Once again the world is currently focused on this ugly strand of human behavior connected to men and their genitals. Where are all the good guys? Can the entire essence of the gender be boiled don’t to a stiff dick that has no conscience? God I hope not, but I digress.
Sex and scandal, power and privilege, vulnerable beauties and predatory men: The history of the casting couch is so endemic to Hollywood that the notion of sexual exploitation in exchange for access has been whitewashed and reduced to the name of a banal piece of upholstered furniture. But the transaction has transformed some of our most beloved stars (and countless others who didn’t make the cut) into commodities — Garland, Monroe, Hedren, Hudson — victims of abuse at the hands of opportunistic powerful men who consider other people’s bodies one of the perks of the business.
As our current president #45 is heard saying on the Billy Bush Tape: when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Billy Bush responded: Whatever you want? and #45 added “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
The term casting couch first appeared in Variety on Nov. 24, 1937, in a story poking fun at a Chicago Tribune reporter for misusing it because he wasn’t cool enough to already know what it meant. That Tribune reporter was writing about a new system at Chicago’s WBBM whereby only women were allowed to audition female radio talent—and if you wonder what might have prompted WBBM to ban male executives from the process, well, no one comes right out and tells, just as for decades no one came out and told the stories lots of industry insiders were whispering to each other about Harvey Weinstein.
Long before Weinstein there was Louis B. Mayer, who co-founded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in 1924. Mayer, the ground zero of this kind of abuse, had means, motive, opportunity and that critical piece of the puzzle: the whip. If women didn’t comply, he’d threaten to ruin their careers or those of their loved ones. Sound familiar?
Cari Beauchamp, author of “Without Lying Down: Francis Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood,” noted: “Mayer chased actress Jean Howard [that’s Ron Howard’s mom] around the room. When she said, ‘No way,’ and went off and married Charles K. Feldman, the agent, Mayer banned Charlie from the lot. For a long time after, he wouldn’t allow any of Feldmans clients to work at MGM.”
Mayer also allegedly groped the teenage Judy Garland, according to Gerald Clarke’s book “Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland,” and held meetings with the young woman seated on his lap, his hands on her chest. But that wasn’t the only damage done to the “Wizard of Oz” star. As Rickey clarifies, when it comes to abuse, “it’s not just the casting couch — it’s also the producer[s] who tell Judy Garland she’s not pretty enough or thin enough, so she gets a nose job and starts taking amphetamines to stay employed, and nobody knows that amphetamines and drinking can’t mix, and the pills lead to instability and sleeplessness and sleeping pills and more instability, and she falls apart.”
When the studio system consolidated in the late ’20s and early ’30s as talkies eclipsed silent movies, the men in charge of the Big Seven notoriously abused their power. According to Beauchamp: “Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and Jack Warner at Warner Bros. were Abusive with a capital ‘A.’ Mayer believed he’d built his studio brick by brick, it was his town, and he was king, so therefore he deserved all the perks of the kingdom. That was the attitude of most studio heads.”
Marilyn Monroe was passed from man to man, president to playwright to center fielder. This is another instance like that of Garland, where a star’s talent and beauty and charisma added up to low self-esteem, drug abuse and suicide in an industry that ate women for lunch. In Monroe’s memoir, “My Story,” she wrote with heartbreaking candor: “I met them all. Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”
Veteran actress Tippi Hedren made headlines when she revealed in her memoir, “Tippi,” that director Alfred Hitchcock had sexually molested her. According to Hedren, the obsessive vision of the world he manifested on-screen extended to his treatment of women on the set. His treatment of the blond star of “The Birds” and “Marnie” caused her to stumble at what should have been the peak of her career (and is the subject of the BBC film “The Girl.”)
Women aren’t the exclusive victims of the casting couch. The notorious agent Henry Willson, the subject of Robert Hofler’s book “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson,” played the same power game with generations of boys and young men seeking Hollywood recognition. Counting Hudson, Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue among his clients as well as Lana Turner and Natalie Wood, the predatory Willson had a reputation as a “casting couch agent,” trading liaisons for opportunity in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The closeted Willson, who had sex with many of his clients, had an eye for beautiful men in the rough. He lured them with a simple ploy: Come with me, do what I say and I’ll make you a movie star. He molded the gay Midwestern truck driver Roy Fitzgerald into the butch A-lister Hudson while providing his own secretary, Phyllis Gates, as a beard. With gays, yielding to sex with men in order to gain access also put the aspiring actors at risk for blackmail and exposure — giving the victims even more incentive to keep quiet about sexually exploitative business practices. In Hofler’s book, actor Roddy McDowall denounced Willson, saying he was “like the slime that oozed out from under a rock you did not want to turn over.”
Fortunately things have changed since the 1950s: Weinstein’s rapid downfall counts for something, even if we just elected #45 as president, and much of the reporting on Weinstein’s alleged wrongdoing has been free of the kind of sexism and shaming that often accompanied such stories 60, 40, or even a year ago during the election cycle. But building an industry and culture in which powerful men don’t feel women are theirs to threaten, cajole, intimidate, and harass will require us to skip the cultural amnesia this cycle.
As #45 tried and successfully did make it go away reality came down to either the 16 women are lying or its just “Locker room talk” and “boys will be boys”. This cannot and must not be taken as a cultural norm. As allegations concerning Senator Al Franken’s behavior emmerge, when our White House was asked to comment about what’s the difference with the 16 women who accused #45, the spokesperson said, Franken admitted it and said he was sorry! So if you lie it never happened! OMG
We as men must teach our boys what is right and decent. These stories and behaviors are multi-generational and they cut across all social, economic, geographic, political and racial divide. Sexual abuse is an equal opportunity destroyer. It knows no bounds. Unfortunately it is timeless. From the rape of Dena in the Bible to today’s Weinstein, it’s a never ending list. The late comedian Flip Wilson in one of his famous routines would jokingly say “I didn’t do it, the devil made me do it.” It always got a laugh. Not that funny today. A “stiff dick has no conscience” cannot and must not be tolerated going forward. Get WOKE men. It’s time!