Wsomething of a barbarian creature was Harvey Weinstein, who interrupted business meetings by hurling marble ashtrays against the wall, tore out a smoke detector in a toilet on the Concorde so he could enjoy a cigarette in the middle of the Atlantic, ordered unsatisfactory workers to die jumping off a high window, and considered sexual abuse or rape the equivalent of a job interview for young women eager to appear in the films he produced?
In Ken Auletta’s meticulously reported account of his demise, humans assign Weinstein to one of several alien species. Everyone agrees that he was a pest and a predator; survivors also call him a bogeyman, a monster, and even a devil. Strange glimpses of his flame-haired, sour-tongued mother suggest he was “raised by wolves.” A studio manager he threatened to drop from a terrace into the sea in Cannes describes him as “this gorilla person”, like King Kong in an ill-fitting tuxedo. Weinstein’s estranged brother Bob, formerly his partner at Miramax, has exhausted all options and concludes, “There is no real human being.” Perhaps Harvey was a humanoid, programmed with technical skills but devoid of emotion. His tantrums at the cutting shops where he brutally re-edited movies due to their directors’ protests led to him being called Harvey Scissorhands, a less endearing twin to the unfinished mutant played by Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s fantasy.
Feared but never loved by others, disliked or disgusted by himself, Weinstein took on another nickname during his obese adolescence, when his funny alias was “the Gru”. Later, he aggressively showed his atrocity by parading naked in front of the women from whom he demanded what Auletta calls “sexual access.” These compulsive sessions usually started with his request for a massage, after which he showed a back that was full of cystic acne and full of blackheads. When he came in for a kiss, remnants of recent meals could be seen on his bushy, half-shaven jaws, which reminded one observer of “chewed gum rolled in cat hair.” An actor for whom Weinstein pulled his penis out told him to get rid of it “because he really isn’t beautiful”. Another reported that he had no testicles – they seemed to implode after a bout of Fournier’s gangrene – adding that he “smelled like poop”.
Scenes like this turn Auletta’s story into a twisted fairy tale about a beast that plagues a succession of traumatized beauties. Rescuers followed Weinstein around with paper bags of hypodermics to treat his erectile dysfunction, then returned to remove the semen from the furniture and collect used condoms, but sexual relief was less important to him than dominance and control. His aim was to humiliate and defile women, and then make them feel so ashamed or unnecessarily guilty that they couldn’t bring themselves to expose him; as an extra precaution, he bullyed and silenced them with nondisclosure agreements.
Similar tactics accomplished the emasculation of the men he dealt with. Menials he deemed incompetent were made to write “I’m an idiot” 100 times on a blackboard, sign it, and set it up as an ersatz pillory. A marketing conversation with Ismail Merchant turned into name-calling in the street. On the set of Gangs of New YorkMartin Scorsese had mirrors on the video monitors he used so he could see the hated overseer approaching from behind. A rival producer retaliated by sending Weinstein 27 gift packs of cigarettes to hasten his death from lung cancer.
The dirty dealings in hotel rooms and the screaming rows in offices were parables for Weinstein about raw power and his monopoly on it. When an aspiring actor shrank from his unattractive genitals, he screamed, “This is how the industry works!” He was right about that, at least in the past: for producers and casting directors or for male viewers in the dark, the women on screen were used as prostitutes to act out fantasies.
The wider world, as Weinstein saw it, worked the same way. He liked to be called a mogul and behaved like a potentate or pasha. He claimed to have an affinity with Ariel Sharon, “a lion in the desert” who bombarded opponents with firebombs, although Bernardo Bertolucci called him “a bit of Saddam Hussein”. At a wedding in Rome, he found the church uncomfortably hot and said he would talk to the Pope about air conditioning. He accepted Bill Clinton’s hospitality at Camp David, but refused the food and had a Marine Guard take him to Wendy’s for a burger. He later hired Barack Obama’s daughter as an intern and received a letter from the president thanking him for the favor.
Weinstein was overthrown and moaned to the judge who convicted him of being tortured by the new McCarthyism of a #MeToo lynch mob. Then he turned to his furious accusers in court, reminiscing about the “wonderful times” they had had, and hoping their “old friendship” would be rekindled. This lack of self-awareness leads Auletta to classify him as a narcissist and a sociopath, free to trample on others for being incapable of empathy — the same accusations commonly made against Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
But those neat labels don’t explain Weinstein’s anger, his rapacity, and the hungry appetite that made him swallow M&Ms, gulp Diet Coke, and chain smoke Marlboro Lights, while spitting and spitting out the people he was persecuting. Film historian Peter Biskind describes him as a “cauldron of insecurities … which is also ravaged by relentless waves of hubris”. While that sounds a bit too grandiose, Biskind’s imagery prompts Auletta to liken Weinstein’s mood to a volcano, with expletives like lava. Yes, the man was a blubbery Krakatoa, and in the end he just blew up. It’s a crude and horrific story, but its outcome – bankruptcy, disgrace and 23 years in prison – suggests that there may be a vestige of moral order in our shaky universe after all.
Hollywood ending: Harvey Weinstein and the culture of silence is published by Penguin Press (£25)