Navigating against abuse can be difficult for women in Old Hollywood, both because they are generally excluded from positions of power in the industry and because their value on camera sometimes depends on their perceived desire. As for the actresses, said director Elia Kazan, the bosses of the studio had “a simple rule”: do I want to sleep with her? Like women in the outside world, women in the cinema still worked and some flourished. They stayed because they needed work, because they liked work. You can, after all, be a victim and thrive. However, without power or legal protection, they had to submit, ignore, dodge or fight back.
The fact that women have continued to fight or submit – and still do – makes it clear that, after Weinstein, we need to rethink how certain stories about the industry are framed, and who benefits from certain types of framing and why. Like journalism, the history of American cinema tends to be too sharply divided between sober, seemingly disinterested chronicles and talkative counter-stories, some persuasive, others fantastic. The sober side likes to wrap the past in biographical portraits, production practices and technological innovations; sometimes they nod to the least recommendable stories and use words like womanizer when they really mean rapist. Talkative stories, on the other hand, repeat filth without source or unconvincing about the attackers and the victims.
I guess some historians and journalists omit some of these horrible stories because they dismiss them as gossip and perhaps amount to false news. Yet, like Weinstein’s assaults, this behavior – the longtime boss of the Twentieth Century-Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had a well-documented habit of flashing his penis on women – is as much a part of the history of the American cinema as the organization of work, the invention of new lenses and executive decisions. These abuses are, in turn, part of a larger, complex and contradictory story about women, men and power, which involves all aspects of American cinema and which has created a predominantly white business white, which has stubbornly resisted change.
Shortly after the recent death of a movie star, my colleague, critic Jessica Kiang, sent a tweet declaring that “we are going to have to improve the commemoration of great men with an amazing and unassailable professional legacy that has also done, or is rumored to do, horrible things.” I knew the story she wanted to tell involved a now deceased teenage starlet who, in the mid-1950s, was allegedly raped by the deceased male star. I will not identify myself here either because I did not find a convincing account.
Like Kiang, I’m not sure what we should do with gossip. Still, I agree that we have to figure out what to do with the dark corners. “The rumor mill”, as Kiang writes in the follow-up tweets, “is the only means by which many real stories of rape / abuse have been recorded, due to the silence mechanisms of 20th century sexism, and that to ignore them basically on the basis of their unverifiability is to perpetuate a broken system. “