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Scenes From the Home of the Casting Couch : The Talk of the Country Has Hit a Nerve in the Industry That Creates the Images of Women in Popular Culture

October 15, 1991|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The late president of a major talent agency called his assistant into his office and greeted her with his pants down. When she refused to have sex with him, he refused to put her in an agent training program. She left the firm one year later.

* A now-prominent agent's former boss used to call her at home in the morning to tell her he was playing with his genitals. In the office, he'd comment on her breasts, ask about her sex life and leave pornography on her desk. Too embarrassed to confront the issue, she asked to be transferred. "We're just not getting along," she told management.

* A senior network TV executive arranged to a meet a female writer late in the day. Pleading eye trouble, he asked for a lift home. In the car, he tried to rape her. When the Writers Guild discovered that dozens of others had similar experiences, it pressured the network to force him out. After a "medical leave," the executive has since been hired by two major studios.

They discussed it in boardrooms and over lunch at the Ivy, they clustered around TVs at the studios and networks. In Hollywood, as elsewhere, the face-off between U.S. Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas and his accuser, Anita Faye Hill, placed the long-suppressed issue of sexual harassment on the job squarely on the front burner.

"People are consumed by, and in some quarters uncomfortable as a result of the proceedings, breathing a collective sigh of relief that they weren't up there on the stand," says ICM agent Elaine Goldsmith. "When it comes to sexual harassment, Hollywood is no different from the rest of the world."

It's not surprising. This is, after all, the home of the casting couch--a free-wheeling, highly competitive, male-dominated environment that attracts people in search of a fast buck and their dreams. And what happens here has vast implications, since motion pictures and television shows shape attitudes worldwide.

"Sex is in the air," says producer Paula Weinstein, former head of production for United Artists. "We create the myths here--romance, passion, glamour--with which America is obsessed. Because it can be hard to separate real life from myth-making, you see a lot of sexually oriented behavior. Like Washington, which is equally power-oriented and clubby, Hollywood doesn't feel like it has to live by the rules . . . it makes them."

Is Hollywood, a place that feeds on ego and power, a greater offender than other industries? Observers find it hard to say, since the problem has been swept under the corporate rug for so long. But, inspired by the Thomas hearings, industry women--long at the bottom of the show business heap--have been speaking up, recounting tales not only of overt sexual demands but also of the more subtle gender-related tensions that come with working in such a male-dominated business.

"It was shocking," Margery Tabankin, executive director of the Hollywood Women's Political Committee recalls of a meeting the group held last week. "Just about every woman in the room had a personal story. These hearings have touched the 'Thelma & Louise' button, getting to women on a visceral level, putting the issue out there in prime time in a way that no made-for-TV movie could."

Walking out of a screening with some female writers last week, veteran TV producer Barney Rosenzweig ("Cagney & Lacey," "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill") was amazed when all four claimed to be victims of sexual harassment.

"Hollywood is a male bastion," he says. "It doesn't take women seriously because they don't have power--and aren't likely to any time soon. Like most men, I tend to forget that what we regard as kidding around, being cute, can be very off-putting to women. Guys figure, 'What's the big deal? Just say no.' In the end, they just don't 'get it.' "

In fairness, it can be difficult to define the term. "The criteria, in my mind, is whether it's a power play--whether the person behaving badly has the ability to affect the other person's professional life," says producer Dawn Steel who, as the president of Columbia Pictures was the business' first female studio chief. "It all boils down to status and power."

Says InterTalent agent J. J. Harris: "You have to be in a position to force a situation . . . and that's usually not the prerogative of most women in this industry."

Though Steel says she was propositioned by a senior executive during her first job at Paramount, the problem diminished as she worked her way up. "The men I worked for didn't look at me as having any gender at all," she says. "They regarded me more as a workhorse. People on the lower rungs are more vulnerable to sexual harassment than those at the top."

Weinstein, then an apprentice film editor, was hesitant to speak up when the editor rubbed against her breasts at an editing table in the early '70s.

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