In which J. BROOKS SPECTOR finds similarities between Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump – and directs attention to the heavy political lessons in America’s great novel about the connections of power, sex and money, Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men”.
‘… It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by…’ –
As Time Goes By – words and music by Herman Hupfeld
(theme song for the film Casablanca)
For the past several weeks, the aggressive sexual misconduct of newly former Hollywood studio head Harvey Weinstein has come to dominate the news, perhaps even more than the truly dire circumstances of California fires, or even dreadful bombings in the Near East and north-east Africa. Weinstein’s appalling behaviour has clearly overtaken any national commentary about the misogyny of Donald Trump as well. Big time.
Perhaps the surprising thing about this furore over Weinstein’s behaviour is not the actual fact of it, nor that this behaviour runs counter to any Hollywood meta-narrative about adult behaviour. Rather, the astonishing point is that so many in the business knew of his behaviour for so long, but stayed mum about it to outsiders. The rumours circulated for years, and yet in all that time, nobody ever thought to blow the whistle on this particular bad boy until now.
In fact, grabbing and sexual badgering seems to have been a part of Hollywood, right from the beginning. The “casting couch” has been a constant bit of the furniture of studio moguls and directors in their offices since movies became a business, and as eager young women had hopes for silver screen careers. Moreover, such behaviour was not then, and is not now, solely an attribute of the film business, nor is it uniquely an American one either. The casting couch is a term of art for live stage directors’ intentions or casting styles as well and it probably goes back to the beginning of theatre. And the casting couch as a metaphor for sexual predation has been used in films themselves for decades as well.
But the basic equation is almost always just about the same. The mogul has the power to bestow benefits, and young women (or perhaps young men too) largely have only one thing to barter with – and to hope that this transactional relationship works out well enough in terms of opportunities and time on a movie set. Eyes wide shut, as it were, even if the blunt nature of such a transactional relationship might not have seemed instantly clear to some participants at the outset.
Obviously this kind of relationship is not unique to the entertainment world (such things happen in business, in academia and elsewhere, as with the examples of such literary anti-heroines as Madame Bovary or Sister Carrie). But, what is different is that the currency of film studios is that it is all so inextricably tied up with the allure of youth and physical beauty – and, honestly speaking, so little in terms of sheer, unique talent in so many cases.
Weinstein’s particular, twisted genius was in being able to argue convincingly that he could, in fact, deliver the goods, as Miramax could and did produce films which – year after year – did extremely well at the box office and with the awards committees. The calculation was: be on his good side – and give him what he wanted – and an aspiring actress had a chance to make it big. Rebuff him physically and the chances of career success would drop precipitously.
But this kind of thing has parallels in the much realer world of politics as well. My favourite novel about American politics is, as some readers already know, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. A very quick summary of the story, a story told from the perspective of jaded journalist turned political fixer, Jack Burden, chronicles the rise of Willie Stark, a gifted populist from the poor fringes of society, to the governorship of an unnamed southern state that seems rather similar to Louisiana, before being assassinated by Burden’s closest friend, Dr Adam Stanton, who is also the brother of the woman Stark is having an affair with. (Both Anne and Adam Stanton, along with Burden, come from the state’s old governing elite.)
In fact, this novel shares much in common with the actual saga of the life of Huey Long, The Kingfish, the Great Depression-era governor of Louisiana, and then one of its senators, before he was similarly assassinated. Having won a Pulitzer Prize and having been turned into a film twice, All the King’s Men also became the inspiration for Joe Klein’s book, Primary Colors, and then the film that was based on that second book too.
As Dwight Gardner wrote in the New York Times last year, while contemplating All the King’s Men in light of then on-going US election,
“Burden’s crucial observation, early in the novel, is that Stark needs to stop droning about policy in his speeches and start stirring up the animals, as H. L. Mencken once put it. Here’s Burden advising Stark after a speech that has flopped:
“ ‘Just stir ’em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ’em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ’em, and haven’t been alive for 20 years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won’t set on their stomachs, and they don’t believe in God, so it’s up to you to give ’em something to stir ’em up and make ’em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ’em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake, don’t try to improve their minds.’ ”
What the novel – and all its later offshoots – draws into sharp focus is that, like Hollywood, politics has much the same triangular relationship between money, sex and power. Long before Donald Trump came along to turn such relationships into a buffoonish cartoon depiction splashed all over New York City’s tabloid newspapers, political power (or the urge to gain power) has been a powerful aphrodisiac. Think of the women who made themselves available to royalty in the Bourbon French royal court, or in the licentious court of Restoration England. Or, closer to our own time, consider the women who swooned over Franklin Roosevelt or John Kennedy (or who were guided into relationships with him for purposes of influence peddling). And this doesn’t include the “Big Dawg’s” deportment either.
