The sentence is a reality warp for those of us who knew Weinstein at the height of his power
The sentence that Harvey Weinstein got in court on Wednesday was breathtaking. Historic, earth-moving, epic.
For those of us who work day to day in Hollywood and who knew Weinstein at the height of his fame and power, it is a reality warp to know that the 67-year-old was rolled into a New York courtroom in a wheelchair and sent to prison for 23 years, quite possibly the rest of his life.
For the better part of three decades, this man didn’t make a move without multiple assistants, had the White House (or Democratic leadership) on speed dial, counted movie stars and billionaires as his best buddies and for a long stretch more or less owned the Academy Awards. Look at the documents released by New York prosecutors on Monday — the man direct-dialed Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Mike Bloomberg when he got in trouble.
His descent into Iago-levels of villainy — and his comeuppance at the sentencing by a New York judge — seems beyond Shakespeare, past Greek tragedy and deep into Biblical territory for a level-set of a moral reckoning.
I spoke to a few of Weinstein’s former collaborators today. Long past shock, so many of them are speechless at how the wheel of fortune has turned. Many of them were themselves among the abused by Weinstein, who was one of Hollywood’s most talented producers but also a serious rageaholic.
“He’s a despicable human being,” said one executive who worked for Weinstein for a decade. “I always thought he was reading our emails. Threatening people. I was convinced our phones were tapped. Now I believe all of it.”
And as for the verdict, this individual — like others I’ve interviewed — keeps wondering what they should have done at the time. Guilt lurks in many of them. Multiple senior staffers at Miramax and later The Weinstein Company have said they suspected he was a serial womanizer but insist they had no idea he was coercing sex from women, as the New York jury found. “We should have looked deeper. You don’t think of rape,” one executive said. (I’ve lost count how many times I’ve heard this.)
A jumble of memories has gone through my mind as I’ve been processing this sentence.
Years ago at The New York Times, I wrote a piece about how Weinstein was the critical connection among a large number of the top executives in the independent film world. Dozens had gotten their start with him, and learned in the trenches. In fact, Weinstein trained an entire generation of those who then started their own companies or helped build others. (This is still true, by the way.) Weinstein was very proud of that piece.
I also remember sitting across from former Weinstein assistant Zelda Perkins at a London hotel in 2005. It was one of the very posh ones that serve high tea — Brown’s, I think — but we just had regular tea. I sought out Perkins because a couple of sources told me she had some kind of physical encounter with Weinstein but had signed a nondisclosure agreement. I had heard this over many years and finally tried to get the story. She agreed to meet.
But for a frustrating two hours, Perkins would not say what happened to her, too fearful to speak because of the NDA. It was an exercise in futility for me, because I knew there was something, but there was nothing I could write. Perkins later breached the NDA — but only after the October 2017 revelations in the New York Times and New Yorker — and detailed how she had been sexually harassed, along with a colleague who claimed Weinstein sexually assaulted her (and who also took a settlement).
And I think of the last blow-out bash I saw Weinstein give, in the days before the Academy Awards of 2015. It was a classic Old Hollywood dinner party for about 300 of his close Hollywood friends, at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. The room was decked out in mirrors and towering palms, attendees wearing black tie and gowns. J.Lo swept in wearing a gorgeous feathered outfit, just for dinner. Hugh Jackman performed a number from Weinstein’s new Broadway musical, “Finding Neverland.” It was Weinstein at his most expansive, and everyone commented that no one knew how to give a party like Harvey.
Fast forward to the shrinking figure in court today, arriving in a wheelchair and then appearing hunched over and almost contrite. “I feel remorse for the situation,” he said. “I feel it deeply in my heart.”
So often we’ve seen that change happens slowly — and then all at once. Case in point: Gay marriage was an idea that seemed unfathomable, and then in a seeming instant all opposition flipped. Marriage equality became the law of the land and those who found it to be problematic were in the margins, protesting over wedding cakes.
The issue of confronting sexual abuse by people in positions of power has also moved quickly. One measure of the speed and weight of that change is just how many Weinstein silence-breakers themselves were braced for a Weinstein acquittal last month. I spoke to many of them who described living in a high state of anxiety before the “guilty” verdict came in, worried that all of their efforts and public sharing of tightly held experiences would come to nothing.
Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase #MeToo that morphed into a movement, summed up her reaction simply on Wednesday: “Well, I’ll be damned.”
The change has come, and few will shed any tears for Weinstein. For the former Weinstein executive, the lesson in one that can only be learned in the bitter crucible of real life: “How you treat people on your way up, is how you will be treated on your way down.”