister means when she says that, in Weinstein’s disgrace, there lies a danger that we come to believe a problem has been solved; that nothing really needs to change; that he was a grotesque lone wolf. But I think she’s wrong. Yes, Weinstein was rich and powerful, and he operated in that ersatz realm (Hollywood) in which beauties are apt to go along with beasts. He may well have been a marketing genius, whatever that means. But in every other way he was ordinary, even pathetic: the pock-marked skin and the hotel bathrobes, the cottage-cheese belly and the bad jeans. He was, moreover, surrounded by lots of smart, liberal-minded people, many of whom were every bit as rich and powerful as him. If he could get away with it, for so long and with such profligacy, so could anyone – or at least, they could try. That’s the real lesson here. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war