And, of course, we can all appreciate, as the late Jesse Unruh, the Speaker of the California State Legislature, and power broker for a generation so famously loved to explain to political novices, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Money connects with politics; political power can equate with sexual allure; and so on in a never-ending gyre of relationships between the three points.
Rather than Harvey Weinstein’s guilty, under-the-radar behaviour, in line with Trump’s now-well-known video taped description of how his fame and money (and not, notably, his “good looks”) allowed him to grope any woman he wanted to, Trump’s marriages, love affairs, adulteries and such became eagerly read tabloid and talk radio fodder. Moreover, because of his money, he turned himself into a kind of publicly traded “babe magnet” that, in turn, morphed into a positive feedback loop for his fame (or infamy). And that, in turn, became the vital raw material for both his economic circumstances and then, finally, his push for high political office.
The difference between Weinstein and Trump, simply put, was that the latter positively flaunted his sexuality – frankly, even revelled in it – and then used that noxious frat boy behaviour as an element in his advancement financially. Well into his third marriage by now, in 2016 he could take this sexual act into the political realm. On the road onto the campaign trail, there was that cringe-worthy, wink-wink-nudge-nudge discussion of the size of his hands as a physiological stand-in for the size and scope of his genitalia, and the skill and capacity of his swordsmanship. And his crowds loved it all, the whole crass, ugly shtick of it.
In our time, politics has increasingly come to resemble and mimic entertainment similar to 18th century bear baiting or bull fighting. The entertainment industry has thoroughly infiltrated politics with glitterati endorsements, fund-raising, campaign contributions, and personal appearances on behalf of candidates. The two spheres now increasingly co-mingle on television, on the campaign trail, and now in social media. As a result, it is becoming increasingly hard to draw any sort of clear line between them to divide these two worlds.
Yes, the late Ronald Reagan earlier set the pace and the curve of success for the jump from entertainment to politics, but there have been others right along with him. These have included: Arnold Schwarzenegger as California governor; George Murphy as a California senator; and Sonny Bono as a congressman, all translating entertainment fame into votes. More recently, comedian Al Franken has successfully become a serious senator as well.
We have not – not yet, at least – seen a great many politicians shift over into the entertainment world (perhaps because they aren’t deliberately funny enough, or perhaps because they can’t sing or dance well enough to get beyond the initial auditions, except for the occasional foray onto a reality dance competition TV show by a disgraced politician). However, politicians like former President Clinton (along with Ronald Reagan and a number of others) have successfully turned their former president-ness into a thriving business on the speech circuit. Audiences worldwide seem unable to get enough of their insights into management and public policy – and, probably, a voyeuristic love of the “when I was in the Oval Office…” trope as well. As an aside, some retired generals have similarly successfully managed the transition as well. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf have also pulled in the crowds – and some nice money – for their insights on how to manage a really big enterprise and, above all, how to win big.
But for the really big bang and the total pay-off, the smart politician gets inside that potent triangle of money, power and sex in order to cement their appeal to the crowd – and to have each of those three variables reinforce the other two to enhance their attraction and staying power as a politician. More than any politico alive, Donald Trump has realised that this dance can easily overwhelm the need for any serious discussion of public policy, just as long as the crowds love the act and want to believe in it. To paraphrase a line from South African politics, Trump’s desperately loyal core constituency of somewhere between 35-40% of the nation’s voters would probably say they would “Kill for Donald”, if they were asked, even now.
By contrast, with the increasingly debased ethics of the age, Harvey Weinstein’s real fall from grace came about as he failed to carry out his lothario-like behaviour in full view of the public. He had the money and the power, after all. He just didn’t have the tabloids on his side. DM
Photo: US producer Harvey Weinstein arrives for the Jury Cinecoles ceremony during the 13th annual Marrakech International Film Festival in Marrakech, Morocco on 6 December 2013. File photo: Guillaume Horcajuelo/(EPA).
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